Ever since his 2001 breakthrough, The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, Dashboard Confessional has been to emo what Moby was to techno, Goldie was to jungle and Nine Inch Nails were to industrial - the handy name that lets outsiders get a grip on a diffuse musical underground. It must be a tough role, especially since, like everybody else who gets saddled with the "emo" label, Carrabba doesn't want anything to do with it. But his unexpected stardom hasn't stopped him from getting better and better. His excellent new A Mark. a Mission, a Brand, a Scar is easily the toughest, most assured music he's ever made, summing up the vulnerable charisma that has made him a cult idol for fans who crave the kind of emotional realness that has totally disappeared from the mainstream-rock assembly line. The songs are intimate, sincere, complex, not too slow, dipping deep into Seventies soft rock and Eighties hardcore punk with Carrabba's whisper-scream-whisper voice.
Although Carrabba's acoustic guitar is still the lead instrument, the amped-up rock production just makes his songs more powerful, especially such great ones as the anthemic "So Beautiful," the fragile ballad "Ghost of a Good Thing" and the sixminute blowout "Several Ways to Die Trying." Heartfelt as they were, both his previous albums were a bit spotty---you had to believe in Carrabba as an icon to embrace the music fully. A Mark is the first time he's let the musical intensity match the lyrics. The guy's still got post-adolescent angst to ventlots of that --- and girl trouble --- oh, baby, lots of that. The best song here is the desolate "Rapid Hope Loss," where he wails the vengeful breakup chorus, "I guess that all you've got/Is all you're gonna get." But there's also the joyous romantic enthusiasm of his revved-up remake of "Hands Down," from the 2001 EP So Impossible, the happiest song he's ever written and as sweet and devout a first-kiss song as anyone could wish.
You know the Aretha Franklin song where she says that her boyfriend's trouble is that he "paid too much for what he got'? Carrabba's characters are like that: They find love sometimes, but even when it's the real thing, it costs them so much they can't stop wondering whether it's worth the trouble. Carrabba doesn't make their struggles sound easy- in truth, this guy doesn't make anything sound easy; from the travails in his songs you can easily imagine that it's torture for him to decide which potato chip to eat first. He makes his feelings sound like hard work. But it is Carrabba's gift to make it all sound like the kind of work that's worth doing.
Key Tracks "Rapid Hope Loss," "Hands Down," "So Beautiful," "Ghost of a Good Thing" - hear them at rollingstone.com/reviews/cd