“There were moments of dreams I was offered to save”
In the fall of my high school sophomore year, I played guitar in the pit for our production of Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, an obscure 18th century Italian comedy directed with a modern bent. For those in the band, that meant the chance to play all kinds of our favorite pop and rock songs.
This freedom was all the excuse my friend William and I needed to allow our rehearsals to devolve into unrelated jam sessions, which themselves turned into our sitting in the band room, instruments on our laps, listening to music on one of our phones. Once, after I played an Avett Brothers song, William said, “The Avetts are good, but they’re no Dawes.”
So began my love for my favorite band.
Dawes is an American rock band that formed in Los Angeles in 2009. Their direct predecessor was the short-lived band Simon Dawes, the musical project of childhood friends Taylor Dawes Goldsmith and guitarist extraordinaire Blake Simon Mills. Abandoning the post-punk flavor of its preceding incarnation with Mills’ departure, the new band’s first album North Hills was a critical success, with music critic Gregory Robson calling it “the sound of something truly astonishing beginning to take shape.”
Since then, it has been easy for some to characterize Dawes as mere classic-rock copycats. Their music has often been compared to a number of American 1970s folk-rock artists vaguely referred to as the “Laurel Canyon” sound. Yet this group is itself so varied in its musical style that to appoint Dawes an heir to this tradition doesn’t do much more to distinguish them than to say that they occasionally—but not always—distort their guitars.
Still, most fans do agree that the first few Dawes albums have a decidedly “vintage” feel. But what does that mean? The instrumentation is rather analog, usually just what the four band members can play or sing live, just as their classic rock forefathers once recorded. The drums are crisp, the guitar is twangy and warm, and the vocal harmonies strike a beautiful balance between technical virtuosity and folky accessibility. Guitar solos are common in Dawes, an aspect of their music particularly noteworthy in our age where popular music features the guitar significantly less than even twenty years ago. Each album includes a perfect mix of softer, contemplative tunes with more electrified jams.
But most of all, perhaps, Dawes’s music is defined by an honest sense of self. In our modern digital milieu, the drive for perfection often comes at a price of musical character. But Dawes boasts a fluid, organic sound that makes you think could do the same thing too if you only put all your heart and soul into the affair. In an interview with CBS This Morning in 2014, the legendary Jackson Browne rejected the simplicity of comparing the young band to their influences, saying, “There’s no real term for what they’re doing. Never has been any term for excellent.”
Perhaps this is what people mean, then, when they say Dawes sounds vintage. For many middle-aged Americans and their children, listening to Dawes can be like listening to the bands those parents grew up with, bands made of seemingly regular people who made music for everyone. In the early 70s, the average music listener turning on the radio was perhaps a little less likely to hear something engineered by corporate giants. Instead, they might have heard someone like Jackson Browne, singing not for the masses but for them.
Right after the final performance of The Servant of Two Masters, my first girlfriend broke up with me. A hurdler on the track team with gorgeous red hair, she had been with me for only six weeks, but in that time, I had fallen for her hard.
It wasn’t love; even then, I was certain that love was something so much more complicated than what I felt for her. Later in the year, I copied onto my personal “Great Quotations” Google Doc a line from Hawthorne’s darkly Romantic short story “Rappacinni’s Daughter” that reflected how I felt: “that cunning semblance of love which flourishes in the imagination, but strikes no depth of root into the heart—how stubbornly does it hold its faith.” No, this wasn’t love, I was certain. But that didn’t mean it couldn’t be any less powerful, any less devastating. With the over-brimming passion of a sixteen-year-old obsessed with the American Romanticism his teacher was feeding him, I was devastated when the hurdler called it off in the courtyard outside my high school’s theater, just a few minutes after that final performance.
I sometimes feel a retroactive embarrassment for my past self and all the stock I put into those initial feelings. On the other hand, what else was I supposed to do? I had no conception of the insignificance of this tiny heartbreak compared to the range of emotions I have discovered in my relationships since then. But it was precisely because I had no precedent for this kind of sadness that I became so sad, and I didn’t know what else to do for a while but wallow.
