Anxious thoughts disturb the mellow surface of country-rockers Dawes on their sixth album.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. That ancient Greek aphorism is often given as the explanation for such loud musical manifestations as punk and hip-hop. But desperation can come in quieter forms as well.
Dawes are a quartet from Los Angeles, centred on a pair of brothers, Griffin and Taylor Goldsmith. That is where Jim Morrison’s Doors came from too, of course. But it’s easier to imagine Dawes taking it easy in leafy Laurel Canyon than in some beatnik dive on Venice Beach.
In fact, Dawes could very easily have stepped out of L.A. in its post-Morrison-early 70s period, when the likes of Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills and Nash were setting the musical tone of the neighbourhood. Like those acts, Dawes’ music is mellow, melodious, and light on the ear, which doesn’t mean things are always so calm beneath the surface.
In ‘I Can’t Love’, Taylor Goldsmith starts to see the real person inside the one he’s looking at, and finds he can’t love the one he’s with; while in ‘Stay Down’ he deals with a more generalised depression – in the mellowest possible way, of course.
But if the latter tune has a slightly Jimmy Buffet vibe, elsewhere Taylor Goldsmith makes it clear that it’s no longer enough to be wasting away in some 70s Margaritaville.
‘We’re living in the future’, he sings in the opening track, and that’s an altogether scarier place. It’s a place of ‘constant paranoia’ and ‘collective phantom pain’. To underline his unease, he comes up with a grinding asymmetrical riff, which might be the least mellow thing these Dawes have ever played. When Goldsmith sings “there’s a madness to the method/there’s a market for the fear” it’s easy to hear an indictment of Trump-style politics.
But it is also quite vague and non-specific, and if Goldsmith has a clearer message for these paranoid times, it is the more conciliatory one that he articulates in ‘Crack The Case’, where he suggests that differences might be better resolved by meeting one’s enemies face to face, and goes on to describe ‘two versions of a dream’ on opposing sides of a great divide, and to decry the way mass media reduces history to filler between ad breaks. The music has a Don Henley/Bruce Hornsby vibe to it which is nice, but the lyric doesn’t have the worldliness of, say, Henley’s ‘End of the Innocence’. Goldsmith’s appeals to reason and good nature, while admirable, seem a little too benign and ingenuous for the current situation.
He is more convincingly agitated when the showdown is a purely personal one, as it appears to be in the song called ‘Mistakes We Should Have Made’.
Dawes’ records have always had a comfortable familiarity about them, as though they were made for people whose tastes were formed and fixed a long time ago. Passwords maintains the usual standards of polish and precision. Still there’s a new irritant in the mix, particularly evident in some of Taylor Goldsmith’s lyrics. At times it feels like he’s trying to create some comfort there as well, forcing himself to make peace with his foes.
But I have to say, the more those irritants intrude on his comfort zone, the better I like it.