We are all constantly searching for something of ourselves in the music we listen to. We’re searching for something honest and true that we can pick out and point at and say, “Hey, I understand.”
The best artists, those whose names are enshrined in Cleveland, plastered on the walls of diehards, and abundant in the iTunes libraries, CD, and record collections of large swaths of the population, are those who are able to create something ephemeral and personal and turn it into something timeless and universal. The names of Dylan, Springsteen, and Young mentioned with hushed reverence because they possess that special talent for songwriting, because they can write something that people understand on a deeper level.
Each year millions of people seek to join the ranks of those elite (your humble author included). They pick up a guitar, turn three chords around, and share a feeling as best they can. For some this exercise is cathartic, for others its an attempt at celebrity, for the vast majority, however, it is simply recreation—as the chance they become the next great American songwriter is as likely as them piloting the next space shuttle.
There are a few bright young talents that rise above the noise, however, and share with the world a true, beautiful piece of art. Often, their own moment in the spotlight is fleeting, and they struggle to replicate the majesty that brought them to national attention. For others, replication is possible, but the demands of the hungry public are too much and the artist withdraws from the public eye. Then, every so often, an artist is able to capture that lightning-in-a-bottle kind of mastery more than once; able to repeat it and share with the world a slice of life that is unmistakably personal and, yet, also inclusionary.
While the name Dawes is not (yet?) on par with artists like Dylan, Springsteen, or Young, the young band has, through three albums, been able to put forth the kind of material that embraces the qualities of music (truth, universality) that launched the careers of those legends.
Through the songwriting of singer-guitarist Taylor Goldsmith, Dawes has released a trio of albums that capture what it means to be young, to be seeking something greater than yourself, and to be apart of that something greater. Across each of the band’s albums are songs that any listener, young, old, idealist, or cynic, can hear and say, “Hey, I understand.”
This talent stretches back to the band’s debut, 2009’s North Hills. The standout single from that album, “When My Time Comes”, is a song that boldly grapples with life, death, and understanding. In it, the narrator examines what he has been presented with and even espouses Nietzschean ideals as he fights against becoming the very thing he struggles against (“You can stare into the abyss, but it’s staring right back.”). In the end, our narrator leaves off not with a resolution, but with the open-ended statement, “When my time comes,” and leaves the listener with the feeling of hope for the future that rings so true for youth or is easily recalled from youth.
On Dawes’ sophomore album, Nothing is Wrong, Goldsmith’s progression as a songwriter continues, reaching for more lofty ideals and challenging concepts. In the album’s final song, Goldsmith delivers his finest moment (a moment that was applauded by one Bob Dylan during Dawes stint as his opening band this summer; in the ballad “A Little Bit of Everything”. In this song, the listener is presented with the way the weight of the world can break a man, the way it can drag you down in old age, and how the beauty of it all can inspire something greater than one person.
Unlike “When My Time Comes”, “A Little Bit of Everything” is more straightforward in its delivery, but that straightforwardness belies a Hemingway-esque subtlety to the lyrics. When Goldsmith sings “All these psychics and these doctors, they’re all right and they’re all wrong. It’s like trying to make out every word when they should simply hum along,” he is not indicting anyone, but rather inviting the listener to look deeper and find what makes life worth living among everything humans are confronted with.
In Dawes’ most recent album, this year’s stunning Stories Don’t End, Goldsmith tackles selflessness and what it means to be a good lover in the song “From the Right Angle”. Like most twenty-somethings, Goldsmith finds himself unable to reconcile his life with the kind of life it takes to mean everything to another person (much like the title track from Springsteen’s The River). He heads off emotional crisis by declaring, “From the right angle, in the right light, I might seem like I could take care of you,” giving the unnamed subject a chance to avert the potential disaster of falling for a transient artist.
This sentiment, that Goldsmith is unable to be everything to someone other than himself, is not new. It’s the fear of a young, love-struck teenager in the presence of a crush, the terror a groom feels in the weeks, days, and hours before their nuptials, it’s the quiet anxiety couples feel after years of marriage has diminished the passion that once burned so brightly.
But this fear of commitment, of devotion to another, is not an unending fear, and that is what Goldsmith attempts to say with the final words of the song: “Until all you want is all I know how to do, I might seem like I could take care of you.” Eventually, we find that person who fulfills our needs exactly the way we need we only have the illusion of what a relationship could be. But, like all illusions, there is something more, and Goldsmith is pulling back the curtain for everyone to see.
This complex blend of emotions is not limited to these three Dawes songs, but is evident throughout the band’s entire catalog. Goldsmith has written a collection of songs over the last four years that give listeners cause to think, to examine the words and examine themselves. When the examination is complete, most listeners can take what has been said and say, “Hey, I understand.”
That ineffable quality is what sets Dawes’ music apart from the millions of other artists performing today. Though Dawes is not mentioned among the pantheon of great American artists yet, the band has shown it has what it takes to reach that level; it posses the ability to speak of fleeting, individual moments in a way that is enduring and all-encompassing. This quality, along with the earnestness of the band’s live performance, lend a special quality to a Dawes concert.
It’s a feeling of community among the fans, of a connection with the artist on stage like few connections had before. It comes through sweaty, throat-ravaging sing-a-longs and quiet moments of introspection just listening as Goldsmith belts out lyrics at the top of his lungs. It’s the kind of experience that is worth seeing, and, once it has been seen, seeing again. And again. It’s always special, it’s always interesting, it’s always enjoyable. It’s the kind of thing that could make Dawes one of those rare American bands that transcends generations and continues to create wonderful music for years to come.
Dawes are set to perform at Pygmalion Music Festival on Friday at the Downtown Urbana stage with Kurt Vile. Jonathan Rice opens, starting at 7:30 p.m.