To cope, I wrote and I sang. Both are activities I had always been vaguely interested in but had never really pursued, yet both are now fundamental aspects of my life. The writing was sporadic and stereotypical, leading to poems like “Alone in the Dark” whose combined earnestness and angst only a brooding teenage boy could ever muster. The singing, on the other hand, was a more consistently soothing affair. Each day that early winter, driving home after track practice, I put on my Dawes playlist and began to belt along. With these regular sing-alongs came the beginning of a love-hate relationship with the different sides of loneliness and solitude that continues to this day.
I had not yet made the switch to Spotify or been willing to cough up the cash for any of their full albums, so I only had a dozen or so Dawes songs on my phone, almost all of which were the slow, sad ones William had first shown me. “That Western Skyline,” the song that opened the playlist, comes to a head with a lyric that sent a wave of catharsis through my body as I matched my whimpering falsetto to Goldsmith’s powerful tenor: “Oh Lou, no my dreams did not come true / No they only came apart.”
But I always finished my drives with “Something in Common,” Goldsmith’s ode to self-discovery both melancholic and hopeful. I strove to remind myself that, as Goldsmith sings:
All the love and friends and happiness that ever came my way
Revealed themselves the moment I stopped watching
‘Cause it’s not faith that comes from miracles
But miracles that come from faith
And I’m sure that they’ve got something in common
I even didn’t care that I couldn’t hit all the notes. In my loneliness, Goldsmith told me that he understood my pain; as alone as I may have felt, I was indeed not alone.
In 2011, Dawes followed up their critically acclaimed debut with the equally lauded Nothing is Wrong, this time with a lineup that would stay consistent until their fifth album. The core of the band is Taylor Goldsmith: lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter. Right behind him, however, is his younger brother Griffin, whose drumming and backing vocals are nearly as beloved by the group’s fans as his mountain of golden curly hair. On the bass is the silently lanky Wylie Gelber, notable for building his own instruments and effects pedals, while Tay Straitharn rounded out the group on keyboard until his replacement by the virtuosic Lee Pardini for 2016’s We’re All Gonna Die.
If North Hills is already an unflinching commitment to raw honesty, Nothing is Wrong doubles down on all fronts. The sound is both more muscular and more tender, the instruments and vocals more masterful yet more organic, and the songs crafted more carefully yet played with even more abandon. Goldsmith tells a story in multiple interviews of when Bob Dylan said to him of the album’s closing track, “You wrote ‘Little Bit of Everything.’ That’s a good song.”
The band started to gain a bigger following through steady touring and increasing word-of-mouth exposure. Their third album, 2013’s Stories Don’t End, includes another degree of instrumental and sonic layers without relinquishing the group’s now decidedly characteristic magic. Though each is clearly cut from the same cloth, these first three albums have enough texture and variety that if the band had broken up then, they would have remained a notable, if brief, blip in the early 2010s rock scene, one of those bands that everyone who knew them would describe as “crazy underrated” or “something so special that it’s a real shame it didn’t last.”
I kept singing, mostly in my car but sometimes in my house too, when I was alone at home or otherwise thought I was. Once, when my dad was home but I thought he wasn’t yet, I ran into him on the stairs while I was belting my own rendition of “Hallelujah” before I abruptly cut it off when he asked me to take out the trash or something. Most of the time, my car was the only place I was safe.
I wanted to sing like Taylor Goldsmith, whose voice has two notable registers. It’s often gorgeous, particularly when he reaches for some higher notes and ends up really soaring (q.v. Dawes’ burning cover on YouTube of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”). Other times, though, he sounds more like a regular guy talking about himself or the world around him. I never entertained the notion I would have Robert Plant’s howl or Billie Holiday’s tenderness, but I felt like I could get to where Goldsmith was if I really pushed myself there. Besides, I didn’t want to write my own songs, though I did try a few times. I really just wanted to sing my favorites.
Less afraid once I’d set my mind to it, I sat in my basement with my guitar on long spring afternoons when final exams still separated the end of the track season from summer cross country training. There I would bang out acoustic versions of various Dawes songs, at first alongside the albums trying to match the vocals before eventually going at it alone. I always went back to one called “When You Call My Name,” where Goldsmith addresses a lover who seems unable to reckon with their own mistakes: “When you realize it’s your fault / But you still give me all the blame / I’ll hear it when you call my name.”
