Maybe it’s the post-9/11 climate, but artists do seem to be dealing with their God issues all of a sudden. Take David Bowie, who, on his new album, ”Heathen,” suggests that God better give us battered humans a break soon ”or I might just stop loving You.” Or Dolly Parton, who on ”Halos and Horns” implores, ”Hello, God…are you listenin’ anymore?” Then there’s that other doubting Thomas, Dave Matthews, who’s let a troubled agnosticism creep into his songs before, but never to the extent heard in Busted Stuff. In ”Grey Street,” Matthews peeks in on a despondent woman who’s fairly sure her higher power isn’t bothering to hear her out but keeps praying because ”there’s still a hope in hell He might.” The singer adopts this despair as his own in the epic closer, ”Bartender,” in which he sidles up to a heavenly bar and begs the deity on duty for a shot of redemption. It’s the most impressive grappling with God any pop star has sustained since Bono got peeved at his Father on ”Pop.”
These is-there-anybody-out-there questions might resonate more after last fall, but fans know that this CD’s nervous philosophizing predates the terrorist attacks. More than a year ago, as a result of the most celebrated leak since the Pentagon Papers, untold millions downloaded a nearly completed but abandoned DMB project popularly known as ”The Lillywhite Sessions.” Some band members and label folks had considered the material too bleak, but the ecstatic response to the bootleg proved that even Matthews’ Deadhead-like cult could appreciate the dark musings of someone caught in a spiritual jam as much as they do a good jam band.
But if providence and pirates have already provided virtually every hard-drive-equipped fan with a free copy of ”The Lillywhite Sessions,” and ”Busted Stuff” is essentially a sanctioned rerecording of that album, is asking DMB’s audience to pay up for the tuneage at this late date a little like trying to sell ice to Eskimos? Not to worry; this is such a fascinatingly different take on (mostly) the same material that it almost whets your appetite for a third rendering.
I’ll own up to initially wishing the band hadn’t gone back into the studio to fix what wasn’t busted; it was that original Steve Lillywhite-produced set of recordings — with its uncharacteristically tense, terse, and compressed feel complementing Matthews’ leap into murkier and more challenging depths as a writer — that converted me from skeptic to fan. His singing was surlier, too, when he was smack in the middle of his blue period, not two years and a life-affirming bout with fatherhood removed from the lyrics’ more bitter sentiments. The new, self-produced sessions feel altogether sweeter, cleanly separating the players and goosing the still-eclectic signature sound. In particular, there’s a good deal more of sax man Leroi Moore, maybe to compensate for how lost he got in 2001’s ”Everyday” mix.
Just as subtle shifts in arrangement help downplay the downbeat, a few lyrics have also been revised. ”Captain” is no longer a rueful rumination on mortality but a pretty decent make-out song. And ”You Never Know,” one of two tracks here that will be new even to Napster alumni, wallows in jazzy, pleasantly nutty time-signature changes and emphasizes Dave the sensualist over Matthews the morbid, though the twain do meet in inspirational rhymes like ”Don’t lose the dreams inside your head/They’ll only be there till you’re dead.” But Matthews and company haven’t compromised the themes so much that they’ve let death take a holiday. Things get grim in the countryish ”Grace Is Gone,” which waits till its concluding verse to reveal itself as a grieving widower’s lament instead of the standard lost-love drinking ballad it masquerades as.
Having written much of this ”Stuff” in the wake of some relatives passing on, Matthews strays even farther from his usual carpe diem positivity in the haunted final stretch, especially ”Bartender,” in which he asks for something even stronger than death: ”Bartender, please, fill my glass for me/With the wine you gave Jesus that set Him free/After three days in the ground.” Matthews doesn’t tell us if God responds to his desperate plea. Maybe He’s tied up on the Internet, arguing over whether ”Lillywhite” or ”Stuff” is the superior unbelieving sinner’s prayer.