So much has come to pass in the 15 years since Dashboard Confessional propelled his strummy perpetually wounded boyhood drama to its Gold-record apex. Emo is now the province of Soundcloud rappers, righteous girls, and Drake.
Chris Carrabba made his name at the tail-end of the Nineties singing (and shrieking) about winning (and losing) a girl, and now he returns with Crooked Shadows, his first Dashboard Confessional album in more than eight years, with that same romantic fixation holding the center of his songs. Carrabba’s lyrical focus has evolved some in his time away, having disregarded the diaristic “I” for a unified “we,” yet emo’s heroic paternalism is still present – he’s saving, he’s dedicated, he won’t let the love die. “I’m always going to be/About us” he sings on “About Us.” His pledges of allegiance to his marriage are identical to the ones he makes to the scene.
Album opener “We Fight” prescribes an understanding of his return – to be an emo singer, the lyrics suggest, is a kind of calling, and it’s a matter of duty to never give up on the kids that connect with his music (“We didn’t snicker and turn our backs/We just keep digging and giving back,” he sings). The song suggests this isn’t a capitalizing comeback, Carrabba is merely assuming the mantle; he’s still an icon in a relationship with The People, custodially tending emo’s we’re-all-in-the-same-gang mythology. Every song here says the same thing: I am still here, I never left, and I love “us.” His travails of sustained monogamy are cloaked in enough vagaries and hooks that no one’s going to be skeeved out by a dude their dad’s age panting about the rich rewards of a mature love.
Though, clearly, Carrabba knows he’s drafting back into an Ed Sheeran Afterworld; these songs hew to familiar formulas of Dashboard dramatics, cleverly clad in contemporizing pop production. The triumphant builds and barely throttled breakdowns remain intact, but the unadorned earnestness and bedroom acoustics of the previous few Dashboard albums are long gone. Crooked Shadows is all stadium sound and smooth contours, and has more in common with the work of Carrabba’s pal Taylor Swift (particularly her 2012 album Red) than his hard-strumming emo anthems his minions knew by heart.
Carrabba’s a close study, his ambition apparent in how fluently Crooked Shadows’ judicious nine songs speak the language of pop in 2018. “About Us” can easily sidle along next to Imagine Dragons in any playlist, while “Belong” and “Crooked Shadows” are the sort of songs you write when you see twerps like Shawn Mendes eating the lunch you packed back when they were larval. This album is Carrabba’s rather reasonable pop petition to be dealt back into a game he started.