One Friday evening when my parents and sister were out, I stayed home to practice; I must have sung the song twenty times. After probably the fifth or sixth go-round, I hit a note clearly that until then I had only grazed. Elated, I shared my accomplishment through a text to a graduating senior whom I had recently started dating over our shared introversion and love for books.
A month later, when she broke up with me, I was sad but felt prepared to deal with whatever emotions might come. I spent the hour that followed our conversation driving around my neighborhood and through the park where I ran, belting “When You Call My Name” clearer than ever. Lyrically, the song wasn’t even particularly apt, since I held no blame or anger towards my ex. But there was something about the energy of the song that made me feel ready again to move on, an energy that I felt like I was no longer just perceiving but that now actively engaged me.
She and I actually got back together a few months later, just as she was leaving for college, and we had a wonderful year-long teenage relationship that naively masqueraded as an adult one. It ended with her pain and anger when I backed out upon realizing the essence of the charade without being able to articulate its workings. Dawes was never big for us, though, not the way it would be with my next girlfriend. But one thing’s for sure: I can hit all those notes now, easy.
Perhaps the most consistently lauded aspect of Dawes’ music is Taylor Goldsmith’s lyrics. Jackson Browne, himself a universally-acclaimed lyricist, says of Goldsmith’s music, “With Taylor’s songs, you’re rewarded for paying attention to the words in a spectacular way.”
In addition to counting songwriting giants like Browne, Joni Mitchell, and Warren Zevon as influences, Goldsmith is an avid reader, which perhaps explains the level of lyrical sophistication that defines nearly all of his songs. The books he loves spill into his music too. Once, sitting on my couch reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, I recognized a line from the song “Something in Common” right there in the book, almost verbatim: “It’s not faith that comes from miracles / But miracles that come from faith.” Goldsmith doesn’t just regurgitate his influences, however; they are a light that guides him to his own voice.
The best Dawes lyrics take many forms. They can be profoundly aphoristic: “When you don’t know where you are going / Any road will take you there.” They can also be minutely observed, well-crafted snippets of wonderful or even astonishing detail: “Like January Christmas lights / Under million-year old stars / She comes up with more of what is lost / Than what is found.” Most of Goldsmith’s songs, however, find a way to weave both threads together, without losing the character of either. Listening attentively to a Dawes song is nearly guaranteed to make you think about something in a new way. I don’t know what else one could want from lyrics, from poetry, but that.
For my longest relationship to date, Dawes was everything. She was an opera singer a year younger than me who, despite a voice leagues ahead of anyone else’s in the cast, was in the ensemble of a school musical in which I was a lead. She was attracted to my pseudo-intellectual ramblings and frequent noodling on the guitar; I liked her goofy charm and her smile.
Dawes’ music was just one of our connecting threads, but it was the most constant. During the school days, we’d send each other emails with lyrics as subject lines. On weekends we’d drive around Nashville in one of our cars, singing along to our favorite songs. I quoted one of our very favorites, Dawes’ cover of Blake Mills’ “Hey Lover,” when I posted on our Instagram after our night at prom: “I want to ride with her / I wish I sung that well / Just copy, paste, Google search and send it to myself.”
When I decided to spend a year in Bolivia between high school and college, we were torn on whether or not to stay together. On one hand, it was so impractical that it was cliché. On the other hand, as we sang to each other in a video rendition of “Little Bit of Everything” we made just a few days before I left, we told ourselves that “Love is so much easier than you realize / If you can give yourself to someone than you should.”
