The poetic wisdom of Dawes' Good Luck with Whatever
The opening stanzas of the closing track on Good Luck with Whatever, the new album by indie rockers Dawes, conveys a message that could serve as the record's epigraph:
As far as I could tell
I was the center of the universe
The favorite stepchild of our Mother Earth
And every camera's dream
‘Til something broke the spell
And the cold, hard facts I was hiding from
Were at the mercy of a pendulum
And I was smashed to smithereens
The album's economical nine songs touch on a range of subjects — a romantic blow-up in a bar ("Who Do You Think You're Talking To?"), our willing submission to online surveillance ("Free as We Wanna Be"), suburban paranoia (the title track). But the emotional heart of the record is found in a series of songs that delve into topics that might best be described as existential: the challenge of growing up, accepting adult responsibilities, and living an authentic life; the delusions of solipsistic self-importance; the shock that accompanies the shattering of illusions and dashing of hopes; the effort to come to terms with limits, imperfection, and morality.
Those may sound like themes more fit for a novel or an art film than a rock album. But Dawes is an unusual, and unusually thoughtful, rock band — because it is led by Taylor Goldsmith, among the very best songwriters of his generation, and one whose most accomplished, character-driven songs invite comparison to the greatest early work of such masters of the form as Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Petty.
Dawes have released seven albums since their debut in 2009, each of them filled with songs meditating deeply on life and love, sorrow and joy. Goldsmith's gifted collaborators — Lee Pardini on keyboards, Wylie Gelber on bass, and Taylor's brother Griffin Goldsmith on drums — back his own adept guitar playing and evocative tenor vocals in a style that mixes the loose, soulful Americana of California rock during its 1970s heyday with sounds drawn from more recent eras (splashes of synths, fuzz bass, and quirky electric guitar effects add color on various tracks across their catalogue). Good Luck with Whatever brings a bit of abrasiveness to the mix, with producer Dave Cobb (Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell) capturing a raw, live edge from the band in the studio. On most songs, the gauzy warmth of the band's early records has been swapped out for an edginess that sometimes resembles Crazy Horse, Neil Young's legendarily scrappy backing band.
The new album opens on a comedic note of self-mockery with "Still Feel Like a Kid," a hilarious, raucous, barroom singalong of a song that introduces a theme that recurs throughout the record. "I just asked my folks not to pay my rent / But I still feel like a kid," the 34-year-old Goldsmith announces in the opening line, setting up a lyrical pattern that continues across three verses. His evenings are filled with dinner plans, he's about to be married, he's too tired to stay up past midnight, there's always a part of his body that's sore — yet despite all these signs of maturity and aging, he still feels like a kid. Only in the song's bridge does he add a layer of irony that confirms he's come to understand just how absurd his own protestations of perpetual youth really are: "In fact, I spent my whole life battling / ‘Til I learned to let it go / That was back when I knew everything / Just a few short years ago."
The theme of willful self-deception returns in more touching terms in "Between the Zero and the One," a mid-tempo ballad in which a woman turns to a Ouija board for guidance about a faltering relationship, as a way "to find their future with her hands." Yet we soon learn that she already knows exactly what she wants to do — and is only looking for some kind of cosmic agent to relieve her of responsibility.
She wasn't looking for a remedy
She knew she'd break his heart
She just wanted to go quietly
Like it was written in the stars
But it all comes out eventually
No matter how hard you resist
That might be a harsh reality
But that's the only kind there is
Reality is harsh because it teaches us that our choices are ours and no one else's. We either face this sobering, possibly painful fact and learn how to live with it or we go on inauthentically, lying to ourselves no less than to everyone around us.
But that's only one of the many ways we can be dishonest with ourselves. Another is falling prey to the recurring hope that something, somewhere in the world — some way of living, some person, some cause, some accolade or accomplishment — will heal us, make us whole, enduringly happy, and content.
In one of the album's finest songs, held together by a lovely, laid-back guitar and keyboard riff, Goldsmith cycles through a series of scenarios that drive home this deflationary lesson. First the song's protagonist goes to a see a New Age guru who gives him advice about "which habits to surrender / And which habits to embrace." It has a good effect on him, and for "the next few days or so / I was feeling pretty good." But then he realizes, "it didn't fix me."
That's the song's title — "Didn't Fix Me" — and in subsequent verses the character continues his search for salvation from his brokenness. He tries volunteering at a charity that has him feeding the homeless and picking up "trash in all the parks." He reads an inspirational novel. He wins "an award that I don't need" that gives him a fleeting ego boost. None of that fixes him either. Not even the affection, companionship, and acceptance he finds in the song's final verse, with someone who "sees the ways in which I'm ugly / And loves me for those reasons, too," can change things in the ultimate sense.
Even though I'm feeling stronger
Than I ever thought I could
It still didn't fix me
It didn't fix me
It didn't fix me like I thought it would
In the most powerful musical moment on the album, the song concludes with anguished, beautiful, wordless vocalizations from Goldsmith at the top of his range, as guitar, organ, and piano rise up around him, giving expression to the blend of pain and exultation that accompanies letting go of misplaced hopes and acceptance of our ineradicably broken humanity.
If there's a rival for the most affecting song on the record, it's "St. Augustine at Night," a whisper-quiet song in which Goldsmith is accompanied only by finger-picked acoustic guitar and occasional hushed piano chords. In images and themes straight out of an Andre Dubus short story, Goldsmith gives a first-person account of a working-class man and his family in northern Florida from childhood to middle age. Characters live and die, shirk responsibilities, flounder, grow apart, make mistakes, harbor regrets, and refuse to talk about them because they're "not sure what good it would do." They also wonder about what role God may or may not play in their lives and their failures, and express a wish that "he'd just point the way to go" and "just start speaking up."
By the end, the song's narrator is left with little beyond the simple comfort he and his siblings have always derived from the town where they grew up and have lived out their undistinguished lives. Nothing brings them greater solace — early on in the song we learn that as children it left them feeling "spiritually still" — than gazing out in the nighttime darkness at the lights of the trucks on Highway 1 and the twinkling of the stars hovering overhead. Feeling lost and abandoned, almost forsaken, the song's protagonist concludes with a haunting confession of self-doubt:
I'm not asking for anybody's help
As I gaze out where the stars dance with the lights
If I'm not sure how I feel about myself
I still got St. Augustine at night
I still got St. Augustine at night
Such poetic elegance, empathy, and wisdom are extremely rare in popular art, but they are abundant in the music of Dawes, and never more so than on their latest record.