On their sixth album, the Los Angeles rockers attempt to reach across the political spectrum, but their noble intentions clash with cloying lyrics and worn-out arrangements.
After the 2016 election, a subset of Americans became fixated on finding common ground with their fellow citizens on the opposite end of the political spectrum. On their sixth album, Los Angeles rockers Dawes follow suit: Passwords explores various means of reconciliation, with political adversaries and romantic partners alike. And its intentions are noble. Yet the album’s sentiments are often bogged down by cloying lyrics and worn-out arrangements. At times, the music feels conspicuously out of character for a band that has historically made tactful, if occasionally bland, rock’n’roll.
It’s laudable that Dawes are writing songs that attempt to push the national conversation forward. On “Crack the Case,” the strongest track on Passwords, frontman Taylor Goldsmith delivers a salient, perhaps naive statement of intent: “I wanna sit with my enemies/And say, ‘We should’ve done this sooner,’” before a sweet lap steel transports that bipartisan summit to a pig roast in Middle America. Later, on “Telescope,” he returns to the detail-oriented storytelling that characterized the band’s earlier work: His character Ricky, a conspiracy nut living in a trailer outside Albany, could be the ultimate embodiment of MAGA. The song is an empathetic narrative of disenfranchisement and a reminder that, as Goldsmith puts it in one admittedly on-the-nose lyric, “It’s really hard to hate anyone/When you know what they’ve lived through.”
Yet Goldsmith’s portrait of Ricky, like many of the album’s most focused narratives, gets lost in slogging arrangements; only four out of ten tracks clock in at under five minutes. “My Greatest Invention” aims for the syrupy sweetness of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” but lacks that song’s forward momentum. Album closer “Time Flies Either Way” talks up the importance of finding love (Goldsmith happens to be engaged to Mandy Moore) when everything else is going to shit but foregrounds a dull, static guitar figure that makes it easy to miss the song’s emotional climax. Occasionally, these lifeless arrangements are resuscitated by flashes of sharp musicianship: The flamenco-tinged guitar on “Stay Down” glimmers with a honeyed sheen. Frenzied, Eddie Palmieri-style piano dances through the end of “Feed the Fire.”
The elephant in the room is the utterly incongruous “Living in the Future,” an inclusion that is all the more confounding for its selection as album opener and lead single. A beefy guitar riff leads to a series of cryptic doomsday pronouncements; the chorus treads alarmingly close to the humorless, testosterone-drenched arena rock made infamous by Creed and Nickelback. It’s a perplexing statement, particularly for these devout students of soft-rock luminaries like Jackson Browne (who have also served as a smart backing band for Conor Oberst and Brandon Flowers). Although it preaches the merits of comprehending what motivates our peers, moments like “Living in the Future” suggest that Dawes have yet to get a handle on their own objectives.
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