Photo Credit: Lupe Bustos
“I’m living in your letters // Breathe deeply from this envelope // It smells like you and I can’t be without that scent.” Its lyrics like these that made Dashboard Confessional’s 2000 debut The Swiss Army Romance such a seminal, incisive record – one whose ability to capture the seismic pain of young heartbreak echoes loudly in modern music. Yet, on their ninth studio album, the band often sound as if they’re performing a pale impression of the very same artists who they inspired two decades earlier.
The opener “Burning Heart” attempts to navigate the confusion of love, but the acoustic, guitar-strumming that backdrops these thoughts makes the song sound like an Ed Sheeran outtake. While “Sleep In” attempts to evoke a sense of intimacy by honing in on the small details of a relationship (“took my gloveless hand in yours”), but sounds more like if Chris Carrabba listened to “Back To December” once and decided he wanted to make his own version of it.
All The Truth I Can Tell desperately wants to be a great singer-songwriter album, but that would require a level of vulnerability and bold risk-taking that the band reliably refuses to embrace on their ninth album. Take, for example, “Me and Mine” – a heartfelt, but a saccharine ode to Carrabba’s children – that distills the parental experience down to its brightest moments and is fit with cries of “I thank God // That she // Is mine.” The overwhelming sentimentality of it all would work if it wasn’t for the nagging feeling that something was being hidden from listeners. After running through countless fond memories with his children, Carrabba admits, slightly downbeat, “I was like that once.” The line hints at a solemn, painful truth – of potential lost and youthful innocence crushed – but it’s never explored further. Instead, he quickly moves on to talking about the latest thing his daughter said to him.
There’s a better song buried here. In fact, it might be a song that already exists – Alanis Morissette’s “Ablaze”, to be exact. That song is similarly filled with moments of overflowing parental love (“my precious, gentle warrior” she brands her son), but is contrasted with burgeoning anxiety about the cruel and unforgiving world her children will one day have to enter. In the end, Morissette lands on a hopeful note – “My mission is to keep the light in your eyes ablaze”. The world may be tough, but nothing that unconditional love can’t conquer is the parting message. That song feels honest, that song takes on a real, moving journey. Even its most saccharine moments are made justifiable by the stark truths at the song’s heart. It is this sort of vulnerability – this sort of light-and-shade contrast – that All The Truth I Can Tell so urgently needs more of.
Instead, the album’s 12 tracks largely churn along at the same amiable, acoustic mid-tempo churn – content to work well within the band’s established boundaries. “Here’s to fighting less // Here’s to living more,” Carrabba cries on “Here’s To Moving On”; “I guess you make all kinds of mistakes // Before you find out who you are,” he sings on “Sunshine State.” These are the sort of empty affirmations that you’d expect to find on a motivational poster or the front of a notebook – next to items brandishing the words “live, laugh, love” or “not all who wander are lost.” In short, they feel hollow and uninspired – the urgency of the band’s earliest work tragically lost.
Ultimately, this is proved by exception on the best song here “Pain Free In Three Chords.” Over faint instrumentation, Carrabba begins to reveal the true toll of his 46 years; of fame, new parenthood, pandemic living, and recovering from a major injury. He sings of being on the edge of breaking down and desperately trying to keep up appearances – the sanitized optimism of the album’s previous tracks only giving further credence to this claim. The song embodies the sort of unvarnished, first-thought-last-thought honesty that All The Truth I Can Tell desperately needs more of. Without more of these moments, the album ultimately gets lost in the sea of “nice-guys-with-guitars” albums.