Before These Crowded Streets

Before These Crowded Streets

By the end of 1997, the Dave Matthews Band had become unlikely hitmakers. The group’s globe-trotting acoustic rock—with songs about busy city streets, existential anxiety, and secret sexual liaisons—had offered a peppy respite from the decade’s grunge. But after two popular albums and a ceaseless touring schedule, the group had run out of songs, with Matthews having exhausted his early archives. So he retreated to a centuries-old mill in the Virginia foothills to revisit old scraps, and conjure new ones with any bandmates who dropped by—including bassist Stefan Lessard, who loved boom-bap and Radiohead. And so emerged the seeds of 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets, which would paradoxically become the most experimental and moody DMB album, and the one that certified the group’s superstar status—even sinking the Titanic soundtrack that had long dominated the charts. After recording its first two records in upstate New York with Steve Lillywhite, the band and the newly sober British producer decamped to the San Francisco Bay, using the legendary Record Plant as a creative playground. The resulting songs swung wildly, from the twisted horn funk of “Stay (Wasting Time)” and the lustful nods of the über-smooth “Crush” to the tormented plea for reckoning at the center of “Don’t Drink the Water.” As far as DMB releases go, Before These Crowded Streets is an album of true extremes—of limits tested and reset. But Lillywhite and the band took care to make the pieces fit, too, using a panoply of guests (including Béla Fleck and Alanis Morissette) and curious segues to give the songs depth and atmosphere. What emerges during these 70 minutes is not only a songwriter willing to ask heavier questions of himself and the world, but also a band able to match him with shrieking strings or diaphanous textures, hard bop or heavy-metal approximations. Never again has the Dave Matthews Band pursued its idea of art-rock quite so aggressively as the group did on Before These Crowded Streets. The album remains an inspired document of a group aiming to outstrip its happy-go-lucky reputation—and succeeding in redemptive fashion.

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