Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith is a man in love. This will come as no surprise to anyone who keeps regular tabs on celebrity news, or maybe even anyone with a subscription to Architectural Digest, whose new cover story is on the Pasadena “dream home” actress Mandy Moore has created for herself and her fiancé Goldsmith. It does, however, still feel like a surprise to the extent that it extensively reveals itself in the grooves of “Passwords,” his band’s sixth album and the first to be marked more by contentment than a sense of contention. Can the best breakup songwriter of his generation prove as deft at writing about coming together, too?
Before exploring that question further, it’s worth pointing out up front that Goldsmith’s apparent personal mellowing has resulted in a musically mellower collection, too. The single that was first released to tease the record, “Living in the Future,” was a pounding mid-tempo rocker driven by a crunchy guitar riff in an odd time signature … and there’s nothing else on the album like it. If you’ve ever found yourself defending Dawes to friends who think their sound isn’t nearly edgy enough for the 21st century, “Passwords” may not be the album you want to use to further that defense. It’s piano-fueled to the extent that comparisons this time around might be less to Jackson Browne — the mainstay to which all the laziest Dawes reviews inevitably drift (along with the requisite “Laurel Canyon” mention) — than to Bruce Hornsby.
But, to reverse the old maxim about the Hulk, you might like Goldsmith when he’s not angry. Some of the personal and musical tensions that he and his cohorts brought to the fore in previous efforts may be missed on a first listen, but Goldsmith hasn’t completely moved through the 12 steps in his recovery from eloquent relational neuroticism. And to the extent that he’s looking at a light at the end of his tunnel with some uncharacteristic proclamations of undying love and devotion, that’s also leading him to write about his relationship to the world in a way that addresses issues of forgiveness and empathy without much in the way of treacle attached. If you have just enough residual idealism that you think you might enjoy even a temporary respite from our collective growl in 2018, “Passwords” feels a bit like one of those Records We Could Use Right Now.
Goldsmith waits a while into the album to reveal his smitten side. The band’s warier or more caustic side is reestablished up front on “Living in the Future,” which gets just present-tense enough to go topical with lines like “It’s that constant paranoia/It’s the final fire drill/And if you won’t sing the anthem/They’ll go find someone else who will…/There’s a market for the fear.” The lilting quality of Dawes’ acoustic side kicks in with the second number, “Stay Down,” which lives up to its name with a curious chord progression in the otherwise sprightly chorus that does drift downward. It’s a gentle advisory about the usefulness of taking a break from socializing and other obligations in the wake of a breakup.
The album’s best track, “Crack the Case” — in which those “End of the Innocence” Hornsby-isms go into serious, ruminative effect — is a sprawling attempt to look at how to exercise radical compassion on the lowest, most local side. What starts with an apparent complaint about how unlikely Goldsmith feels it is he’ll be understood in media interviews unfolds into a sympathetic lament about the near-impossibility of walking in anyone else’s moccasins, and the complete necessity of trying: “It’s really hard to hate anyone, when you know what they’ve lived through,” he sings, echoing the old maxim about needing to be kind because everyone is fighting an unseen war. There’s an extensive verse about a woman who’s considering divorce after discovering her husband’s dalliance (“His second life as a talent scout finally got him caught”), before a voice compels her to consider the entire chain of brokenness. Goldsmith’s cry to “call off the cavalry” feels like the antithesis of a moment when everyone on any side is declaring zero tolerance … but it’s a wish that feels a lot more therapeutic than hippieish.
Producer Jonathan Wilson, who produced the band’s first two albums, returns to the job here. And while other recent helmers seemed to want to emphasize some rough edges in Dawes’ determinedly mainstream sound, Wilson doesn’t seem at all concerned with de-prettifying the ballads or spotlighting the instrumental solos that’ll make some of these tunes feel more dynamic on tour. He does a splendid job of recording the tricky rhythm section tautness of “Telescope,” a look at the enduring effects of childhood trauma. And on “My Greatest Invention,” one of the few post-breakup replays Goldsmith has written this time, there’s a perfect balance of orchestration and steel guitar licks. It’s really just on “Mistakes We Should Have Made” that the album gets too middle-of-the-road for its own good, with a combination of cheesy synths, female-backing vocals, and rigid drumming that feels like an unnecessary homage to 1980s production tropes.
If you’re curious how Goldsmith is feeling about his inamorata, there are three revealingly sweet songs at or near the end of the album you can cut right to. “Once we moved past the initial spark, I caught that first glimpse of the person that you really are,” he sings, approvingly, against the easy rim-shot rhythms of “I Can’t Love.” “Never Gonna Say Goodbye” is also as earnest about true love as he’s ever gotten, although he can’t resist a hint of wit in the final stanza, comparing his devotion not just to “the convert singing his morning prayer” but “the stock exchange for the billionaires.” (Interestingly, at a Hollywood gig on Thursday evening, Goldsmith introduced “Goodbye” as “a song about getting married,” so maybe the big date is coming sooner rather than later.)
The closer, “Time Flies Either Way,” is every bit as sweet — “I saw my boyhood reach conclusion,” he sings about the “sense of salvation” that accompanies his fiancée’s arrival — while adding a leavening sense of mortality to the mix. You can get old tending a sweet heart or being a sad sack, he suggests, so why not make a choice? Some fans might make a choice for the louder melancholia of some of Dawes’ past records, and for Goldsmith’s old Hollywood unease over his Pasadena serenity. But as it turns out, he makes about as good a re-enfranchised romantic as he did a disappointed one.