It’s an amazing thing when trends recycle. I’ve always found the phenomenon fascinating. Seriously, a decade like the ’70s — renowned for introducing the world to orange shag carpeting, bellbottom pants, Sesame Street, and Soylent Green — can be readopted 20 or 30 years down the line. The whole atmosphere of the ’70s has been reinterpreted with a cynical, ironic wink. TV has That 70’s Show, hair stylists have the mullet, film has The Ice Storm, and fashion has ultra-wide hip-huggin’ bell-bottoms. But, that’s ok; we have irony man. Irony!
I was born in the ’70s, but I can’t remember them. I thank the great culture industry for reminding me what it was like. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on wood paneled walls and glittering paisley shirts. Why, why, why didn’t somebody speak out against the combination of yellow, orange, and brown?
So, it’s not surprising that the music of the ’70s is reintroduced to today’s culture. Sure, sure, the ’80s are also being exploited. But, the ’70s seem to be sticking around. Current bands recycling the fads of the decade: Slipknot/Godsmack/etc (harder, more “offensive” KISS), techno/trance/anything made on a computer with samples (the new and improved disco), Ozzy Osbourne (black metal is chic again!), and the singer-songwriter. And, it seems that, lately, the singer-songwriter is making an even stronger comeback.
Independent music always prides itself in being subversive. With the mainstream music industry’s focus on the ironic manifestations of decade robbing, indie music presents a desperate earnestness absent of irony. At least, this is what I was thinking when listening to Dashboard Confessional’s The Swiss Army Romance. Much like every other independent band, this album deals in girls, relationships, and the inevitable hurt that comes from both. Only, Dashboard’s sound consists solely of a single man strumming an acoustic guitar. There are no drums, electronic feedbacks, or fancy reverbs to be heard. Chris Carraba — the singer, composer, musician, and basically the only member of Dashboard Confessional — sings, “Well as for now I’m going to hear the saddest songs / And sit alone and wonder / How you’re making out” and “Your hair it’s / Everywhere / Screaming infidelities / Taking it’s wear” without a drip of irony. Carraba is lonely, sad, and drunk. You want to hug him.
One is reminded of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, only stripped down to the bare essentials. Carraba wears his heart completely out in the open; in “Again I Go Unnoticed” he talks of the decreasing passion inherent to relationships, “So quiet / Another wasted night / The television steals the conversations / Exhale / Another breath again it goes unnoticed / Please tell me you’re just feeling tired.” In “Ender Will Save Us All” he pleads, “I want to give you / Whatever you need / What is it you need? / Is it what I need?” focusing on the paradox of assimilation and independence in a relationship. How far do I need to go to fit your needs without losing my own? Carraba sings with such a reserved passion, making him sound almost defeatist. He sounds tired, willing to exist within a co-dependent relationship solely to avoid being alone. In “Living in Your Letters” Carraba focuses on the dichotomy of long-distance relationships and the sacrifices they entail, “So I’ll take my chances and head on my way / Up there” ending the song with “Cause turning to you is like falling in love when you’re ten”. Someone must be the child, the other the adult. Ouch.
I can’t help but think of the folk singers of the ’70s when listening to The Swiss Army Romance. Back in the day, singer-songwriter’s were more focused on politics and the state of the nation. Today, we focus more on the state of individual. Even the popular nu-metal dwells on the individual existing outside of the “norm”. But, opposed to their ’70s counterparts, contemporary popular acts exist with an ironic wink. Sure, independent music actually helped make these ironic allusions to the ’70s mainstream. Just look at At the Drive-In and Fu-Manchu, one-time independent bands with ’70s styling and sound, who are now in the mainstream. So, it makes sense that the sub-culture would revert to a more earnest sound. Chris Carraba’s Dashboard Confessional presents us with the passion of ’70s folk singers combined with modern emotion and music. Think of Bob Dylan with a broken heart and the ability to hold a note.
I keep saying that Dashboard Confessional exists without irony. I’d like to strike that. The band has one ironic twist to it. Carraba’s image looks more like a hardcore punk, decked out with massive tattoos and messy black hair, than an introspective crooner purging his emotions. And, for some reason, this makes complete sense. Carraba is the manifestation of every bad boy who was hurt; he makes the I-know-he’s-not-bad-just-misunderstood cliché work.
Dashboard Confessional has been extremely popular in the independent music scene. Recently, the band was featured on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Could it be that the mainstream is ready for the reintroduction of the lone singer-songwriter? Maybe. After all, David Gray had a single. Maybe the ’70s weren’t so bad after all . . .