Saturday, September 27, 2014

Twenty years and so tired of life

Today is the 20th anniversary of the release of my favorite album of all time. There are objective measures of things like rhythm, harmony, and melody, but much of what constitutes musical preference is subjective, and much of it is a consequence of time and place. People tend to most favor music corresponding to their own early adolescence, for instance. And so it is with UTTAD. It's difficult to try and articulate how much this piece of art has helped me psychologically, emotionally, and philosophically over the years, but here we go.

I think there's a convincing case to be made that UTTAD has a timelessness that protects it against being immediately identifiable as an undistinguished piece of early-nineties rock fusion. The band outlasted most of its cohorts, and of those still around like Radiohead, Phish, and Pearl Jam, DMB is today the biggest in terms of album (an almost anachronistic measure) and ticket sales (which they've dominated for the past decade and a half). A lot of the sound from that period has more-or-less been replicated. For better or worse--and we know where I stand--DMB has not.

The following is to serve as a personal time capsule with very limited general appeal, so if the subject matter is off your radar, please do save your time.


The Best of What's Around -- When life provides lemons, make lemonade. Events beyond your control shouldn't hijack your mood. Things won't always go as planned, and that's for the better as often as not ("if you hold on tight to what you think is your thing you may find you're missing all the rest"). In any case, counterfactuals are by their very nature inevitably hazy and speculative, so why fret? The quality of your experiences are determined more by the way you approach them and the people you approach them with than are the things that physically transpire at the time said experiences occur.

Asked to offer the best non-verbal description of audible joy in a single minute, I could offer nothing other than the last 60 seconds of this song. I am simply incapable of listening to it without uplift.

What Would You Say -- Two themes. Firstly, we want to feel as though we comprehend the world around us. In some sense we do, and now more than ever before, although we've had an inkling for a long time ("because of original sin"). But in the details, we can't even come remotely close. It's as overwhelming as seeing our place in the universe is ("in the morning's rise a lifetime's passed me by").

Secondly, the unexamined life isn't worth living ("there's nobody in here; look in the mirror my friend"). Ask the titular question. Work on informing the answer by examining every source you're able to; personal, professional, scholarly, existential, empirical or otherwise.

The two strands seem contradictory at first blush. They're not. Realize, instead, that you're not going to get everything right, not by a long shot. But embarking on that journey is the very essence of the human experience. It's ultimately tragic ("everyone goes in the end"), sure. Again, though, look at yourself in relation to the universe. C'est la vie.

Satellite -- Because of After Her, it's tempting for the lyrics to come as a mere afterthought. That's a mistake. The Satellite lyrics are far better than After Her's are. Experience is fleeting and the irresistible, incorrigible passage of time renders every moment simultaneously both unique in the specifics and trivial in the grander scheme.

How to reconcile yourself to this? Don't lose your playfulness. If you expect to find happiness in technological novelty ("like a diamond in the sky"), you're bound to be disappointed ("as I spend these hours five senses reeling, I laugh about this weatherman's satellite eyes"). If the contentment you're aspiring for exists in an end game you hope to arrive at sometime in the indefinite future, spoiler alert--you'll never get there. Like a good video game or movie, the magic is in the journey. It's not in the ending, which is often accompanied by feelings of melancholy at it all being over.

Rhyme and Reason -- Sister to Digging a Ditch and cousin of Too Much, we are confronting the fact that desires always outpace our abilities to fulfill them. It's as relevant to immediate desires for things like a drug-induced high as it is for loftier ambitions like self actualization. It is part of the human condition ("Until I'm six feet underground"). Like a dog racing greyhound chasing an electronic bunny, there are times when you'll feel relatively closer to the ultimate prize; other times everything will seem impossibly far away. Whatever the distance, you'll never close it entirely. As soon as you think you have, new desires start cropping up. If I get that job, that girl, that gadget, I'll finally have everything I've ever wanted, won't I? No, you won't, not even if you're a rock star like Dave Matthews.

Typical Situation -- Probably the band's most direct engagement with the problem of modernity. You are able to maintain meaningful social bonds with roughly 150 people. When the number of people you interact with exceeds that, relationships become thin, fragmented, and shallow. Contemporary Westerners deal with far, far greater numbers of people than that on a regular basis.

There is presumably a similar dynamic at work when it comes to things. That blanket you've had since you were a baby means something to you. The attachment is deep and visceral. That comforter you got from Target last week doesn't remotely compare even though it's objectively newer, warmer, and more fashionable. To the contrary, it has a negative value attached to it ("too many choices") because it takes nothing to obtain, fosters no significant attachment or connection, and will get thrown out as unceremoniously as it came in.

The door leads to the Nothing ("it all comes down to nothing"--heh, not quite literally, though it works well enough here), but look around and you'll quickly notice everyone is traipsing towards it ("keep the big door open, everyone will come around"), lemming-like, nonetheless. What's your alternative, Jack Donovan?

Dancing Nancies -- No, you could not have been anyone other than who you are. Dwelling on the question is only tempting regret and insecurity (and dizziness!). Stress leads to cortisol production. Cortisol leads to inflammation. And, quite rarely for a topic as disputed and controversial as human health, inflammation is almost universally agreed to be a bad thing. You are who you are. There is no going back in time. There is no hacking your genetic code (at least not yet). Own it. It's the only option open to you save becoming a paralyzed human vegetable ("shoes untied, tongue-gaping stare"), and you don't want that.

