Maybe it’s time to let this era of refried emo peacefully pass away.
Dashboard Confessional’s version of emo-punk wasn’t the most cutting edge among its peers. It didn’t have the terminal black comedy of Panic! At the Disco, the impossible pipes of Fall Out Boy nor the campy self-aggrandizement of My Chemical Romance. But it did have heart, damn it, and enough songwriting smarts that Michael Stipe even joined Dashboard mastermind Chris Carrabba on stage to sing “Hands Down.” But those days are long gone. It’s been eight years since the last Dashboard album and Carrabba seems to have jammed his ears full of the modern pop clichés. Crooked Shadows is the safest album of 2018, proof that all albums in the future will speed toward the Mumford and Sons, Imagine Dragons and Ed Sheeran singularity where electronic, folk and pop are terminally indistinguishable.
Though every piece of Crooked Shadows is overproduced, Carrabba’s voice suffers the most. He always had the perfect choir boy tenor, but there was fury, lust and anger there, all of it now eroded away by safety. To join his too polished voice, the anthemic choruses are more than formulaic, they’re prefabricated. Outside of the admittedly pretty cool minor key bridge on “We Fight,” no musical choice here lands with even an ounce of surprise.
Every song on Crooked Shadows has been molded to be half hummed while scanning top 40 radio, not because the songs themselves are catchy but because they are facsimiles of better songs. “Belong” is Imagine Dragons without the low-end oomph. The title track is, somehow, an even more washed out version of Jonah and the Lion’s shrug of a song “Take it All Back.” “Heartbeat Here” is a B-side from Carrabba’s folk band Twin Forks, and with that folky flourish that shows up a few times, he comes out a loser, a pale imitation of Cloud Cult. Thankfully, most of the lyrical fluff is just general faffery rather than eye-rolling schlock. Though “Well I’m no angel, but I’m willing to watch over you” has the audacity to be a main part of “Catch You”’s chorus. The production is Stepford Wives pristine, all notions of grit, sex or emotion replaced.
At a slight nine songs, Crooked Shadows doesn’t even have the will power to be ambitiously bad. Instead, it’s recycled and rendered its former screaming soul into some CEO’s idea of what “emo” is. Even Hot Topic has more of an edge than this, and appropriately it ends with a whimper. “Just What to Say” lands alongside Justin Timberlake’s Man of the Woods as some of the emptiest pop of the year, threatening to climax but rolling over into sleep instead.
It’s not that there aren’t fantastic examples of what ‘10s emo can be. Modern Baseball, Hop Along and The World is a Beautiful Place carry on Carrabba’s tradition with aplomb while taking on modern sensibilities. Latter-day Panic! will be vociferously defended here, but with the newest Fall Out Boy flopping, the horrifying revelations about Brand New and finally, this album, maybe it’s time to let this era of refried emo peacefully pass away.