I don’t think I have ever cried more than I did the night before I left for South America, where we stole a few final hours together between her musical’s tech rehearsal and my early morning flight. To commemorate my leaving, she gifted me a journal where on the first page she had inscribed lyrics from “Rest Easy,” a bonus track to Nothing is Wrong where Goldsmith sings of an unfortunate split of undefined nature. Although the song is Goldsmith’s, reading the lyrics in her looped handwriting immediately made it ours too:
And on the day that you return
Because your feelings get confirmed
And you search my face for the changes that it lacks
I hope this broken heart is healed
And that you definitely feel
That it was worth the time apart to come on back
Our relationship throughout the next year was rocky, to put it mildly. We fought constantly, entrenched in our own separate worlds and connected only through alternating affirmations of anger or love over WhatsApp. Whenever things got particularly tough, I would watch our video or read the inscription in my journal, hoping for the best.
An interviewer with 91.9 WFPK in Louisville, Kentucky calls Dawes’ fourth release, All Your Favorite Bands, “a breakup record without blame.” Indeed, many of the songs appear to address the same person and the same set of feelings. That said, the range on the album is still broad, both lyrically and musically. Among other topics, Goldsmith’s songwriting delves into the nitty-gritty of all the emotions that might lead up to, surround, or follow a breakup, ultimately providing the listener with a wonderfully intimate portrait of Goldsmith himself.
Furthermore, on their fourth release, each band member shines as musicians. Goldsmith stands out in particular on the guitar in a way he does nowhere else in Dawes’ discography, especially on the wailing solo in “I Can’t Think About It Now.” Perhaps because of the decision the band made with producer Dave Rawlings to record all the tracks live, the record simultaneously recalls and transcends the rawness of their debut.
Ultimately the album exhibits a level of craftsmanship and maturity more fully realized than any of their preceding albums and perhaps more than either of their two since. All Your Favorite Bands is a joy of a record that secured the group’s status as masters, even before their sound truly began to evolve beyond its roots.
In the end, love may not have been quite as easy as she and I realized. We were so focused on the “give yourself to someone” part that we stopped evaluating honestly whether we really could. Despite not seeing each for more than nine months, we made it through both my entire gap year still together, perhaps mostly out of a romantic stubbornness, before a summer at home of relationship uncertainty that we conflated with my reverse-culture-shock-induced depression.
Halfway through the first semester of our freshman year of college, we decided that we were asking too much of ourselves and thought it would be best to bring our relationship to an end. Neither of us went easy, but our individual rebellions against the heartbreak never quite lined up with one another. Our respective mismatched equivocations bred levels of resentment, anger, and sadness that not even two years’ worth of loving memories could counteract.
For comfort, I first turned towards the spiteful indignation of “Coming Back to a Man,” driving around my hometown Nashville or sitting in my dorm with the words, “And some people were just meant to be a memory / To be called upon, to remind us how we’ve changed.” In my moments of dogged hope, I would play “Moon in the Water,” an acoustic ballad where Goldsmith proclaims that “Love is for the fighter / Born to lose but never quit / Swinging for the moon in the water.” I even posted in Something in Common, a Facebook group for fans of the band, to poll everyone’s favorite breakup tracks.
I settled on “Now That It’s Too Late, Maria,” the closing song to All Your Favorite Bands, shuffling between various acoustic versions online and the expansive nine-minute album cut, where Goldsmith’s repeated guitar solos breathe extra life into the lyrics. The last verse secures the place of ultimate moving-on-song:
There will always be a part of you that’s with me
And you sure as hell had better feel the same
And now that it’s too late, Maria
There is no one here to blame.
The relationship had been bad and good; it had begun and ended. And, eventually, there I was, ready to leave it behind and take whatever came to me next.
There’s a YouTube video called “Dawes: The Rise and Fall of One of Today’s Best Bands,” wherein two dudes spend twenty minutes talking about the brilliance of Dawes’ first four albums before spending another twenty minutes absolutely tearing apart their 2016 release We’re All Gonna Die. They complain particularly of stylistic change, a different approach to production, and the lead single “When The Tequila Runs Out,” an alternative-rock anthem decidedly different than any other track in the band’s discography.
Many Dawes fans, me included, were caught off guard with the album’s release. Undeniably different from the guitar-infused rock of All Your Favorite Bands, We’re All Gonna Die is defined by piano skills of Lee Pardini and the production talents of Blake Mills, with nary a guitar solo to be heard. That said, a couple listens cracks the album open to reveal a treasure chest of gems not all that different from the rest of the group’s discography, except on the most superficial level. Dawes’ most recent release, 2018’s Passwords, similarly continues the evolution of the band’s style, particularly in Pardini’s prominence on nearly every track. In The New York Times in 2018, Goldsmith said, “To me, it’s refreshing to sometimes break with all the guitar songs to let the keyboards lead us.”
