Is Dashboard Confessional Still Emo?

Two Atlantic writers discuss the new album, Crooked Shadows, and how the band’s sound has evolved since its eight-year hiatus.

Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba performs in New York City in August 2017
Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba performs in New York City in August 2017 (Theo Wargo / Getty)

We are in the throes of the “emo revival,” apparently. It’s a term that’s applied both to newer bands embodying the ethos of the genre—heartfelt, with punk roots—and to the wave of 2000s nostalgia among Millennials. This nostalgia has led to emo-themed dance nights around the U.S., new music, and tours from bands like Brand New, The Starting Line, and Mae.

But in the early 2000s, as emo broke into the mainstream, the “icon,” the “breakout star,” the “poster boy” of the genre was Chris Carrabba, with his band Dashboard Confessional. Though the emo label got applied to many different kinds of music—clever pop punk, angsty hardcore, proto-indie acoustic—somehow Carrabba and his strummy eager singalongs became the symbol of the genre. As the critic Andy Greenwald put it in his book Nothing Feels Good: “Love for Dashboard Confessional spread across the country in 2001 and 2002 like mono in the ’50s: an intimate interaction between mouthy teenagers.”

On Friday, Dashboard Confessional released their first album in almost nine years, Crooked Shadows. The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and Caroline Mimbs Nyce discuss the band’s revival, and how it compares to Carrabba’s classic sound.

Julie Beck: There’s something so refreshing and soothing about a Dashboard Confessional song. Turning on one of their old albums feels to me like putting aloe on a sunburn. It’s partly nostalgia, I know, but there really is something special about the lack of artifice, the wholehearted commitment to a feeling that Carrabba gives his songs. He keeps his lyrics simple and honest for the most part, never hiding behind a smokescreen of cool, but he knows just the right details and turns of phrase to use to bring a moment to life, to make the specific feel universal. There’s a reason Dashboard Confessional concerts were famously singalongs—the songs felt like a shared experience.

Vindicated” and “Hands Down” are probably Dashboard’s most iconic songs, and for good reason, but if I were to point to one song that sums up what the band was at its best, it would probably be “The Brilliant Dance,” off the second album. That was my favorite, anyway. It was melodramatic but sweet, and grounded in finely drawn images and observations. “Measuring your minutes by a clock that’s blinking eights” is a line that’s stuck with me for years.

Caroline, you and I used to be those teenagers who caught the emo bug like mono, and I’m so excited to discuss this album with you. But first—what was it about Dashboard back in the day that felt special to you? What’s your favorite song?

Caroline Mimbs Nyce: I want to begin by disclosing that I once photoshopped the following words onto a black-and-white photo of myself: “Youth’s the most unfaithful mistress / Still we forge ahead to miss her.” And used it as my MySpace default photo. These lyrics are from the title track of Dashboard’s debut album, The Swiss Army Romance. And they summarize a lot of what Dashboard was for me: a perfect reflection of how much it can suck to be a teenager, especially when you don’t want to be a teen anymore.

Accordingly, my favorite song was “The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most,” in which Carrabba describes someone who, despite seeming fine on the outside, is wrecked with inner turmoil. This idea comes up a lot in Dashboard’s early work. It’s also one of the painful realities of teendom: When you’re still learning how to express yourself, it’s easy to feel bottled up inside. But in “Places,” Carrabba makes it okay to drop the facade: “This is one time / That you can’t fake it hard enough to please everyone / Or anyone at all.” The song starts off melancholic and gradually builds; by the final chorus, Carrabba is screaming the words. I can remember so vividly screaming along with him.

But enough about the Dashboard of yesteryear. It’s 2018, and they’re back. How are you feeling about the new record?

Beck: The first single, and album opener, “We Fight,” is a shouty anthem that reminds me a little of “Don’t Wait”—the first track off the 2006 album Dusk and Summer. Both have belted choruses and grand, sweeping full-band arrangements. But “Don’t Wait” has a memorable hook, and “We Fight” really … doesn’t. The lyrics are vague inspirational platitudes— “We never learned to keep our voices down / No, we only learned to shout / So we fight our way in /And we fight our way out”—that feel bloodless compared to the evocative imagery that was once the hallmark of a Dashboard song. “We Fight” sounds like Imagine Dragons gone emo, and for me, it was not a promising start.

