Taylor Goldsmith, frontman of the band Dawes, gives you several occasions to consider his physical or psychological age in “Good Luck With Whatever,” the group’s wonderful seventh album. He comes close to outright claiming he’s having a hard time growing up in the record’s bookending tracks. “Still Feel Like a Kid,” the raucous opener, finds Goldsmith crowing that he still “go[es] three times round revolving doors,” even while facing marriage, potential parenthood and Nasdaq investments. (The album was recorded far enough back that the reference to impending dadhood was presumably a projection, well prior to the singer and bride Mandy Moore just announcing that just such a blessed event is in store.) The punchline, inevitably, is that everyone in his business has embraced stunted development. He comes back to that theme with a flash of wariness on the closing track, “Me Especially,” in which he sings, “Why am I the youngest guy my age? / Why am I still reading the same page? / I know it’s hard for everyone, but me especially.”
And yet, there’s a feeling that perhaps the man (or the Peter Pan) doth protest too much, because he’s spent the past decade being pretty much our most preternaturally mature young rock star. Goldsmith is more animated as a stage presence than Jackson Browne and the denizens of L.A.’s golden age ever thought to be. But from the moment Dawes arrived on the scene with its debut album 11 years ago, there was a sense that he was one of those types we don’t see much of anymore: a songwriter who seemed to have arrived fully formed, with a knack for expressing human-condition truisms in neatly detailed, completely conversational rhyme and rhythm. (That Goldsmith fit all this into impassioned band dynamics in a time when most people his age pick “singer-songwriter” or “bandleader” as a career path, but not both, has always made Dawes feel particularly invaluable.) Given all this dexterity and insight, it’s weird to realize now that Goldsmith is still a kid, more or less, at 34 … or 34 going on 70, just in terms of the classic rock company he’s keeping.
Goldsmith apparently didn’t want to kick off with an opener about eternal youth and then leave that as an outlier in an otherwise pensive album. So the Dave Cobb-produced “Good Luck With Whatever” does threaten us with a good time in frequent spurts, turning down the bitter in Dawes’ eternal bittersweet and turning up the live-band feel. Its recurring ebullience and electric-guitar embrace make it close to a full pendulum swing away from album six, 2018’s fairly subdued “Passwords,” in which you could sense Goldsmith wanting to do something that was true to the reflective, romantic spirit of his then-newlywed status, not peel off from the honeymoon suite to hang with the boys. “Good Luck” isn’t short of depth on that front, but it pays attention to concert-ready framing for even the wistful material, like “Who Do You Think You’re Talking To,” a track you just know had to have been written as a ballad before it got turned into a barnburner. If there was any incongruity between turning up the live energy level and staying true to Goldsmith’s poetic impulses, it’s solved by not just letting the guitars go slightly fuzzier again but also making this album a substantially piano-driven effort, even in some of its most rocking moments, with keyboardist Lee Pardini somehow splitting the difference between the spirits of Ben Folds and Bruce Hornsby.
Once or twice the songs veer almost too much to levity, as when Goldsmith makes a Father John Misty joke (maybe paying it forward from Father John’s lyrical Jason Isbell gag last year?). There’s no danger of his not heeding his own lyrical sobriety along the way, though. And if the new album is short on the breakup songs that once were Dawes’ rueful bread-and-butter, this album’s two quietest songs are among the best Goldsmith’s written. “St. Augustine at Night,” a resident’s celebration of being stuck in a tourist town, is probably the best ballad about how life can turn on an unplanned pregnancy since Springsteen’s “The River.” Things probably hit closer to home with the standout “It Didn’t Fix Me,” in which he details the large and small things that present themselves as salves for a wounded spirit — a guru, an award, a good book, the love of one’s life — only to find disconsolation rearing its nagging head anyway. The irony is that a mini-masterpiece of songwriting this good really is its own quick fix. And it’s a long way from kid stuff.
“Good Luck With Whatever”
Producer and mixer: Dave Cobb. Engineer: Toby Hulbert. Musicians: Taylor Goldsmith, Wylie Gelber, Griffin Goldsmith, Lee Pardini.