My immediate thought when hearing the new Kid Dakota album —and just because it’s not original doesn’t mean it’s not apt—was of Death Cab for Cutie. That group’s been in the news recently for its divisive new album, which is only unfortunate in that it more strongly invites comparisons that have been previously made. Not that the Minnesota duo seem to care much. Singer-songwriter Darren Jackson’s songs have always been widescreen—and have had that quick switch between intimacy and pummeling guitars that has become a parody point of emo music. It’s just that, now, they seem to have been sidetracked from the potential, glimpsed in The West is the Future, of becoming a band as epic and overpowering as My Chemical Romance. But the dark pageantry of their last album seems to be drained, somewhat, on A Winner’s Shadow. It’s almost like the band’s standing to one side as Jackson indulges in a wail of self-pity.
When you begin to see the cracks in a particular genre, it’s difficult to rebuild that sense of power and magic it once held. Which may be why evaluating this is difficult, now that I no longer regularly listen to Kid Dakota’s bombastic style of music. In fact, much of A Winner’s Shadow may resonate strongly with (god, am I really saying this?) a younger audience. The group cannily uses dynamic shaping and textural oppositions to maximise the inherent drama of their songs. So on “Stars”, a rousing, intuitive piece, a crescendo reaches a satisfying wall of guitar noise cut through with buzzing studio effect; on “Downfall”, a more ambitious, seven minute epic, the darker tone effectively portrays the desolation of the song’s subject.
At the same time, the songwriting on A Winner’s Shadow occasionally fails to ignite. A number of the songs choose easy melodies in their chorus, backed by traditional chord progressions. The familiarity of the harmonies makes listening to the album strangely flat; and although the intensity of the vocal feeling are part of the appeal, the music’s emotional language isn’t completely communicated. This is partly due to the mastering, which has leveled Jackson’s voice, and partly to the songwriting itself, which often pairs long, held-out vocal lines with mid-tempo guitar chug. But when you’re singing about taking a Greyhound bus to New York and then the subway downtown from Port Authority (“Port Authority”—and there’s not much more to the lyrics than just that), it’s not difficult to see how emotion might come to appear manufactured.
A pair of more relaxed songs in the middle of the album paint A Winner’s Shadow‘s themes more clearly. The album’s about journeys, from and to New York, among other places. In one, Jackson talks about getting clean in Mexico—an arresting image of replacing all his blood through a transfusion (“Transfusion”); in the next, about buying drugs and feeling lonely (“Puffy Jackets”). Stripped of the studio fanfare, the vulnerability and genuine ache at the heart of these songs more easily comes through, which is to Kid Dakota’s advantage.
They may not have captured their bombastic potential, and they may still be channelling that Death Cab vibe, but Kid Dakota’s still staking some sort of claim for their own emotional territory. But you know, Okkervil River used to be just brilliantly bombastic (“Westfall”, e.g.) and not a little emotional (uh, “For Real”), and they’ve become something much more complex and much more vital. It remains to be seen if this band can get there.