By Chris Willman
Updated June 12, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Since first being leaked to the Web in March by sources unknown, Dave Matthews Band unreleased project ”Lillywhite Sessions” has become the biggest phenomenon in bootlegging since Bob Dylan’s ”Basement Tapes” surfaced three decades ago. If unauthorized downloads counted as sales, it would probably have gone gold, maybe even platinum, during its first couple of months on the free market known as Napster. (More recently, Napster has been blocking even creative misspellings of the song titles, though the tunes still aren’t hard to track down for anyone with half the obsessiveness of your average Davehead.)

Few abandoned albums turn out to be suppressed masterpieces. (Does anybody think John Phillips’ recently released collaboration with the Stones was worth the 28 year wait?) So when you visit the massively trafficked DMB message boards and find widespread assertions that this project (an album the group had almost finished recording last year with longtime producer Steve Lillywhite) is not only superior to ”Everyday” — the album subsequently recorded with producer Glen Ballard and released in February — but their best effort ever, you might chalk up the hyperbole to the lure of arcana: Think of all those groovy theology students who prefer the gnostic gospels to the official release versions.

As lost albums go, this one’s a keeper, though. It’s also depressing as hell, which — along with the lack of an obvious radio single — helps account for its orphaned status. Matthews has always been a bit fixated on mortality, which has tended to result in bittersweet at worst carpe diem anthems of the ”Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we’re toast” school. But during these ”Sessions,” reeling from the deaths of his stepfather and a beloved uncle, Matthews had the end more clearly in sight. ”Still think it’s strange I won’t be long for here,” he muses in ”Captain.” ”When I was young, I didn’t think about it/ Now I can’t get it out of my mind,” he admits in ”Bartender” — ”it” presumably being the big sleep. The album’s only straightforward ballad, the country influenced ”Grace Is Gone,” could be a lament for any old lost love, until the drunken singer recalls waking with his spouse’s ”cold hand in mine,” making it clear she left him for another plane, not man.

So much for that frat house fave image. If this isn’t weighty enough stuff, Matthews amps up another old thematic standby: the unlikeliness of the existence of God. The Peter Gabriel-like ”Grey Street” has a beleaguered hausfrau fearing her prayers fall on deaf ears. In the album’s 10 minute centerpiece, ”Bartender,” Matthews beseeches his divine barkeep for ”the wine you gave Jesus that set him free after three days in the ground,” though his cranky tone suggests wavering faith that any such spirit is in stock. ”Bartender” has been the clear highlight of most recent DMB shows; imagine the sweep of U2 but with the triumphalism gone ambiguously agnostic.

In a perfect world, Matthews might have pulled a Springsteen and simultaneously released both the deep sixed ”Sessions” and ”Everyday,” which seems designed almost as an answer album. (The best of the unreleased tracks will probably show up on a forthcoming live album.) Thanks to the Web, anyway, all these gnostic songs are destined to achieve something their frustratedly flesh and blood narrators can’t: immortality.

Read’s Q&A with Matthews in our Summer Music Preview.