If the most recent albums are ostensibly more focused on layered production, the live shows have essentially become two-and-half hour jam sessions. Their one live album, the 2017 We’re All Gonna Live, is itself almost a glorious homage to the Fillmore East-era Allman Brothers Band. The addition of guitar phenom Trevor Menear gives the band greater flexibility as a five-piece while on tour. Many songs that are only three or four minutes on the record push ten minutes on stage, often with Goldsmith and Menear interacting in guitar harmonies reminiscent of the best Thin Lizzy. In an interview with The Oklahaman in 2017, however, Goldsmith says that the emphasis is not just on heightened musicianship, saying, “If you don’t have good songs, then I don’t care how cool the music is.” Still, Goldsmith doesn’t mind the comparison to jam bands, saying, “I’d probably be honored to be described that way.”
It’s undeniable that Dawes has evolved with the past two albums. Some fans see this change as a negative, wishing they would stay firmly within the niche of their first four albums’ earnest folk-rock. I contend, however, that the evolving sound only brings more variety and nuance to their approach, keeping the beautiful core even when they mix up the rest. Most other fans seem just as happy to be along for the ride.
We sat down just as they hit the opening chords of “Living in the Future,” one of the few Dawes songs that can be truly described as a banger, to use modern parlance. It was my third Dawes show, but my first away from Nashville, where Goldsmith had always changed the lyrics “red moon” to “Ryman” in homage to my city’s historic venue. But this was the Beacon Theater; my friend Jacob and I knew it would be good.
Many moments stick out. When Taylor split the audience down the middle to sing the high and low harmony with him and Griffin on “Fire Away.” When Taylor said, “We’re going back to the beginning of the beginning: ‘That Western Skyline,’” and I whispered to myself “I’ve been waiting a quarter of my life to hear this song live.” When Taylor’s face shone as a packed Beacon Theater sang his own song “All Your Favorite Bands” back to him at the end of the show. That last moment in particular I will always remember, because it is a lesson in gratitude.
It was a Tuesday night in early February, so it was cold and I had class in the morning. Still, I had heard rumors that we could meet the band if we stayed behind long enough, so Jacob and I stood between the stage door and the tour bus alongside a nice family who had met the band a few years earlier. Jacob soon decided to head out, but I stuck around doggedly, reminding myself that they weren’t famous enough to need a fake tour bus or a secret exit. Still, it seemed like the entire city of New York walked out of that theater over the next hour until, just a few minutes before I needed to leave to catch the last train back to school, Taylor appeared.
He was carrying a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon; he was shorter than I’d thought. My mind filled with everything I’d always wanted to tell or ask him, but I reined it in. In the space of a few terse sentences, I told him how important his music was to me and how grateful I was to meet him. Then, knowing he was a reader, I offered him a book recommendation. He engaged me in conversation, asking me about the book with genuine curiosity before joyfully agreeing to take a picture.
Before I left, I asked him, partially out of curiosity and partially out of a sense of hope, if he had any advice on breakups, my own still stinging from a few months earlier. He laughed sweetly and said, “Oh man. I was always bad at breakups. That’s why I have so many songs about them!” He thought for a second, “Just listen to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, man. Well, you probably already have.”
“It’s one of my favorite albums,” I said, before thanking him one more time, shaking his hand, and setting off for Penn Station.
A friend of mine once said, “I wish Taylor Goldsmith and his girlfriend would break up so he would go back to writing sadder songs.” Though I would never wish ill on my musical hero, I must acknowledge that many of the finest songs on the first four Dawes albums seem to be related to the endings of his relationships. The drop of All Your Favorite Bands brought something new to Goldsmith’s life, however: a relationship with actress Mandy Moore. The story goes that she posted on Instagram about the record’s upcoming release, which prompted Goldsmith to send her the record for free. This move put them in contact, and pretty soon they were dating; at the end of 2018, they married.
