The opening riff is a crusty stutter of guitar that Creed would kill to copyright. A hydraulic piano groove is peppered with zesty sprays of strum and violin flutter. And the lyric hook in the chorus is just three tight syllables — “I did it” — jackhammered into your skull. The first single from the Dave Matthews Band’s fourth studio album, Everyday, “I Did It” is no-fat monster pop, the kind of hit that will dog you so hard for the next year — on radio, TV and especially barroom jukeboxes, where pickled jocks will bark along like the Molson Tabernacle Choir — that you’ll think the song is a CIA tracking device.After a decade as one of America’s hottest cult acts, able to sell out stadium tours with modest airplay, the Dave Matthews Band is about to go big — and “I Did It” will be the tune that does it. This is not a bad thing. We’re stuck in an age of dull extremes: teen-pop sugar zombies, the steel bawls and fake-blood theater of the new metal. It’s so flat and dire in the Billboard Top Twenty that the long-gone Beatles whipped the competition silly for two months. Right now, the most radical and exhilarating thing a band can do is shoot right up the middle, dead center through the mainstream.
That’s what the DMB has done. Compared with the cheap thrills out there, not to mention the band’s own previous records, the meaty classic-rock orthodoxy of Everyday — produced by AOR maestro Glen Ballard and written entirely by Matthews and Ballard — is practically a revolutionary act. “When the World Ends,” “The Space Between” and “So Right” are all blinding chrome and fat swagger, superbuffed throwbacks to 1980s arena-rock convention. And that sleek buoyancy — a new-century blend of Def Leppard’s Hysteria and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. — perfectly echoes Matthews’ mission statement at the front of “I Did It”: “I’m mixing up a bunch of magic stuff/A magic mushroom cloud of care/A potion that will rock the boat. . . . Make a bomb of love and blow it up.”
The DMB — Matthews, drummer Carter Beauford, violinist Boyd Tinsley, bassist Stefan Lessard and multireed man Leroi Moore — is certainly no one’s idea of a threat to social order. Matthews himself is a paragon of equilibrium: a white South African native fronting a band that’s three-fifths black; a singer with a deep, even tenor and the comely anonymity of a struggling actor waiting tables; a songwriter working in warm, earthy blurs of folk rock, R&B and non-Western rhythms.
The downside of that quiet ingenuity is that the DMB gets chained to the wrong stereotypes: the genre gumbo of the jam bands, the safe soul of Hootie and the Blowfish. The Afro-Latin surge of Beauford’s and Lessard’s rhythms and the jazzy poise of Tinsley’s and Moore’s playing are actually closer to the progressive-rock savvy of Traffic than to the flying-without-a-net legacy of the Grateful Dead. And the full-frontal clarity of Matthews’ grainy voice on Everyday makes one thing plain: As a singer, he is a damn near identical twin of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. That’s one reason why so much of Everyday works so well, despite the drill-sergeant calculation in Ballard’s production. There is just enough sour questioning and irritation in Matthews’ delivery to keep the radio candy from melting into raging glucose.Everyday is, in fact, quite dark beneath the sheen. “When the World Ends” is a kind of holocaust pop — all oily smoke, nuclear radiation and gallows humor (“When the world ends/We’ll be burning one, ahhhh!”) in which the jaunty fuck-this-mess canter of the verse suddenly turns, in the chorus and in Matthews’ voice, into a gnarled eroticism. There’s more smoke, as well as sorrow and rain, in “Dreams of Our Fathers,” an itchy song about anxiety and responsibility in which you can really hear the heavy Vedder in Matthews’ voice; with bigger, meaner guitars, the whole track could have sounded like a Pearl Jam outtake.Ballard, who is credited with “all arrangements” on Everyday as well as production and co-writing, has definitely brought new, impressive heft to Matthews’ music — at a cost. Just as Springsteen trimmed the R&B theater of the E Street Band on Born in the U.S.A., Matthews and Ballard use Tinsley’s violin and Moore’s sax mostly as strategic accents. That makes solid commercial sense; “The Space Between” and “So Right” are expert pop, clean, catchy romanticism. But there is little of the band interplay that elevates Matthews’ songs in the DMB’s live shows (best caught on Live at Red Rocks 8.15.95 and 1999’s Listener Supported). Tinsley and Moore don’t get to open up until late in Everyday, on “Fool to Think” and “Sleep to Dream Her.” The only major soloing room on the entire record goes to guest Carlos Santana, who plays on “Mother Father.”Matthews is nobody’s puppet here. The surface gloss may be mostly Ballard, but the vocal conviction Matthews brings to this confection shows that he believes that Everyday was a record he, and the Dave Matthews Band, needed to make. It was obviously no easy choice. In “If I Had It All,” a slow, grim beauty about a guy who has jack shit to his name, Matthews asks himself, “If I were giant size/On top of it all/Tell me what in the world would I sing for/If I had it all.”
He is about to find out.