Dashboard Confessional’s biggest hit was arguably 2004’s “Vindicated,” a song fitting for its place on the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack with its larger than life emotional histrionics and perfectly crafted melodies. It was a summer song of love and hope, anger and despair, and everything that seemed to embody Dashboard Confessional, and in a sense, Chris Carrabba himself, as a songwriter. Yet, he was unfairly characterized as emo’s poster boy, pegged as that soft-spoken, but talented songwriter who wrote “Screaming Infidelities” over and over again until the strings would inevitably unravel. Confirmed by the able but rather flaccid sounding Dusk And Summer last year, it appeared as if Carrabba had done everything he could in “full-band” format- writing some great radio tunes, playing out the stadiums, landing a prominent spot on a big movie soundtrack and entering at regular places on hit charts. The connection seemed lost, at least from an audience’s stand point- the songs were there, but the once prominent affinity between singer and listener appeared rather lifeless.
So how does Carrabba rekindle the magnetic relationship between his songs and his throngs of listeners? Well, as cliché as it first sounds, returning to his roots has produced some truly wondrous results. The Shade of Poison Trees is the first time since 2001’s The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most that Carrabba has appeared without the distinct air of trying to sound as big as possible, and what’s most clear upon listening is how connected he appears again. From the opening strums of the rather dapper “Where There’s Gold,” Carrabba’s songwriting once again takes center stage- literally, as all the enhancements of his more recent work are all but gone. Replacing the loud guitars and in-studio twiddlings is this re-found envy of every heart-sleeved boy dreaming of writing that perfect song for that (not so) perfect girl.
Songs like the achingly beautiful “The Shade of Poison Trees,” and the fuller sounding “Clean Breaks” and “I Light My Own Fires Now,” prove that he really doesn’t need anything but himself and a guitar to write a great song. Even on the tracks where Carrabba reaches for more conventional ground (like the peppy single “Thick As Thieves” or the U2-sounding “The Rush”) he is able to find the right balance between pop and lonely bedroom melodrama. Carrabba has always had a more caustic tone to his writing- straying away from more conventional lyrical overtures and formulaic expressions of love and bitterness- and it once again takes shape on his latest; see the refrain in “Where There’s Gold”; “Where there’s gold / there’s a gold digger.” Similarly, the album’s most interesting track is an example of Carrabba eschewing his own blueprint- shifting the viewpoint away from first person narrative to more observant of outlooks in “Matters of Blood and Connection,” a tale about a charlatan who parades with the working class while hiding his/her true blue blood upbringing. Its anecdote is sound; “With daughters and sons of privileged elite / The fortunes from shipping and industry / The futures in yacht clubs and tales / So why do you speak with that accent now / Everyone knows you’re moonlighting here” and a welcome curve from the conventional Dashboard lyrical imagery.
Musical growths aside, the best parts of the album are undoubtedly the moments that are most personal because it seems as if Carrabba has once again found his place in his craft. The deeply personal songs, like the aforementioned “The Shade of Poison Trees,” and the grand closing of “The Widows Peak,” perform in unison with his more outreaching numbers- working seamlessly together. Collectively, The Shade of Poison Trees is stellar, and the best work Carrabba has done since The Swiss Army Romance.