It can’t be a coincidence, then, that Dawes’ most recent two albums explore a much wider variety of lyrical subjects than their first four. This greater topical diversity, particularly in tandem with the albums’ concurrent sonic evolution, has led to some of Goldsmith’s most lyrically dense and profound works yet. We’re All Gonna Die touches on particularly varied topics from existential dread on the title track to the sadness and awe contained within all of life’s moments, big and small, as recounted in “For No Good Reason.”
And his most recent masterpiece? The reckoning “Time Flies Either Way,” where Goldsmith takes a hard look at what he views as his long-entertained illusions and long-ignored mistakes before shining the light towards a hopeful future with his new partner. In a 2018 interview with The New York Times, Goldsmith said, “For five albums, I would create an image of someone that wasn’t true to who they were. I’d be in love with an idea. It’s not an uncommon problem.” With 2018’s Passwords, however, Goldsmith seems ready for a step forward, taking his observational powers more often beyond the merely personal and into the imaginative. His newfound relationship happiness seems to have opened a door for the thirty three year-old singer-poet who, if the most recent album is any indication, is really just getting started.
Towards the end of my freshman year of college, I got back to campus very late one night after seeing the newest Avengers movie. Though I had an early class the next morning, I decided to walk with my friends back to their own dorms, saying goodnight as each peeled off until it was just my friend Noah and I.
I do not know what overtook me, then, but that the wonder of the world all at once began to announce itself. It was drizzling, but the rain had melded with the air into a thin mist that wrapped itself around us like a shroud. I stopped Noah to point out the way a puddle in a sidewalk crack reflected the ruddy emanations of the street lamps that lit our way home and all the drops of drizzle and streaks of light along the slate and stone. I marveled at how the sky was simultaneously covered and clear, like a fifteen-year old boy’s beard. There were just enough stars to make me want to start singing: “And in those fleeting moments, when the stars all seem aligned / It all runs together, as if by design.”
Once I hugged Noah goodbye and began to make my way to my own dorm, I resumed singing, this time from the beginning: “The stars look just like holes punched in the shoebox / That give the creature all the air it needs to breathe.” I kept singing—to the campus, to the sleeping students, to the sky itself—putting a little more gravity and intention behind the words with each line.
When I finished the song, I left my high school friend John a voicemail rambling to him about the same kinds of things I’d rambled about to Noah, before hanging up and singing it again, from the top. I couldn’t go to bed yet—I was too enthralled with the sheer variety of this world, even on a rainy Thursday night in central New Jersey. Though I didn’t know what was taking me over, I knew that it was wonderful and that I wanted to share it with someone else. Luckily for me, the brilliant actor I had just started seeing lived in a dorm right next to mine.
I called her phone and told her to come outside, my twenty-first century spin on hurling pebbles at her window. When she appeared, I immediately began bombarding her with my observations before throwing myself onto the wet grass in front of her dorm in hopes that the chilly April rain would make my body tingle. She pulled me up from the ground into an embrace, and we hugged each other with what I hoped were the seeds of love. I held onto her as I alternated between babbling about all the undercover beauty around us and kissing her head, itself covered with raindrops that percolated then dissolved to make her golden hair shimmer.
When she started contributing her own thoughts regarding the inane brilliance of the trash bags stacked next to some nearby steps, I looked into her eyes through her adorable glasses and couldn’t help but think of another Dawes lyric:
At the height of this confusion
That’s when your eyes met mine
I caught a small glance of salvation
Staring back at me
Even though I’d listened to Stories Don’t End weekly for five years, that night I finally realized how so many endings lead, eventually, to new beginnings, and how my life has been and will continue to be a chain of fortunes both dismal and wonderful. I may not know where this story of mine will lead, but I do know that wherever I end up going, I’ve already found my perfect soundtrack.
It’s times like that rainy spring night when the world around me seems to coalesce to encapsulate my heart. If I pause, just for the length of a Dawes song, I can have the chance to marvel at it all. Perhaps, if I lose myself long enough, I can let it carry me away.