From 'Crash' to 'Crush': 20 Years of Dave Matthews Band's Haunting Masterwork 'Before These Crowded Streets'

Paul Natkin/Getty Images
Dave Matthews Band photographed at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago on March 16, 1995.

“Come and relax now” are the first words sung on Dave Matthews Band’s third full-length, and while they wouldn’t seem out of place on the previous two multi-Platinum, freewheeling albums, what comes to pass over the course of its marathon 70-minute runtime could reduce those opening lines to a darkly comic disclaimer in retrospect. It’s strange to think that Before These Crowded Streets, an album that embraces the visceral, painful expressions of passion, would be destined to dethrone the elegant wonderment of the Titanic soundtrack atop the Billboard 200 in May of 1998.

Like Parrotheads or patriots of the No Shoes Nation, the site of a Dave Matthews Band concert has long elicited similar fans that buy tickets as much as for the atmosphere than what’s to be heard from the stage. Both their reputation as a jam band and the playful qualities of the aforementioned well-known songs can sometimes paint them in a jokey light. And it’s true, especially in the age of the Internet, that they are no strangers to a shellacking of the same relentless, meme-generating candor given to artists like Nickelback or Smash Mouth. The latter two are easy targets due to the hokey, dated novelties they represent to their respective eras, as well as their blatantly unchecked ridiculousness, which only get more humorous with time. Regarding Dave and company, this scorn is misplaced -- particularly in the case of Before These Crowded Streets. Twenty years ago, the quintet entered recording sessions to create a work unparalleled by any in their catalog, demonstrating the greatest ambitions and capabilities of its players in full sync.

Beginning in 1997, the band booked The Plant Recording Studios without any songs worked out beforehand, leaving it to themselves to organically compose an album’s worth of material in the time allotted. The pressure was on, and in MTV Ultrasound’s mini-documentary on the recording process, Dave states, “It's much easier to write the stuff that's very happy…It's hard to write stuff that's dark, because I'm more critical of stuff that I write that way -- I'm more critical of stuff that's depressing.” Now-deceased saxophonist LeRoi Moore was a tad more cryptic and understated describing what was to come: “Variety of emotion is good.”

Regardless of Dave’s self-criticism, he managed to pen a majority of the track listing out of this dark influence, be it latent or overt. The jovial, carefree persona the band had cultivated up to that point made it seem unlikely that they would ever flirt with such themes. Yet the inclination was really there all along: Their 1994 debut Under the Table and Dreaming was dedicated in memory of Matthews’ older sister Anne, who was killed by her husband in a murder-suicide the same year; an indelible event that left Dave remarking in an interview with CBS News fifteen years later, “I don’t know if I’ve dealt with… my sister’s death properly.” Table churned out rollicking barnburners, cementing their status in the public eye as merrymakers, yet the penchant for doom and gloom -- however slight -- showed early signs in the mourning of a fallout with an old mentor/manager in “#41,” and with the drug addiction stomper “Rhyme and Reason.” Streets found Dave taking the untapped, chambered rage that unequivocally took root in the debut’s dedication and finally pushed it to the forefront.

Barring the opening lead-in of “Pantala Naga Pampa,” “Stay (Wasting Time)” is Streets’ sole purveyor of unfettered optimism, and it’s hardly so in the group’s typical sense. For one thing, it doesn’t possess the slap-happy pep of past feel-good tunes like “Ants Marching” or “Tripping Billies.” It’s eminently more mature, right down to the choice of guest vocalists The Lovely Ladies: Tawatha Agee, Cindy Mizelle, and Brenda White-King. This would mark the soulful backup singers’ first foray with the band, as they continue in recent years to make appearances on tour. The record is rife with more sophisticated guest musicians, including banjoist Béla Fleck, the Kronos Quartet, and frequent collaborator Tim Reynolds. Each peppers in their own voicing, a far cry from the zydeco-adjacent harmonica frenzy of John Popper from two releases prior. There’s no room for that sort of frivolity here; Streets is a resolutely straight-faced work.

Even its two direct paeans to love, the funky breakbeat-filled “Rapunzel” and its jazzy counterpart “Crush,” never concur with the safety assumed by a happy relationship. The former segues into a minor backdrop with harrowing strings to deliver Dave’s aching message, “I think the world of you, all of my heart, I do/ Blood through my veins for you, you alone have all of me.” The latter -- carried by Stefan Lessard’s long-cigarette-drag bass line, which alone appears to have a lot on its mind -- features another weary passage from the frontman to his lover, stating, “Lovely lady, I am at your feet/ God, I want you so badly.” These admissions are heartfelt, but why so worrisome?

