Before I get into the meat of this review, I have to disclose my history with Dashboard Confessional. Like many twenty-something American males, at some time during middle and high school I developed an unhealthy relationship with Chris Carrabba in which I felt he knew what I was going through, could help me with any problem, that kind of thing. Like any fickle young music fan, he was quickly replaced by others, but for a brief moment in 2001 and 2002, Dashboard Confessional meant the world to me.
This Dashboard Confessional is not the group I loved as a pre-teen. Originally an earnest solo-acoustic singer/songwriter outlet for Carrabba, Dashboard expanded to a full band with 2003’s A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar and apparently haven’t looked back since. Very few if any of the group’s old hallmarks remain in this current formation: the songs have taken a turn for the anthemic, Carrabba attempting to appropriate heavyweights like U2 on “Belle of the Boulevard” and “Everybody Learns from Disaster” rather than go unnoticed, and the whole thing just sounds a lot less personal.
Yes, emo has long been a tag that bands don’t really want and fans try to work around. But Alter the Ending isn’t an enjoyable turn towards pop-punk. There are just too many strange, superfluous moments that aren’t pleasurable to listen to. Carrabba’s vocals (always a talking point anyway) on “Get Me Right” are a terribly shrill and unattractive listen. On the following songs, the group seems to realize this and cranks the distortion on their guitars, and in doing so they nearly convinced me I’d received a Switchfoot disc in the wrong packaging. The lyrics are brief and trite, offering sketches of situations without fully explaining them. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “Even when they said we’d be undone / Take it as a sign / We can still go on / We still belong”. It’s no doubt an uplifting message to Carrabba’s pre-teen demographic, but it’s incredibly uninteresting for people like me that have moved past those emotions. It’s a shame Carrabba shows little growth of his own as a lyricist.
Even more confusing is “Everybody Learns from Disaster”, whose chorus repeats, “We watched the sun burn down / We watched the sun burn down / Into cinders, into cinders”. I don’t know what that means, but cinders are a recurring theme as Carrabba sings “Everything I say / Burns like cinders” on the album’s closing track. Like the rest of these songs, a vague situation is presented in which Carrabba identifies with a generic ‘we’ or addresses an unknown ‘you’. In other words, the lyrics are essentially vehicles underneath which the fairly boring playing of Carrabba, John Lefler, Scott Schoenbeck, and Mike Marsh can march forth. But they certainly aren’t worth devoting a lot of energy to for most people who’ve grown up alongside the band. I’d like to think we twenty-somethings have matured a little.
It’s not all bad, though. If you’re fully interested in pop-rock and just want a CD that sounds good, Alter the Ending is a good pick. Produced by Butch Walker (SR-71’s debut, Katy Perry, and Weezer’s latest) and Adam Schlesinger (of Fountains of Wayne fame), this album’s sound is clean and crisp throughout. Each instrument is clearly audible, and they all sound pretty good. And even if I can’t quite jive with the lyrics, the throwback acoustic number “Blame It on the Changes” is kind of fun for someone like me and, after quite an endurance test, “Hell on the Throat” delivers the sort of insight I remember turning to Carrabba for. The album’s closing lyric, “When the sand turns to glass and all that’s left is the past / I will love you still” is the kind of heart-on-sleeve stuff that feels much more anthemic than something like “Even Now”.
Still, if I’m talking about the production on a rock CD as one of its endearing qualities, I’m usually just trying to be nice. Alter the Ending will probably satisfy the California rocker demographic that keeps groups like Phantom Planet, Switchfoot, and Yellowcard afloat. But to outsiders, its a transparent affair reeking of bloated budget and generic goals. Tony Visconti provides a string arrangement on “Belle of the Boulevard”, and it’s somewhat telling that one hardly notices the strings come and go. Dashboard no doubt hit their mark with this release, but I would not agree it was a difficult or interesting mark to aim for. If this disc were released by an up-and-coming group rather than a former household name, I’m not sure it would earn a second look from anyone.