Give Dashboard Confessional this: they presaged the therapeutic indulgences of today’s pop charts by over a decade. When Julia Michaels informs us that she’s got issues or Sam Smith bemoans how every time he opens up it hurts, consider 2004’s “Vindicated,” Dashboard’s contribution to the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack. Recall the enthusiasm with which Chris Carrabba, huffing and panting in the ecstasy of the cathartic moment, bellows, “I am flawed / but I am cleaning up so well / I am seeing in me now the things you swore you saw yourself.” Celebrating his use of honesty as a pretext for justifying personal failings, he pumps his fist while extending “FLAAAAAAAWED” into a triumphant victory cheer. Replace roaring power chords with an icy R&B beat and it could be a Drake song.
If the pop landscape has caught up with Dashboard lately, now it’s the emo heroes’ turn to catch up. Crooked Shadows, their first album in nine years, folds the polished dynamics of contemporary pop into a hesitant, uneven collection of heartsongs that nonetheless ache and soar like vintage Dashboard. Guitar blasts mingle with keyboard reverb, smooth electronic sequencing, and instrumental hooks for post-choruses, punctuated by repeated titular phrases. It’s a calm, gracious album, aiming for palliative spiritual comfort food. Most strikingly, “Belong” rides the kind of shimmeringly ethereal drop that might adorn a tropical house ballad; Carrabba sounds humbled by his beloved getting in the car with him as the synthesizer beams its light. I’m not sure it belongs on a Dashboard album, but the song is lovely.
The album’s grand gestures tank, though. “There’s still a kid somewhere who needs to hear this,” thunders Carrabba on opener and lead single “We Fight,” his voice gruffer a decade later, while spiky riffage and arena drums crash through the speakers with an ugly thud. He’s trying to rally his emo base by praising emo’s eternal power and relevance, but it’s too literal a statement of purpose. So is “About Us,” a grand nullity that is to marriage as “We Fight” is to determination, backbone, etc. Both songs jar on an album that otherwise inhabits a quietly contemplative mood rather gracefully, as when Lindsey Stirling’s violin adds tonal depth to the plinky piano figure in “Open My Eyes” to conjure a hushed, resonant glow. Astutely paired acoustic strumming and sequencer static segue into a swelling chorus on the title track; while Carrabba fantasizes about escape from some terrible unknown fate (“Running side by side beside our crooked shadows”), a pungent riff cuts in midchorus to mimic him.
It doesn’t exactly flatter the contemporary pop sphere for current trends to readily integrate onto a reliable rock band’s comeback album, but context matters, and perhaps Crooked Shadows demonstrates that the succor of so-called adult rock is if anything a better home for certain musical devices than mainstream pop or dance music. What sounds unnecessarily gooey in the hands of Imagine Dragons parses when actually presented as soothing and restorative. Crooked Shadows isn’t exciting like Dashboard at their best, when Carrabba shamelessly exposes his bleeding heart to illustrate the difference between mere sentimentality and the kitsch masterpiece. It’s comforting for them to rebrand and stay the same at once.