You remember the old saying: You lie down with jammers, you get up with marmalade. Or, if not that, then maybe there’s some similar aphorism that applies to the situation of Dawes, the L.A. group that has earned some support on the jam-band circuit, such as it is, without ever actually being a jam band. Until now, that is: “Misadventures of Doomscroller,” the group’s eighth album in a prolific 13-year run, makes it clear that all that proximity to expansiveness has finally rubbed off in a record that means to end no song before its time.
It’s the biggest left turn that Dawes has made on record yet, although at its heart, “Doomscroller” doesn’t really stray far from the rock singer-songwriter template that has always been at the band’s heart. Each of the band’s albums up till now has had its own innate personality, and you could be sure if fans thought one record was a little too acoustic and contemplative, the next one would lean more toward crunchy, concise power-pop, or something equally non-repetitive. But the band has never been much about stretching out on record before, with the notable exception of the nearly 10-minute “Now That It’s Too Late, Maria,” which closed out the “All Your Favorite Bands” album six years ago. That particular ballad was epic just because. Goldsmith had a lot of verses to get off his chest. On “Doomscroller,” though, the songs all run long (save for a quickie instrumental), not so Goldsmith can squeeze extra aphorisms in, but to let the band play.
It’s like their recent moonlighting gig, of playing as accompanists with the Dead’s Phil Lesh, had turned them into lushes for latitude. That may make the new album an acquired taste for fans who’d come to value Dawes’ penchant for concision over almost a decade and a half, but take this testimonial on faith, if you will — “Doomscroller” makes a lot more sense on about the fourth or fifth listen, and may even stand one of their most enjoyable collections, if you take your musical ADHD meds beforehand. The material almost all benefits from having a little room to move. And just as Goldsmith sings “There’s a Joke in There Somewhere” near the end of the record, there’s a fairly tight song in there somewhere with a lot of these numbers — one that isn’t diminished by the players also having their way with riffs that build upon riffs or a longer guitar solo or three than you’ve heard from them off-stage before.
Producer Jonathan Wilson has committed himself to a fairly severe aesthetic with the sound of the record, presumably with Goldsmith’s eager assent. However this beautifully retro effect might actually have been achieved, there’s not a moment on it that doesn’t sound like it was recorded live in the studio in 1974, with the reverb turned way off and the drummer putting a towel inside the bass drum just in time for the band to let it rip. Getting more specific than just the perceived analog-ness of it all, stylistically, some listeners may think of the Dead at certain moments, for obvious associative reasons. But I tend to think of “Doomscroller” harking back to that sweet, strange intersection when yacht-rock and prog-rock briefly had some overlap in the 1970s’ Venn diagram, or when a record by a sweet-voiced Jackson Browne sound-alike might suddenly be interrupted by a jazz-fusion-y interlude, just because everybody in the studio got bored hiding their chops under a bushel.
If you have an aversion to suites, rest assured that the only one here that fits that definition is the album’s opener, and first “single,” the roughly 10-minute “Someone Else’s Cafe/Doomscroller Tries to Relax,” which rather transparently welds together two completely different songs — or three, if you include the long instrumental passage in the middle as its own number, as you probably should. It’s not as if the Beatles didn’t have a history of pasting together great songs from John and Paul’s separate scraps, but the seams just don’t disappear on this one, even if all three segments are pretty impressive on their own. That especially goes for the effortlessly lovely sing-along at song’s end: “So let’s enjoy each other’s company / On the brink of our despair / Does someone have a song to sing / Or a joke that they could share?” As the Goldsmith brothers’ blood harmonies aim to stave off the apocalypse, it’s as if they’re soundtracking the dinner-table climax of “Don’t Look Up.”
The album’s other songs earn their extra-ness a little more honestly, or at least cohesively, even if they’re not quite as inherently fun as a messy all-out medley. You aren’t necessarily keeping your eye on the clock as Dawes launches into what often starts out as a fairly conventional rock album track, only to have an oddball guitar riff that’s introduced along the way suddenly spin off in its own instrumental direction a few minutes in, like the Chekhovian gun that’s introduced in the first act going off in the third.
There’s plenty of variety to go around, even on a record without very many tracks on it. “Comes in Waves” introduces Beach Boys-like harmonies over an “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”-style rhythm, before the acoustic elements give way to a climactic guitar solo that can only be described, flatteringly, as Rundgren-esque. You get moments that feel a little bit Pablo Cruise, a little Pink Floyd. The most anxiously high-energy song, “Ghost in the Machine,” a tune about the band’s origins in the L.A. club scene, ironically sounds more Southern than Southern-Californian — kind of like the Allman Brothers Band’s “One Way Out,” if the Allmans had grown up in Louisiana instead of Georgia.
“Everything Is Permanent,” one of the album’s two best songs, is Taylor Goldsmith’s treatise on the digital age, and it makes you wonder if, subliminally or consciously, the long song lengths here are his response to the prospect of a never-to-end era of short-attention-span theater that lays before us. Sure, there is a bit of an element of “old man yells at cloud” to it, but this 36-year-old old man does have a point: He’s just old enough to have grown up in a time when not everything went on your permanent record, with every tweet preserved like something designed for archiving in the Library of Congress, from “the people you’ve forgotten you kissed” to “a wayward strand of anger at some controversial stranger who swears the virus didn’t exist.” The repeated vocal coda sounds tender — maybe just because his voice naturally does — even if the content is cranky: “Did you really need to cry, or be seen crying?” he asks a nation of influencers … that is probably not going to pick up a Dawes record.
It’s nice to hear Goldsmith get just a little accusatory there, if not actually snarly, which is not really in his nature. Although he’s far from being strictly a confessional writer, he does seem to have largely given up writing the kind of great breakup songs he used to pen ever since he became part of one of Hollywood’s seemingly most well-adjusted power couples, and more power to him on that. Fortunately for Dawes fans, he hasn’t necessarily taken to writing straight love songs either, and the title “Misadventures of Doomscroller” title is a pretty good indication that, along with kicking out the jams on the record, he means to kick around some dark thoughts about the world, some of which go deeper than being dismissive about Instagram. When he makes a few passing references to being in a relationship, Goldsmith alludes to having a partner who might naturally be a little more sunny than he is. “Each morning, my beloved asks me to open up my eyes / See what kind of attention I could pay,” he sings at the very beginning of “There’s a Joke in There Somewhere,” before launching into a laundry list of anecdotal images from everyday life that he remains uncertain whether to smile or smirk at.
Goldsmith finally gives in to a sense of doom at the end — not because he’s on Twitter, but because, in the final verse of the closing “Sound That No One Made/Doomscroller Sunrise,” he’s looking up at an old man in a hospital window whom he presumes to be dying, with “the ominous reminder of the body’s slow decline / As constant as a heartbeat, but stronger over time.” It’s a bit of a morbid way to end an album, but it’s almost easy to miss it because of just how alive and dynamic this 10-minute track has been, with a bravura guitar interlude that employs multiple key changes to accumulate power.
The album title might be a little jokey, but Goldsmith isn’t really playing around about the things that give us existential pause, as it turns out. Also not kidding around, as a whole, is Dawes, on the album where all the members finally get to let their freak-flag fly a little more, or as much on record as they have live. And an album that’s kinda about dystopianism kinda becomes a nice 46-minute tonic for it.