Sometimes a band establishes an original sound through which they become a style-unto-themselves and attain dizzying success. Then, somewhere down the line they release an album which challenges everything they’re about. An album which invades new musical territory, takes risks, and reaches out to new audiences with a ballsy change in direction. Away from the World, the latest DMB offering, is the farthest thing ever from such an album. This needs stating straightaway bat as expectations were of the aforementioned kind, with Matthews having been under the table and scheming this one out for the last three years. Not to be. So no surprises here, except a stoic resistance to change.
Not that the record doesn’t deliver. It has everything that their tried and tested formula has to offer; melodic acoustic riffing, grand crescendos, sparkling horns and reeds, lovesick vocals, creepy-little-bastard sexuality. Any DMB trademark you remember features here. Although subdued. A lack of fire and some extended moments of mediocrity drag down an otherwise solid record.
The album begins promisingly, with Matthews diving with some stubborn love into a throbbing rhythm on ‘Broken Things’, the opener. ‘Belly Belly Nice’ has rock’s creepiest romantic back to his sexual deviancies, proclaiming once again his disturbing if not sinister love for bellies. It’s a typically great song which rises and falls as often as Mr. Matthews’ legendary libido. The rhythm section is on its tightest game throughout, displaying that unique, bustling sound. It sounds like the party it has always sounded like. However, as history shows, competent musicians can’t save bad songs, and by the third song, ‘Mercy’, the promise starts to fade. The sublime orchestration, blink ‘n’ miss dynamics, the cameos of jazz fusion and classical music are thwarted by some forgettable choruses, and a deeply annoying goody-two-shoes attitude. Matthews’paranoid optimism and activism make it hard to follow him unless you’re seeking reassurance. This is the same guy who was dying to eat someone’s “belly jelly” not two songs ago. The idea that he may have gotten high, cried about the state of the world, and decided to run for office gains further credibility with ‘Gaucho’ where the horns section sounds like a national anthem and Dave himself sounding like a presidential speech. He had stated that the album is based on the idea that we’re all trapped in a box that is our bodies, but at this point in the album the DMB fan is wearing a forced smile, trapped in a box that is pure loyalty. Songs like ‘If Only’ and ‘Snow outside’have melodic and structural merits, but do nothing to balance the oversweet proceedings or switch gears. The record is rescued by the beautiful “Sweet” and the surefire future concert staple, “The Riff”. The closer, ‘Drunken Soldier’, puts it beyond dispute that this album is worth it. This song, with its tension and epic Cowboys-meet-Spaniards vibe, is what more of the album should’ve been like. It trails off, leaving behind an album which can be neither loved nor hated.
It’s full, robust, and with constant activity. The sweet existential wanderings are back, and the rhythm section, the real triumph of the entire effort, delivers grooves that you can really bite on. Matthews’ croons sound as vulnerable as ever. These songs will sound great live. They also promise to grow on you. Producer Lillywhite, the original DMB producer, does just about everything right. However, blind spots are many and the album lacks some insanity, and that by DMB standards does not equal success.
Nonetheless, a record worth buying…did I say buying? I meant freeloading. Don’t buy music. That’s so ’90s, and this is 2012; a sentiment which, coincidentally, has been completely ignored by Mr. Dave Matthews.