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Almost Blue

Peeling Singer/Songwriter Chris Carrabba Away from his Dashboard Confessional Phenomena Reveals Something, but Not Enough

By Bob Massey | Posted 10/1/2003

Dashboard Confessional

A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar

The persona publicly known as Chris Carrabba is smart, good-looking, talented, and successful--everything you cannot be yourself. Actually, the real guy whose mom named him Chris probably cannot fully be these things either, and he knows it. This fact is the wellspring of his current success. But the real guy isn't the persona--but a persona is all you get from a record and press materials. That's all you get from the stage.

There is a certain type of young woman who wants a guy with substance, yet she knows herself enough to admit that skin art is sexy. Especially on skinny, sensitive guys with prominent cheekbones. She's not gonna just hop in the sack with you, pal, but when that day comes the tattoos and cheekbones and sensitivity and flared jeans count. You are being profiled. You will be held to the Carrabba standard.

At any moment any given man may match this Carrabba standard to a high degree; he is sensitive, fashionable, just a little dangerous, pheromonal. However, at many other moments, he is self-absorbed, distracted, slovenly in a dangerously nonironic way, verbally offhanded. Then he is a disappointment to that aforementioned young woman type.

The persona publicly and musically known as Chris Carrabba is a distillation of those former moments, the good ones. They are distilled over many months' time into chewable tablets called "songs," packaged by the baker's dozen into collections, the most recent of which is labeled A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar. These tablets produce a Zoloft-like effect among emotionally unfulfilled young women, who naturally number in the billions. At the moment, only a million or so hold a prescription for Carrabba, but time and marketing will enlist many of the rest.

I'm not being flip or conspiratorial. The real guy named Chris Carrabba probably had nothing of the sort in mind when he first took to the stage with an acoustic guitar and a handful of tunes about heartbreak or its eventuality. But there is a system constructed specifically to facilitate the enlargement of public personae for the purpose of selling endorsed merchandise--records, tickets, athletic shoes, public office, whatever. Even for indie/punk/emo guys.

Carrabba plays into the system, wittingly or un-, in a number of ways. No one's gonna blame the guy for looking good. It's easy to get annoyed, however, by the monochromatic tone of emotional urgency in which he delivers every single climax to every song. Then there's the topical coin flip: getting-together song, or breaking-up song? Nothing else happens, apparently. And for a certain age group, that may be nearly so.

These are not great crimes, but world-class songwriting deals in the complexities, the contradictions, the subtexts. It speaks in the passive-aggressive manner of a tricky, captivating lover. A few great crimes--some danger, some broken rules, some things you're never supposed to say aloud--would be welcome at the Dashboard Confessional.

This thing unfortunately named "emo" is nothing new, of course. It's just a way to distinguish the sentimental songs of punks from those of hippies. Consider Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" from 1971's Blue, the gold standard of a previous era's relationship songs: "You're in my blood like holy wine, you taste so bitter and so sweet/ Oh I could drink a case of you, darling/ and I'd still be on my feet." With these few lines Mitchell effortlessly connects the fluids humans share whether in church, the bar, or the bedroom; every deep drunken discussion you ever had; the buzz of being in love and the sorrow of watching it fade. From these lines reverberate echoes of imponderable space, 20 centuries of spiritual pursuit, various methods of transcendence--or at least altered consciousness--and a beautiful twist on the old cliché of getting drunk on love. So many rich echoes.

Carrabba gets off some good one-liners now and again. From the ubiquitous "Hands Down": "Safe in here, from all the stupid questions/ 'Hey did you get some?' Man that is so dumb/ Stay quiet, stay near, stay close they can't hear. So we can get some." It's a question of Henny Youngman ("Take my wife . . . please") or Lenny Bruce. One-liners will get you a laugh, but the unvarnished truth will get you arrested.

What cannot be denied is an entire MTV Unplugged performance in which Carrabba did not sing a word because the audience sang them all for him. This is inarguably pretty cool. But on A Mark's "Morning Calls," when Carrabba sings, "They need for you to be everything that they cannot be themselves," he might be talking about his audience. Whether with rocker or lover, you fall hard, start a relationship, you feel the buzz--then you get disillusioned, you break up, and you start over, wiser. Dashboard Confessional is riding that upward buzz. You know Carrabba knows it.

You can tell Carrabba is aiming for more, for Mitchell's richness and complexity, but as yet he's mired in those blunt adolescent traumas that seem so shattering before age and experience spread the blame around, put some color in those black-and-white scenarios. Carrabba is 28--the same age as Mitchell when she wrote "A Case of You."

As long as Chris Carrabba, the persona, provides a steady song supply to meet the demand of emotionally unfulfilled young women, and the young men who want to get with them, he will probably enjoy a healthy career. But his audience will be leading him, instead of the other way around, and audiences do change and grow fickle. The good news is that Carrabba, the guy, is clearly smart and wields sharp tools of his craft, so when he decides to lead his audience down a riskier path, both he and his audience will grow in a way sales figures may not reveal.

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