Dashboard Confessional: the saga of the broken heart continues

Former elementary schoolteacher Chris Carrabba’s major contribution to alternative music, Dashboard Confessional, has unwittingly become the poster child for the hard-to-define “emo-rock” movement. It is an honor Carrabba no doubt scoffs at; indeed, most rock music is openly emotional. Musicianship is the haven where a man is free to cry about the whore who broke his heart, and in this sense, Carrabba is the consummate musician and tortured soul.

In his August release, A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar, he wears his heart on the sleeve of his thrift store tee-shirt as if it’s a stubborn stain that won’t come out in the laundry. The album has the distinct feel of a hangover from his 2001 breakthrough, The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most, most notably characterized by his inability to forgive and forget a cheating ex-girlfriend. Instead, he exacts exquisite revenge by penning that entire album about her unfaithful ways and the 50 ways to break a man’s heart.

The difference between Places and Mark is subtle: Carrabba’s moving on and dating once more, but with some reservations. He is clearly reluctant to get hurt again and indulges in a kind of musical manic-depression. The opening track and the album’s high point, “Hands Down,” is an unmitigated celebration of first-date jitters and endorphins. The track is a reworking of what was first released on his So Impossible EP, with a thrilling new climax for the entire last minute. The beauty of those 60 seconds where he describes a date gone almost absurdly perfect has, quite honestly, guided me to tears.

The intoxication of “Hands Down” is followed by the excellent but bitter “Rapid Hope Loss,” a vehicle for lyrical gems such as “Well thanks for waiting this long/To show yourself/’Cause now that I see you/I don’t think you’re worth a second glance” and “I guess that all you’ve got/Is all you’re gonna get.” Carrabba clearly has either the worst luck in love ever documented and history is repeating itself, or serious issues letting go of the girlfriend who dumped him prior to Places. If it’s the latter, it’s not terribly surprising – his fans recognize that and love him anyway.

The fans, of course, are the ones responsible for the inexplicable phenomenon that Dashboard has become. Carrabba’s stint on MTV Unplugged yielded a bizarre opening set of tracks; he himself does not sing his songs, but instead accompanies the audience in a multi-track karaoke session. The unusual part is not that the audience knows every single word of every single song, but that he encourages them to sing their hearts out while he kicks back and strums his weathered six-string. “Feel better,” he seems to be implying to the throngs of broken hearts.

The DVD included with Mark underscores Carrabba’s indebtedness to his overwhelmingly young and adoring audience with concert footage culled from his spring 2003 circuit. It also reveals Carrabba as a complete space cadet in private. He is neither charismatic nor even particularly on the ball while developing songs in what appears to be his filthy apartment. In his hoarse, unrestrained tenor, his awareness of the video camera capturing his studio sessions flickers between powerful self-absorption and intense self-consciousness. Apart from his dark but quirky good looks and his palpable heartbreak (which every 16-year-old fan and at least one college student yearns to soothe), he doesn’t offer much in the people skills department. But I digress.

Mark is an essential buy for the Dashboard fan but would function less impressively as an introduction to emo for neo-punk virgins because it is so schizophrenic. At some point in the next few years, if he wants to mature as a musician, Carrabba may need to get some new material, but there will always be teenagers desperately in love with someone not inclined to love them back with equal vigor. He may not need to move on in order to sell albums, but for the sake of his blood pressure, he may want to consider it.

For example, in “Carve Your Heart Out Yourself,” he addresses a commitment-phobic love interest by making it quite clear that he’s not like those faceless other guys who exist only to love and leave. He woos her by commiserating with her once-burned-twice-shy ways. He sings, “Man, it takes a silly girl/to lie about the dreams she had/But man, it takes a lonely one to wish/that she had never dreamt at all,” in classic “cheer up” fashion. However, he exercises his right to the pursuit of unhappiness on “Am I Missing” with the chorus, begging, “Is there anything worth waiting for?/Worth living for? Worth dying for?” Dissected, it does seem on this album that he believes no one has the right to brood – except, of course, for him.

After all, he is the chosen leader in an industry of therapy by way of music, and it takes incredible talent/luck to get people to pay to hear you pour your heart out. Carrabba, space cadet though he may be, is wise in that sense. To his audience, be it a specific woman or a legion of fellow tortured souls, Carrabba suggests that there are answers but he doesn’t have them, that hope and love are worth it if – and only if – both parties can make and keep a promise of it working out in the end. Ultimately, if you have something to say, you damn well better say it and get it out while the wound is fresh.