Review: Dawes, 'We're All Gonna Die'
Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
So far, Dawes has made its name with a sumptuous folk-rock take on classic Americana. You'd barely know it, though, by listening to the band's fifth and latest full-length, We're All Gonna Die. The rolling, pastoral twang that singer-guitarist Taylor Goldsmith has cultivated since Dawes' debut, 2009's North Hills, is evident in bursts and flashes on the new album, but there's something more sprawling here. Through travelogues, story-songs and a literary quality that's been honed to a cutting edge, Goldsmith and his band have crafted their most ambitious record to date.
"One Of Us" opens We're All Gonna Die with a challenge. Boasting a decidedly indie-rock vibe, it coasts on a juicy, synthesized hook that only eventually morphs into an anthemic rush vaguely resembling Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'." Goldsmith's re-imagining of the Dawes formula goes even further in "Picture Of A Man." In it, Dawes' supple-voiced frontman confesses, "I picked a fight with myself like a real roughneck" — only the man being pictured is the narrator of the song himself. It's a neat storytelling trick in the spirit of Paul Simon; likewise, the bubbly beat and soaring backup vocals in the chorus are straight out of Simon's playbook. Goldsmith's eye for complex, imagistic snapshots takes a turn toward fun in "When The Tequila Runs Out," where a house party that's all about "moving slow and drinking fast" shifts gears into a fresh level of decadence.
As bold as We're All Gonna Die is, it's also understated. "Less Than Five Miles Away" is a minor-key portrait of mortality and survival — involving multiple characters, which Goldsmith juggles skillfully — where "No one ever gives his reason / No one ever gives his name." In spite of its title, "Quitter" is far more upbeat, blending gentle funk and chunky riffs with one of the album's most poetically affecting lines: "Life itself is swimming through your bones." And the album's title track softly hammers home its fatalistic name: "I'm asking you for help / How do you fall in love with anything?" Goldsmith sings in a smoky, soulful falsetto in "We're All Gonna Die," as a lush orchestral arrangement of keys and strings bends the mood toward mournfulness.
Toward the record's end, Goldsmith swings back toward the sound for which Dawes is best known. "For No Good Reason" is a Heartbreakers-like folk-rock gem full of slide guitar and crisp acoustic strums; soon after, "As If By Design" concludes the album with barrelhouse piano and playful, Dylan-esque imagery: "The stars were just holes punched in a shoebox." Still, there's a bittersweet aftertaste, as the album embodies the duality of its title: We all know our end will come someday. That statement can serve as a morbid warning, but also an affirmation — of one thing we all have in common, and of something we should always keep in mind when we sweat the small stuff in life and love.