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Dashboard Confessional, ‘A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar’ (Vagrant)

He is a boy. You are a girl. Could he make it any more obvious? The answer, apparently, is no–Dashboard Confessional, a.k.a.Chris Carrabba, doesn’t fool around with abstraction.Thirty-odd seconds into “Hands Down,” the first song on his third proper album, Carrabba has already described the feel of his girlfriend’s smooth legs, but just in case you’re not sure he’s talking about sex, he says his friends are”so dumb” for asking if he got some, then suggests that his gal “stay quiet…so we can get some.”

The tune raises some obvious questions–what, a good-looking young chap with his own MTV2 Unplugged special can’t afford a hotel room? But Carrabba can’t do much in public orin private anymore without becoming the focus of intense discussion among his many young fans, so maybe shushing his lady is the emo-icon equivalent of not talking business in the elevator. Those fans–who sing along at the top of their lungs to every song at Carrabba’s concerts and pour out their hearts to him afte rshows–are desperately protective of the guy. Many of them have been wishing aloud on Internet message boards that radio not playA Mark, a Mission and that their summer 2gether will last4ever.

It’s no surprise the kids are a little agitated. Vagrant,Dashboard’s original label, is releasing Mission in partnership with Universal Music Group. The words big pushcome to mind. What’s surprising is how nonchalantly Carrabba seems to embrace his status as emo’s first rock-star-in-the-making. From the Jimmy Eat World–ish lead single “Hands Down” on, this is a glossy, fun album,the work of a fellow who’s discovered that the limelight suits him just fine.

Only a few songs betray Dashboard’s genesis as a quiet sideline to Carrabba’s old emo band, Further Seems Forever; many tunes feature no acoustic guitar at all. While Carrabba’s band attacks tracks like “Hey Girl”with the verve of studio vets, he cops attitude about his crush’s stuck-up girlfriends, saying, “Where I’m from / We live like it’s the latest attraction.” I don’t know what that means, either, but it sounds kinda badass, sorta like one of those Billy Joel songs where he acts like a street tough.

Mostly, though, Carrabba is a boy in love, taking some young thing on a tour of his favorite secret places in “Carry This Picture” and trying to wear down another in the soft-rockin’ “As Lovers Go.” He’s also a boy out of love, sarcastically thanking someone who dumped him for “waiting this long to show yourself” in “Rapid Hope Loss” and dismissing the possibility that someone could be happy without him in “So Beautiful” (“I heard that you were living well / But you don’t look like you’re living to me”).

For a 28-year-old, Carrabba remains remarkably fluent in the language of teen heartbreak. At his best, he hits on universal feelings, as in “Screaming Infidelities” or on this record’s “Ghost of a Good Thing,” which addresses a wilting relationship where “love is like a role that we play.” But sometimes the specific emotional content of his songs is so oblique that it’s hard to believe the Dashboard faithful are responding to anything but the singer’s considerable charm.

That’s emo’s dirty little secret, though: Carrabba himself is more important than the sentiments he expresses. If that order of things (which contradicts the rigorously democratic ethos of punk) isn’t a problem, then he’s the rock star for you, an inked-up Bill Clinton with a knack for making every one of us feel like we’re at the center of his world. To paraphrase his brass-balled pickup line in “As Lovers Go”:You’ve got wits, you’ve got looks, you’ve got passion, but are you brave enough to leave with him tonight?