Sunday Pages: "Misadventures of Doomscroller"
A new album by Dawes.
Our oldest son is a music aficionado. He listens to music constantly. He has strong opinions, and his tastes are eclectic; he is not bound to what anyone else thinks. If he likes something, he likes it. If he doesn’t, he thinks it sucks, and he will mock you relentlessly for your shitty taste. He’s up on everything. He tracks the charts, whether on Billboard or on Spotify. He tweaks his personal playlists. If there is a new release from, say, Kanye West or Phoebe Bridgers or Tyler the Creator, he’ll stay up all night waiting for it to drop.
I am not like that. My tastes are fairly conventional, as the tastes of a music snob’s old man should be. I once wrote a 4,000-word opus about Billy Joel, for Pete’s sake! Worse, I am vexingly resistant to anything new. (I put up the same internal resistance to new books, new movies, and new TV shows, especially in the pandemic period. I don’t know why this is—probably a byproduct of the short attention span of the Age of Twitter—and I wish it were not so.) It takes an embarrassingly long time for me to become aware of a new record, even if it’s by an artist I like. So I’m pleased to report that I am an early adopter to the new album by Dawes, Misadventures of Doomscroller, which dropped on July 22, 2022.
I was turned on to Dawes ten years ago, when making a playlist of songs about L.A. There’s a great one called “Time Spent in Los Angeles.” The chorus goes like this:
But you got that special kind of sadness,
You got that tragic set of charms
That only comes from time spent in Los Angeles,
Makes me wanna wrap you in my arms.
This might also be said of Taylor Goldsmith, the band’s front man, guitar player, and main songwriter. He’s a literary fellow, and his lyrics combine savvy storytelling, clever wordplay, and a special kind of sadness—a sort of nostalgic melancholy—in a way that is extremely moving without being cheesy or manipulative. (That’s very hard to do, and a lot of musicians don’t even attempt it.) In “When the Tequila Runs Out,” generally an upbeat and happy tune, he sings about finding his ex and her new beau passed out on the floor the morning after a raging California party: “I didn’t recognize his face too much [ex]cept for the grimace on his mouth. / He looked a lot like me, he seemed to be in pain.” Yes. The pain is there, just below the surface, in every Dawes song. It’s real. It packs an emotional wallop. And you just want to give the guy a hug—not because his pain is specific, but because he is all of us.
On the title track from 2015’s All Your Favorite Bands, Goldsmith sings about an old high school friend, a party animal of some renown, who left town as soon as he could, in search of greener pastures and higher quality revelry. The chorus is a toast to this long-lost drinking buddy:
I hope that life without a chaperone is what you thought it’d be.
I hope your brother’s El Camino runs forever.
I hope the world sees the same person that you’ve always been to me,
And may all your favorite bands stay together.
Isn’t that lovely?
What happens when you take a songwriter who is that sensitive and that able to fashion songs that harness his sensitivity, and let him stew during two years of Trump and a pandemic? You get a masterpiece like Misadventures of Doomscroller.
I became aware of the new album because Goldsmith was a guest on Wheels Off, my friend Rhett Miller’s podcast about the (oft-messy) creative process. He talked about how the album was a departure—the songs were not the usual four-minute singer-songwriter fare, but longer, with different parts, incorporating different styles. He compared the process to seeing how much you could fit in an elevator and still get it off the ground. He said he knew what he wanted the album to sound like, but was unsure whether “these hands” could produce the sounds he wanted.
The elevator, it says here, functions beautifully, and his hands were up to the task. Doomscroller is the perfect album for this moment in time. I can’t stop listening to it. Musically, it is a fusion of styles. In “Everything is Permanent,” the song they were discussing on the podcast, there is the acoustic-y, folk-y Dawes, but also elements of jazz, Phish, Yes, and even Rush (Everything is Permanent Waves?). The guitar sounds are viscerally satisfying, like when you cut through a loaf of banana bread with just the right knife. There’s a lot going on, but it’s also somehow spare, so you can focus on the individual instruments.
And the lyrics beautifully capture what it’s like to be a no-longer-young-but-not-old creative trying to make sense of the crazy country in 2022. On the podcast, Goldsmith revealed that, since moving to Pasadena—he and his brother, the band’s drummer, grew up in Malibu—he and his wife became friends with Phoebe Bridgers’ mother. This is notable because Bridgers is the artist all of Gen Z likes. Both of my kids have her poster up on their wall. And, like, this Dawes album isn’t even trying to be for the Zoomers; it’s for me and my cohorts, not for my son; it’s for Jamie Bridgers, not Phoebe. In case that point is missed, “Everything is Permanent” begins:
The product of my time zone,
Mix CDs and dial tones.
The song is about, among other things, the generational divide, and how we oldsters are ill-equipped to deal with this brave new world, where anything and everything is put into the permanent record that is the internet:
All the people that we used to be.
Everything is permanent now.
The word “now” at the end of the line suggests that there once was a time, a happier time perhaps, when this was not the case.
This verse takes aim at social media:
These tangled creeping vines
Towards a life you left behind,
And the people you’ve forgotten you kissed.
A wayward strand of anger
At some controversial stranger
Who swears the virus didn’t exist.
How does a child of the 80s and 90s—Goldsmith was born in 1985—adapt to this sort of world? What impact do Facebook and Instagram and Twitter have on our emotional state? How do those emotions express themselves? Are they even real? How much of what we think we feel is performative?
I don’t know where we go from here.
I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel.
The language of the hemispheres.
The lonely server farms.
After the break in the middle of “Everything is Permanent,” a delightful musical excursion, the melody resumes, and the song lands on the sublime final lyric—a ten-word question that could not even be formulated in quite the same way for many thousands of years of human existence, until Mark Zuckerberg came along:
Did you really need to cry, or be seen crying?
Me, I really need to cry. My guess is, we all do.
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