Dashboard Confessional gained fame around twenty years ago as one of the leading bands of the emo scene. As expected, the band – led by singer, songwriter and only constant member Chris Carrabba – has grown, matured, and changed since then. But what about the sound? Their newest album, Crooked Shadows, is the band’s first album in nine years. And much like the band members, the sound has grown and changed since then.
I suspect the most pressing question for fans of the band is something about the album itself: is it still emo? The answer to that is not really. Gone are the personal, heartfelt confessional lyrics and the yearning sound. In its place is something oddly stadium rock. The first song, “We Fight,” is a generic, inspirational pump you up stadium rock anthem. The sound is designed for arenas and bumper ads about the Olympics, the lyrics are a mixture of universal and pithy, and the overall sound is worryingly bland. I don’t want to say the sound ‘grew up’, as if liking emo music is an embarrassing phase. But the sound has definitely changed in an unexpected, slightly weird way. The craftsmanship is superb and the little hints of throwback emo sound are delightful, but it is certainly not something you’d expect from the title track.
The vocals, however, go beyond one’s expectations. Just like it was in the band’s heydey, Carrabba’s voice is pitch perfect emo. He doesn’t just sing. He emotes. He rasps, he strains, he lets the rawness and emotion in his voice show. There are multiple moments in the album where Carrabba’s voice almost cracks and breaks, as if he just can’t hit those high notes but is straining and trying his hardest anyway. It’s amazingly endearing with a pure, raw sound that calls back to the Dashboard Confessional of the early 2000s.
The sound is so unified that when there’s a misstep, it stands out hard. “Belong” features the EDM group Cash Cash. Unsurprisingly, it’s an EDM themed song. The problem here is that it’s the only EDM song on the album, sandwiched smack in the middle between the rest of the modern emo, alternative rock sound of the album. It sticks out like a sore thumb and seems downright bizarre. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad song: out of context, it’s a perfectly serviceable EDM song and the more I listen to it, the more I like it. But in context and attached to the band Dashboard Confessional, it’s amazingly jarring and so out of place.
Still, at least “Belong” shows Cash Cash’s influences. One third of this album has guest tracks or a featured credit: in two of those selections, the featured artist is barely audible. “Just What To Say” features vocalist Chrissy Costanza, singing a backing credit that’s so masked and so inaudible that you’d be forgiven for assuming she’s a session vocalist. “Open My Eyes” features pop violinist Lindsey Stirling—and again, the violin line is muted. It makes you wonder why bother crediting these guest artists or asking them to collaborate in the first place. Did someone owe Lindsey Stirling a favor?
If nothing else, the album is bizarrely short, clocking in at only nine songs. The overall structure feels more like an EP than a LP: a bit anticlimactic. Still, is Crooked Shadows a good album? For the most part. The songs are all passable and slightly middle of the road. Of the stadium rock tracks, “About Us” was easily my fave, as it showed off Carrabba’s voice the best. Give it a listen if you’re on the fence.