Dawes’ Pastoral Passwords

John J. Thompson

It is not good for man to be alone.

So opens the story between God and humankind. At the very beginning, we read that God brought all of his amazing animals before Adam to see if a suitable companion could be found. Adam named them all, but none were quite up to the task of being a true partner. He needed an equal, not just a beast of burden, a guardian, or something pretty to look at. So God took a part of Adam’s core—bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh—and made woman. Another human. An equal. A partner. Community! It was perfect … until it wasn’t.

Passwords, the new album from Dawes, continues to explore the nuances of this universal human condition, as the band has so deftly done since appearing on the scene in 2009. At first listen, it may seem that Dawes is retrenching in a sonic safe place, namely the “soft-rock” environs rendered so well by their mentor Jackson Browne. But closer examination reveals a significant lyrical shift. Although it’s been common to hear vocalist Taylor Goldsmith sing perfectly crafted verses about failed relationships, vanity, and the various and sundry effects of The Fall, for the first time we are catching slightly more optimistic glimpses of love discovered, repaired, or at least imagined.

The set opens with a “ripped from the headlines” riff-rocker, “Living in the Future,” which makes some bold observations about the “collective phantom pain” that we all find ourselves experiencing. “Just look around,” Goldsmith suggests before wryly referencing issues such as kneeling for the American national anthem, our dependence on devices, a loss of privacy, and political divisiveness. That the band bothers to even hint at some kind of answer, which in this case is as small as “shine a little light,” distinguishes Dawes from so many other millennial rock acts and, no doubt, costs them some fans amongst the more sardonic rock critics out there.

The cynics will convulse when they get to the third track, though. The first time I heard “Crack the Case” I was on an early morning run. While its gentle piano, acoustic guitar, and Goldsmith’s practically whispered vocal was not exactly motivational in its energy, the lyric devastated me. He compares the challenge of an artist explaining his work to a journalist to all of the other communication breakdowns that pit us against each other. “I want to sit with my enemies and say ‘We should have done this sooner,’ as I look them in the face. Maybe that will crack the case.” Whoa. I did not see that coming.

But then he gets to the second verse. A friend is going through a breakup after catching her husband cheating. Then “she heard a voice from beyond the throes, ‘Punish him for the life he chose, but forgive the past that he did not.’” Goldsmith then gets to what may ultimately be the theme of the entire album: “It’s really hard to hate anyone, when you know what they’ve lived through, and once they’ve given you a taste.”

For the first time, we are catching slightly more optimistic glimpses of love discovered, repaired, or at least imagined.

There is a generosity of perspective here that, I confess, is hard for me to feel very often these days. It’s easy to find enemies—of decency, of truth, of beauty. And once someone is identified as an enemy, they are so much easier to dismiss. Goldsmith, with the gentle tone of a counselor and the musical palate of an impressionist, is suggesting something much more radical. Something like loving our enemies. It’s downright pastoral.

After several albums of solid folk-rock, the band ventured into some musically experimental territory for a time. On Passwords, they seem to have found a way to bring their more progressive synthesizer impulses to the service of the songs. The result is a sonic freshness that never gets weird for weirdness’ sake. Melody is king, and the band’s impressive musicianship is given plenty of chance to express itself. Though many have called Passwords the band’s mellowest record, it is also their most layered and textural. Back in the day we’d call it a “headphone album.” (That does not mean earbuds.)

Just about every song on Passwords is worth an in-depth lyrical exploration and musical appreciation. Some standouts include “Feed the Fire,” a slow-burner that asks some tough questions about the things we wish we could remove from our lives but somehow keep feeding. “Telescope,” a percussive gem that could have been a collaboration between The Police and Browne in 1982, tells the story of a man abandoned by his father and living with the repercussions for the rest of his sad life. “My Greatest Invention” manages to be the most ironically romantic song while also being about all the ways we concoct people in our own image. Track after track, it’s as if the biblical Adam is trying to find that perfect partner all over again.

“Time Flies Either Way” closes out the set with musical references to Van Morrison and Neil Young in a tune that is simultaneously sweet, sad, and self-aware. It puts a marker down on that point in time when a young man decides to put away childish things and throw in with a partner for good. “At the height of this confusion,” Goldsmith sings, “That’s when your eyes met mine. I caught a small chance at salvation, staring right at me.”

Some chalk up Goldsmith’s increased hopefulness to a newfound romanticism and credit it to his recent engagement to actress and musician Mandy Moore. Maybe it is that simple. Whatever the motivation, Dawes’ constructive, empathetic sensibility and musical proficiency seems increasingly rare in today’s music scene. It may be the most important mantle they carry from their forebears. In many important ways they carry the torch of artists like Tom Petty, The Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, and James Taylor. They just do it without the stadiums.

I had the chance to meet Taylor Goldsmith at South by Southwest many years ago, when the band was just getting started. Their song “A Little Bit of Everything” was brand new and had left us all in tears. “This is holy work you are doing,” I told him, not knowing how he would react. He stopped for just a moment in the crowd, looked me in the eyes, and said, “No one has said it that way before. Thank you.”

No, thank you.

Topics: Music