This week, Chris Carrabba — known at various points throughout his life as Dashboard Confessional — released the first honest-to-god new Dashboard Confessional song in seven years. The song is called “May,” and it’s simple, pretty, deeply felt, and easy to sing along with. In other words, it’s a Dashboard Confessional song.
Dashboard Confessional came along at an interesting time in cultural history. After spending his first few years in the industry fronting the Florida-based post-hardcore outfit Further Seems Forever, Carrabba sat down in front of a microphone with nothing but his guitar and a serpent’s nest of emotions for 2000’s The Swiss Army Romance. What the album lacked in the big, complicated instrumentation of Carrabba’s day job it more than made up for in the most earnestly, angstily felt emotions of that year and most others. Carrabba was 25 when Swiss Army Romance released, but his target audience was made clear in a line from the title track: “We’re not twenty-one, but the sooner we are, the sooner the fun will begin.”
Something else that line makes clear: Carrabba wasn’t writing to an audience, but with them. His songs were written with a campfire singalong vibe, and few artists have been as successful at it. A couple of years afterward as Dashboard Confessional’s popularity eclipsed Further Seems Forever’s, Dashboard played one of MTV’s Unplugged set, and it was clear that Carrabba didn’t see himself as a singer, but a song leader. Fourteen years later, it’s still wild to behold, and much truer to the spirit of Dashboard Confessional than any studio album.
This is how Dashboard shows went: a group of white teenagers swaying along in weepy empathy, shrieking every line of every song. The shows were less like a rock show and more like a church service in which the Holy Trinity was a broken heart, a requited love, and Carrabba himself. He became, for a brief, fascinating moment, the patron saint of the dumped.
There are two types of Dashboard Confessional songs. The first features the brokenhearted “I” and a beautiful but over it “you.” This format is as old as pop music, but Carrabba’s twist was to make the lyrics so detailed that they ended up feeling universal. “She wonders what I’ll wear / she knows just what she’ll wear / she always wears blue,” he wails on “Remember to Breathe” like the words carry the secret to eternal youth. This schtick was even clearer on his hugely popular first date anthem “Hands Down,” which contains the marvelous line: “The streets were wet and the gate was locked / so I jumped it and let you in.” There’s an art to this artlessness. You feel like you’re reading a journal and find solidarity in the sentiment, if not the specifics.
The other type of Dashboard song addresses “us” — those not-twenty-one-year-olds from before — and is full of the sort of pseudo-scientific generational observations that you find on Tumblr today. “Youth’s the most unfaithful mistress, still we forge ahead to miss her / rushing our moment to shine,” Carrabba screams.
Generally, the former type of song worked better, if only because Carrabba seemed to have a lot more experience with doomed love than Millennial studies. He worked an extended metaphor about a bad breakup as a losing war in “The Good Fight,” singing “This purchased rebellion has been out-bidded / denounced and rescinded and left to die / championless.” And, of course, his ode to the cheating ex-girlfriend “Screaming Infidelities”: “I’m cuddling close to blankets and sheets / But you’re not alone and you’re not discreet / You make sure I know who’s taking you home.”
Flames, these are not. There were other bands singing far more insightful songs about lost love in the early ’00s (the same year that Dashboard Confessional played their Unplugged set, Bright Eyes released Lifted FFS). But what almost nobody else had was Chris Carrabba’s astonishing, over-the-top sincerity. He communicated a sense that he was singing alone in his bedroom, and that emboldened you to sing along. He wasn’t singing about exactly what you were going through, but that ended up working in his favor: his audience didn’t really understand what they were going through. When you’re not even 21, who does?
The year after Dashboard Confessional’s Unplugged set, hyper-self aware shows like Arrested Development and The OC came to television, and pop culture grew obsessed with commenting on itself instead of its viewers. The hotly contested second election of George W. Bush resulted in an unpopular war that plunged the country into the throes of cynicism, when comedians like Jon Stewart could get famous by reporting the news through a thick sludge of satire. Two years after the Unplugged set, Mark Zuckerberg would drop “thefacebook.com,” which made Carrabba’s navel-gazing diary blasts so ubiquitous that they became the subject of parody, and then parody of parody, and so on. It wasn’t enough to be sincere anymore — you had to be able to comment on how sincere you were being.
Today, the closest thing we have to Dashboard Confessional’s … well “confessional” tone is probably Frank Ocean. “Do you not think so far ahead? ‘Cuz I’ve been thinking ’bout forever” sounds like the best line Carrabba never wrote, and Ocean is a far more daring (though less prolific) musician than Carrabba ever was. But when Ocean lapses into generational observations like, “Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends / Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends”, there’s a wry nonchalance; a measured distance that makes Ocean feel more like a scientist looking at a petri dish than a fellow teen screaming with the masses.
In 2016, there’s something that feels a little too precious about earnest sincerity. Drake can mourn about how his girl used to call him on his cell phone, but he knows the hotline will bling again. He’s still in control of the situation. Adele knows her way around a broken relationship, but her lyrics are indistinct — blurring out the “you” to give it a more general feel. Adele might “wonder if after all these years you’d like to meet.” Carrabba would “sit around and wonder how you’re making out / but as for me I wish that I was anywhere with anyone, making out.”
Carrabba switched from his sad-guy-with-a-guitar schtick and turned to a full band sound for 2003’s A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar. It would be the beginning of the end of his brief flash of fame, one lead single for the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack notwithstanding. He spent the next few years recording albums that never quite lived up to the bleeding-heart angst of those first few albums. He was 31-years-old when 2006’s Dusk and Summer dropped, and there are not many 31-year-olds who can still tap into the feelings of despairing adolescence with any sort of resonance. That’s probably for the best.
But it was more than just Carrabba’s age that made Dashboard Confessional feel more out-of-date than it really was. It was a culture that had grown suddenly reticent of too much authenticity. On 2004’s most critically beloved album, Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Win Butler mourned the dashed dreams of his generation with “Wake Up,” singing “Now that I’m older / my heart’s colder and I can see that it’s a lie …I guess we’ll just have to adjust.”
Adjusting was not Carrabba’s strong suit. He was not one to rise above his emotions, or the apparent unfairness of life, love and the eternally unattainable “you.” He wrote from directly and immediately where he was at, which made him feel like he was writing directly and immediately to you. That does not necessarily make for the most timeless of tunes, but it is a window into an only recently bygone era that has more merit to it than we’re willing to admit: an era where we said what we were feeling.