Nyce: My first reaction was, “Is this really Dashboard?” Musically, it’s not dissimilar from the band’s earlier pop-rock ventures. But lyrically, it could not be more different. Carrabba sounds like some sort of community organizer for dispirited youths, here to reassure them things will get better. “There’s still a kid somewhere that needs to hear this,” he sings, “that somebody cares, that somebody knows.” There’s merit in the messaging, but the delivery falls a little flat—especially coming from the prince of emo, so often known for assuring us of the opposite. Not to split hairs, but your favorite song—2001’s “The Brilliant Dance”—features a narrator realizing that “nobody cares at all,” sung with a classic Carrabba howl. One could argue that “We Fight is future-Carrabba speaking to that person.

That all being said, it’s very catchy. And it may well be the first Dashboard Confessional song that’s fit for a congressional reelection campaign.

Beck: The Carrabba howl is still good! This album strikes me as Dashboard Confessional’s attempt at stadium rock—many of the songs are way more bombastic than even the full-band stuff on previous albums. But I think the places where the album deviates from this through line are more interesting and, often, more successful.

One thing I’m wrestling with is that you and I are obviously coming to this album as big fans of the band’s old work. I don’t want to be the sort of grump who just wants more of the same, and faults the band for trying to grow and change. But at the same time, this is essentially a comeback album that’s surfing into the world on the wave of good feeling that fans have for a band they loved in their youth. So I want to evaluate it on its own merits, but I can’t help but think of the new music in terms of what it means for Dashboard’s overall legacy.

Nyce: By no means should Carrabba be condemned to a lifetime of teenage misery. After all, it’s been nearly 20 years since the band’s debut. It’s hard to ask him to continue to carry the baton of adolescent angst when he’s a married man in his 40s.

In a way, it’s fitting that this album comes now. Dashboard’s third full-length album, A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar, turns 15 later this year. AMAMABAS (as it used to be called on the DC messaging boards—yes, I was that teen) is the first record that really shows off Carrabba’s range. AMAMABAS introduced us to Carrabba as more than the guy who just got dumped. The lead single, the inimitable “Hands Down,” is arguably the first happy song on a Dashboard record. Back in 2003, The New York Times called it “a sly rejoinder to listeners who dismiss Mr. Carrabba as a one-dimensional whiner peddling second-hand heartbreak.”

The subsequent albums add even more dimensions, hitting more pop-rock notes. This latest album seems to build on the most recent one, Alter the Ending. Crooked Shadows feels very of-the-moment. (Is that a millennial whoop I hear on the album’s title track?) But I worry some of the pithier elements of his earlier music—like winking asides about how he’s going to “get some” on “Hands Down”—have been lost here. Some of the lyrical observations are a little bubblegum for my taste. Still, I could see my teenage self blasting a few of the later tracks.

Beck: I definitely agree that Crooked Shadows seems to follow on the heels of Alter the Ending (which I didn’t think was their best work either), but it turns up the rock dial even more. And I just don’t think it works very well. It doesn't help that many of the Imagine Dragons–esque numbers are also lyrically limp—you get choruses like “I’m always going to be about us” or “We’re going to be all right.” It feels like taking the broadest generalities and trying to make them specifically relatable, which is the inverse of what Dashboard was good at. AMAMABAS was definitely their breakout hit, like you said, but the first two albums—The Swiss Army Romance and The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most—had more of a rawness to them that felt particularly intimate, and that intimacy is what’s missing for me on much of Crooked Shadows.

Of the stadium rock numbers, I like “Catch You” the best—it’s got a boppy little hook. But I much prefer the songs that aren’t aiming to fill an arena. The lick on “Heart Beat Here” is classic Dashboard, infused with just a bit of folk energy that may be leftover from Twin Forks—the Americana band that Carrabba has fronted since 2011.

But we need to talk about “Belong”—the collaboration with the EDM DJ group Cash Cash. It’s easily the most jarring song. Dashboard gone dance pop is not something I ever thought I’d live to hear. But the more I listen to it the more it honestly works for me! Do you think I’m insane?

