Dashboard Confessional is an unorthodox success story in a music industry of overnight sensations. In the space of three years, Chris Carrabba has slowly made his way from being a small-town unknown to the cover of Spin magazine, and he’s done it with a brand of emo rock that reflects his earnestness, his intensity, and his take-it-or-leave-it attitude.
When Carrabba wrote a bunch of acoustic tunes and released Swiss Army Romance, he did so without any great hope that he would be catapulted to superstardom. His songs were cathartic, a release, and also deeply affecting, and his talent spread by word of mouth as he released its follow up, The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, a year later. After indie label Vanguard Records picked it up, word spread faster and the album sold over 400,000 copies — an incredible amount for a relative unknown. MTV jumped on the bandwagon, and last year Dashboard Confessional became the first non-platinum act to feature in its Unplugged series. The secret was out, word had gotten round, and Carrabba’s music could no longer stay in the shadows.
So now the pressure is on Carrabba to deliver with the whole world watching. Thankfully, he doesn’t disappoint with A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar, an exceptional album filled with passionate, intense, and highly personal songs. Long-time fans may be worried that the album has a more electric feel than Carrabba’s previously acoustic offerings, but the change isn’t too drastic, as Gil Norton’s sensitive production blends acoustic and electric together with ease, creating an album of considerable depth, insight, and appeal.
An old song newly recorded, “Hands Down” announces the new, improved Dashboard Confessional in spectacular fashion. Recounting Carrabba’s memories of a high school party which he proclaimed to be the best night of his life, the song is driven by a pop-punk intensity that matches the powerful recollections of its lyrics: “My heart is yours to fill or bust / To break or bury or wear as jewelry / Whichever you prefer”.
Carrabba’s lyrics are almost too personal to read without an accompanying feeling of guilt for intruding on someone’s innermost thoughts and feelings, and there is barely any let-up throughout the album. The pure pop bliss of “As Lovers Go” is perhaps less emotive, but still highlights the sincerity at the heart of Carrabba’s writing as he pleads with a lover to take his intentions seriously.
The brilliant “Bend and Not Break” may well be the high point of the whole album and continues the sense that Carrabba lives through his songs and gives everything to them. Success has not stifled his inspiration. Instead, a complicated life only seems to have become more tangled, as he screams “Won’t you hold me now?” with a breathless fervor. The acoustic-based and harmony-filled “Carve Your Heart Out Yourself” is another highlight and benefits from the full band sound Carrabba employed. The input of the other members of Dashboard Confessional is sometimes dulled amongst the sheer emotional muscle of the songs, but on tunes like this their value is entirely realized.
The haunting, acoustic “Ghost of a Good Thing” has the powerful message of valuing what you have and to not chase the impossible — “Just bend the pieces till they fit / Like they were made for it” — while closing track “Several Ways to Die Trying” is Carrabba’s cutting assessment of the Hollywood scene: “Pacific sun / You should have warned us / It gets so cold here”.
A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar, is as revealing as you would expect from Dashboard Confessional, but never allows its weighty content to bog down the songs. Instead, sunny melodies and hooks leap out, and the honesty, sincerity, and heartfelt emotion present in Carrabba’s songs and voice mean that, love or hate Dashboard Confessional’s music, you will certainly feel it. How many other bands out there can you say that about?