Ants Marching -- Routine is comfort. Comfort is, well, comforting. It's difficult to do things that make you uncomfortable. Specifically at issue is approach anxiety ("we look at each other, wondering what the other is thinking, but we never say a thing, and these crimes between us grow deeper"), but it speaks to a lot more than just that. Hope isn't lost, though. Let that urge, that attraction, to whatever it is you want to go after, compel and then propel you into pursuing it. The first step is always the hardest one to take. Once it's been taken, though, you'll find walking is easy, natural, and a lot of fun ("lights down, you up and die").

Lover Lay Down -- The album's only love song is also it's most straightforward. I lost my virginity to it (or to Jimi Thing, depending on what specific point in the act it is considered to have gone away).

Jimi Thing -- Dave's Jimi Thing might be your Dave Thing. It certainly is mine. Know thyself. The Delphic maxim echoes through eternity, as sagacious as ever. Figure out what works for you. What motivates, inspires, invigorates, and comforts you. The ritual of morning coffee, the good feeling and self confidence exercise brings, the pleasure that figuring out puzzling details of a game elicits, whatever. Look to others for suggestions, but not for rote answers. Don't be afraid to explain why the things that work for you work for you. If others don't understand it, it's no sweat of your back.

Warehouse -- This is an epic undertaking. Like a Shakespearean play (I'm told), it's better the tenth time you read it than the first time through. It took me years to crack the code. When I finally had the epiphany, it almost brought me to tears.

The warehouse is a metaphor for the body. The song is written from the perspective of a man on his deathbed. The passion intro sets the scene. As his consciousness begins to slip away and the violin picks up, we enter a sort of extended flashback as he recalls what he's gleaned about living the good life from having now reached the conclusion of his own.

Stay curious, stay playful. Have fun with convention and superstition, but don't take life too seriously. It's short on the metaphysical speculation ("bags packed on a plane, hopefully to heaven"). And for the better--this is advice for those who are in the midst of living, not for those who have already lived. Curiously, just as you start to come into your own as an adult, you'll start to realize how ordinarily human you are ("Becoming one in a million, slip into the crowd, this question I found a gap in the sidewalk"). It's a kind of Socratic Paradox. You're going to think you have things figured out and then something new will come and threaten the integrity of the equation you spent so much sweat and tears figuring out ("I had a clue, now it's gone forever"). The song is a gold mine. It's probably the one that resonates with me at the deepest level.

Pay for What You Get  -- A clever inversion of getting what you pay for, this is a mature--dare I say more nuanced--understanding of the way the real world works than the get-what-you-pay-for aphorism suggests. Another cliche, that having involuntarily lost merely frees up room for other things, ("have you heard a bird in hand is much better than any number free to wander") is discarded for the saccharine pseudo succor that it is.

On more than one occasion in the aftermath of a breakup, I recall going from here to Nancies to Satellite and finally to Best of What's Around, which I'd then play on repeat 5-10 times through.

#34 -- The iteration of the song I latched onto was devoid of lyrics. Yet the ambiance it creates is a fitting tribute to what DMB's music in general and UTTAD in particular has meant to me from my earliest pubescence all the way through to the present. It's my sanctuary, an always welcoming, refreshing refuge for a wary wayfarer muddling through life the best he can.


Anonymous said...

I'm clearly not as big a DMB fan but this brought back a memory. I went to school in Virginia in the early to mid 90s where they were still sort of underground playing the local college festivals and fraternities all over the mid-Atlantic etc. Used to see them live all the time without really trying.

I can still recall when "What Would You Say" broke and the surreal experience of hearing that song on the radio when I was home in Colorado. I remember thinking holy crap, those local dudes made it big. It was like the secret was out. I will say it was well-deserved because they'd worked their asses off in those early years.

sclop said...

Great album, though I prefer Crash and BTCS. UTAD has some amazing songs, but isn’t as consistent as I’d like, with several tracks (as you said) being skippable. For me, a masterpiece album has to work as a cohesive whole with only a few (if any) missteps or blunders. Crash comes the closest in my mind, with only a couple of mediocre tracks. Regardless, it doesn’t get much better than The Best of What’s Around, Ants Marching, and Warehouse.

Not to criticize a band I really like, but to have continued relevance to me, a band has to keep evolving and putting out solid new music. Sadly, DMB just hasn’t done that post-1990s. They have been getting by almost exclusively on their first decade or so of existence. The post-90s material ranges from solid (Busted Stuff), to decent (Big Whiskey/Away from the World) to abysmal, reputation-destroying dreck (Stand Up).

Still, those first three albums are so good that the band will continue to be one of my favorites, regardless of how long they stick around. Really enjoyed reading your analysis of the album. You pointed out a lot of lyrical aspects I had never caught onto.

Audacious Epigone said...


Do you remember if you ever saw them play at Trax? The sound will probably be nostalgically familiar if you didn't.


UTTAD/Crash/BTCS are considered the Big Three by nancies. I've never met a serious fan who doesn't count one of them as his favorite band album. My guess is the plurality take BTCS, then Crash, then UTTAD. I'm not a huge fan of the electric guitar and the mostly personal, introspective nature of UTTAD is what I cherish most from Dave's songwriting (as opposed to songs like Last Stop from BTCS or Cry Freedom from Crash).

Also, while my two favorites, #41 and Two Step, are from Crash, for me UTTAD is the most consistently enjoyable album from start to finish. R&R and LLD are the only two I'll generally skip.

DMB has tried to keep evolving, it just hasn't been in a direction I'd prefer. They've moved away from the jazz-fusion style to more of a rock focus. Tim's one hell of a talent, but his contribution sets the overall direction of the sound in a way that is overwhelming, detrimentally so in my view. I don't like Tim as a permanent feature.

Peak creativity was in the mid-nineties, peak live performance in the early 2000s when it was the original five and Butch Taylor.

Audacious Epigone said...

...sound will probably be nostalgically familiar even if you didn't...