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The Boston Globe

Dave Matthews gets serious - and playful

Dave Matthews, a grassroots hero who has sold 20 million albums in a 10-year career, can be a wry, tongue-in-cheek songwriter. But without giving up that winsomeness, he is now freely exploring subjects such as God, soul mates, and the apocalypse - weighty matters that might seem more appropriate to U2 and Peter Gabriel.

''The floodgates opened on this album,'' Matthews says from New York during a rare interview to discuss ''Everyday,'' the new Dave Matthews Band CD that just hit the stores. ''This was a therapeutic experience. It was a release lyrically.''

On the record, Matthews strikes a confident, cunning balance between the playful - a song about magic mushrooms - and the serious - a track about economic injustice that asks, ''Do you know why one man's belly overflows while another sleeps in hunger's bed?''

Many so-called rock stars wouldn't dare take such chances in their writing, but Matthews - a world citizen raised in Johannesburg, London, New York, and Charlottesville, Va. - has always stood apart from the pack. His musings about an Everyman caught in a complex world, backed by music that moves from rock to country, jazz, world beat, and more, has won him millions of fans who like his untrendy, down-to-earth honesty and enjoy zealously trading tapes of his music.

''I was just going for an unapologetic attitude on this album,'' says Matthews, 34, whose band - Boyd Tinsley on fiddle, Carter Beauford on drums, Stefan Lessard on bass, and Leroi Moore on sax - has become the most popular stadium rock act this side of the Rolling Stones. (Look for two more DMB shows at Foxboro Stadium in June.)

Having earned such clout, Matthews can afford to be unapologetic. He is exactly that on the new single, ''I Did It,'' a surprise ode to hallucinogenic mushrooms. ''I'm mixing up a bunch of magic stuff/I did it - do you think I've gone too far?'' he sings atop a driving funk beat, accented by Tinsley's biting fiddle and Matthews's own electric guitar - an instrument he plays for the first time on record.

Does the song come from personal experiences with mushrooms? ''Yes, I've had some great ones, but we don't need to go into those.''

''I didn't do the song for shock value, though,'' he adds. ''It's coming from a good place - a sort of `Alice in Wonderland' image. It's an invitation to be yourself. ''

Although Matthews recently told Rolling Stone magazine that he felt somewhat depressed and stale before the album was made (and admitted to a drinking problem), he became reinvigorated by two major events. One was marrying his longtime girlfriend, Ashley, the inspiration behind some of his new songs. And the other was making the record in a very spontaneous fashion with producer Glen Ballard, who had previously worked with Alanis Morissette, Aerosmith, and No Doubt, and before that was Quincy Jones's engineer.

''I was in a good place in the writing process and I'm in a good place now,'' says Matthews. ''I'm looking forward to taking this music into a live setting. It feels like a new beginning in a way.''

With Ballard's help, Matthews wrote 10 new songs in just nine days in the producer's home studio in Los Angeles, the same studio where Morissette composed the multiplatinum ''Jagged Little Pill.'' In Morissette's case, her anger came flooding out. Matthews's philosophical side was blown open, even as he discovered brevity: for a change, no song exceeds four minutes.

The funk tune ''When the World Ends,'' was written in one sitting. It finds Matthews consoling his lover: ''Collect your things, you're coming with me. ... We will rise up when the buildings crumble/Don't you worry about a thing because I've got you here with me.''

It has to be one of the most upbeat songs about the apocalypse ever written. ''The idea came from a poem a friend once recited to me,'' says Matthews. ''I just had this one line: `When the world ends ... ' It was a nice introduction and I kept coming back to that as a way of opening doors: `When the world ends, collect your things, you're coming with me/When the world ends ...,' and so on.''

One of the best new songs is ''Dreams of Our Fathers,'' a Gabriel-sounding track in which Matthews questions the reliance on the past (''I don't want to wake up lost in the dreams of our fathers''), but later admits hopefully, ''This love I possess, Lord, must also be the dream of our fathers.''

As Matthews explains: ''I think we tend to look back into our past very proudly and excuse the wrongs of the past. Or we look into the past very bleakly and that overshadows the wonders. ... It's a shame that we might march off to war or might land in a society where we have to take this violent or negative baggage from people before us, whether it's one generation or 20 generations; but at the same time not forgetting all the things about us that made us exceptional also came from before us.''

He crystallizes his thoughts on God in the rocking ''What You Are,'' with the verse, ''Hoping to God on high is like clinging to straws while drowning. ... Oh, realize what you are!''

''It would be safe to say that I'm agnostic,'' Matthews says. ''However, I do feel as though we owe a faith to the world and to ourselves. We owe a grace and gratitude to things that have brought us here. But I think it's very ignorant to say, `Well, for everything, God has a plan.' That's like an excuse. ... Maybe the real faithful act is to commit to something, to take action, as opposed to saying, `Well, everything is in the hand of God.'''

Matthews adopts a self-reliant, save-yourself stance on the second-to-last song, ''Mother Father'' (with flamenco guitar added by Carlos Santana) and then borrows the Beatles' famous ''all you need is love'' line on the closing ''Everyday.'' Was he aware of the Beatles connection?

''It wasn't deliberate. It was only when I looked at it later on paper that I realized it was the same line, and that I was really paying homage. I was a huge Beatles fan. For my eighth birthday, my mom bought me their `Magical Mystery Tour' album.''

From jam-band hero to rock icon, it's precisely the kind of tour that Matthews has been on ever since.