Perhaps the fatigue and stressful air about the record are factors naturally yielded from one of Streets’ most unforgettable pieces: “The Stone.” Befit with haunting strings from the Kronos Quartet, Dave sinisterly but cautiously leads his band on a steady march, as if through a minefield. While the situation is dire, the pith of his fears ultimately lies in the paranoia of losing his loved one; a phobia brought on by nothing more than the baseless -- although ineffably human -- inability to trust (“I’ve this creeping suspicion that things here are not what they seem/Oh, reassure me”). The narrative does end peacefully enough, pivoting from the initial movement’s manic bustle and sweetly echoing Dave’s refined plea for some degree of matrimony as the band decrescendos with him. In live performances, he occasionally extends the outro and appends the refrain from Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” granting the piece even more sorrowful innocence and clarity.

“Crash into Me” was a difficult song to miss in 1997, reintroducing the band to an entire wave of new fans with the emotive, vulnerable (and literal) viewpoint of its subject, and the catchy snare march of drummer Carter Beauford. It’s easy then, to imagine the masses’ stunned reaction to Streets leadoff single “Don’t Drink the Water.” The song is a beleaguered meditation on murder by numbers, brought about by the most savage and misguided. Religious fanaticism, diaspora, and genocide are all topics touched upon in Dave’s half-poetry-half-blunted writing: “All I can say to you, my new neighbor is/ You must move on or I will bury you.”

The single’s  structure defies pop standards, consisting of no discernible refrain, building steam like a caravan of expansionists on the move, dead set on manifest destiny. It erupts at the five-minute mark, detailing the selfish mindset in shouted couplets, letting the irony speak for itself. Streets’ most high profile guest, Alanis Morissette, joins here at the boiling point to provide an even more urgent take of the condemning lines, “I live with my justice/And I live with my greedy need/And I live with no mercy/And I live with my frenzied feeding.” The outro leaves us with a shuddery look into the menace embodied in these offenders.

“Halloween,” the album’s nightmarish, impossible-to-miss centerpiece, is proof alone to dispel any notion that DMB is to be solely synonymous with laid-back Frisbee tosses and shark tooth necklaces. It’s a work of pure vitriol, long said to have been written about an ex of Dave’s. The lyrics were never included in the inside cover for want of the singer’s mother to never stumble upon the explicit text. Dave sounds as if he may throw his voice out by the end of “Halloween,” and it’s likely that he did: the frontman developed yeast deposits in his throat during the album sessions. His affect is nothing short of terrifying, particularly when shrieking lines like, “Why does it come inside me?” and “Tell us, are you satisfied with fucking?” It’s better left unsaid and altogether cleverer to have us guessing at the lyrical disparity between “Bury all” or “Burial” and “Love is all” or “Love is hell.” Hell truly hath no fury like a Dave Matthews scorned.

Like Nebraska for Bruce Springsteen, Before These Crowded Streets is the intensely dour, anti-celebratory, confounding follow-up to a commercial blockbuster that floored fans of the band at the time and continues to intrigue new converts since. The long runtime feels fully earned, more so than on any other DMB title. There’s so much to say, sure, but its verbosity is made up for by the amount of pain that needed navigating through. It's a tortured, intermittently exhausting opus that nakedly grieves over forgiveness, apartheid, and love both near and far. Even at its most relaxed, an anxious smog chokes the scene -- as thick as the cigarette fumes that permeate the “Crush” music video -- taking it light years away from the maligned typicalities many have come to regard jam bands with in general.

In a review of the album for Rolling Stone, Anthony DeCurtis writes that the band “play as if their lives -- and yours -- depended on it." Their careers certainly didn't depend on it -- Streets may not have produced another “Crash into Me,” but it still was certified triple-platinum and began the band’s impressive streak of six No.1 albums in a row on the Billboard 200 -- but by purging his demons and taking that risk, Dave Matthews gifted fans with an outlier to his discography that has endured as a fan favorite. So before you turn your nose up to DMB for silly vocal nonsense or even falling prey to an inept tour bus driver, don’t forget that there once was a time when they made an album so devastatingly anguished in conception and execution that you’d feel confident in calling it artful.