Nyce: I’m certainly not one to judge. Cash Cash’s 2013 “Take Me Home,” featuring Bebe Rexha, was a mainstay of my guilty pleasures playlist for longer than I care to admit. It’s interesting to see the group’s take on Dashboard. In a way, “Belong” is an electronic-infused “Hands Down” for the Coachella set. It’s bouncy and optimistic, despite being a bit simplistic as far as love narratives go. The music video for the track features a Dashboard fangirl obsessing over Carrabba. At one point, she begins to project her fantasies onto him, literally, using a mannequin and projector. I was slightly offended, but, to employ that Twitter cliche, I feel seen.

Also, I definitely felt the folk undertones you’re describing with “Heart Beat Here.” It reminded me a little of The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey.” Overall, this isn’t my favorite Dashboard record, but it was never going to be. I’ve grown up and so has the band: We’re both a lot less angst-ridden. Like you, I wish the earlier songs had more bite, but I found some relief on the latter half of the album.

Beck: It’s true—when I was younger I loved Dashboard with the unbridled fervor only a teen can, and this was always going to be a different sort of experience. Just when I was ready to write Crooked Shadows off as a bit of a let-down—some fun moments, sure, but nothing that spoke to me in that distinctly Dashboard way—the album finishes with a perfect, lovely gem of a song. “Just What To Say” (featuring Chrissy Costanza) is Carrabba at his best, delicately tracing the contours of a familiar feeling, and it’s truly moving. His voice is quiet and wavers a little as he delivers an unadorned lament of trying and falling short:

My friends all believe me
When I say I’m busy with pretty big things
I cancel most plans
I hurt someone’s feelings
I feel like I’m starting
And just when I’m starting, I’m starting to stray
And every day, I take a white page
And try very hard to know just what to say

This is not the teen angst of the old Dashboard; it’s a heavy, adult melancholy, and it sits with you. “Just What To Say” is the best song on the album, and it proves that Carrabba does still have something to say.

Nyce: That stanza stood out to me as well—the line about canceling plans is an interesting foil to his earlier lyrics about being lonely in an empty apartment. The Carrabba of yesteryear felt isolated; the older one isolates himself. Fans of the older stuff will certainly feel at home with that track. I also enjoyed the mellower “Open My Eyes,” featuring Lindsey Stirling. Like you, I preferred the latter half over the more stadium-rock tracks.

I’d note this album is relatively short, with only nine songs and around 30 minutes of running time. Here’s one question that I’m still torn on: Is this emo?

Beck: Wow. You’re really asking the hard questions here. I don’t … know. Emo was always such a vague and wide-ranging label (and one many emo bands wouldn’t use to describe themselves). It was sort of like beauty (in the eye of the beholder) or porn (you knew it when you saw it). For me, the genre feels very bounded in time, a certain quality distinctive to the late ’90s and 2000s. Even the contemporary bands and singers I like who have been dubbed part of the emo revival—Julien Baker, Hop Along—don’t feel emo to me. Influenced by the genre, sure, but I think the door to that era shut a while ago.

By this logic the new Dashboard album poses a taxonomic conundrum—Carrabba’s voice still has that emo flavor, and Dashboard Confessional is the canonical emo band, but the new songs feel very modern. The band seems to be aiming at something a little different with this album. So I’m going to say no. Not quite emo.

If you had to pick, would you say Crooked Shadows is emo or no?

Nyce: I’d have to say no. With this album, Dashboard drifts further from that genre it came to define. And I’m not so sure that plays to Carrabba’s strengths. Still, Crooked Shadows has its moments, even if it doesn’t force the kind of introspection their earlier records do.

I’m planning on attending the band’s Crooked Shadows tour this spring, and am very interested in how these new songs mesh with the old ones on a set list. One could imagine it being a very disjointed experience.

Beck: I know you are—I’m going with you! It might end up being a strange mishmash of the old and the new, but Dashboard has always been great live, because Carrabba treats the audience with such earnest devotion. I’m really looking forward to it, and just so you know, I am absolutely, positively 100 percent going to cry.