Given the direction that mainstream music has taken over the past two decades, it is virtually impossible to believe that an emo band once got big enough to land the end credits theme song slot in a blockbuster superhero movie. Just imagine what it would have been like if The Hotelier showed up in the credits of Captain America: Winter Soldier back in 2014, or if Foxing’s “Grand Paradise” started playing after everyone got dusted at the end of Avengers Infinity War in 2018. Awesome as these needle drops would have been, they also had a 0.02 chance of ever happening. In the mid-2000s, though, emo and pop-punk were riding a massive wave of popularity among teen listeners, and Dashboard Confessional parlayed that success into “Vindicated,” the anchor song for the third highest grossing film of 2004 – a little movie called Spider-Man 2. That movie and its soundtrack don’t hit the two-decade mark until next year, but the album that gave Dashboard the juice necessary to get to that mainstream milestone turns 20 this weekend. It’s called A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar, and it is hands down the best teen angst album ever made.
Dashboard Confessional were already a big deal in the emo community by the time 2003 rolled around. Between them, 2000’s The Swiss Army Romance and 2001’s The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most made Chris Carrabba – the songwriter, mastermind, and sometimes sole member of Dashboard Confessional – a bona-fide underground superstar. Carrabba wasn’t a pop star just yet, but you could’ve mistaken him for one if you caught the Dashboard Confessional MTV Unplugged special, shot in April of 2002. That show was the subject of a Ringer oral history last year, which revealed that basically the entire idea behind putting Dashboard Confessional on Unplugged in the first place was to capture the raw intensity and jaw-dropping enthusiasm of the band’s sing-along crowds. Early Dashboard shows became communal celebrations unlike anything else in the emo galaxy – celebrations where every fan knew every word of every song and belted them out loud enough to shake the stage. They might not have been the biggest band in the world, but for the people who loved them, Dashboard Confessional were a band that mattered. As in, tattoo-these-lyrics-on-my-arm, that-song-saved-my-life, this-band-is-my-religion mattered.
A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar changed the game – for Dashboard Confessional and their fanbase. Past albums had felt like handmade affairs, filled with stripped-down acoustic-based singer-songwriter tunes that sounded like they could have been recorded in someone’s bedroom. For a lot of fans, tracks like “Screaming Infidelities” or “The Best Deceptions” resonated because they were so raw, so immediate, so direct. Hearing Carrabba howl over a quickly strummed guitar about fist-dented plaster walls and hair being everywhere felt approachable. In that sense, A Mark, A Mission… might as well have been the emo equivalent of Bob Dylan going electric at Newport Folk Festival in March of 1965. Suddenly, our acoustic-guitar-toting folk hero was taking a hard left turn into full-on arena rock. It felt clear right away: Chris wasn’t the Livejournal poet of our broken hearts anymore; instead, he was everybody else’s rock star.
Spending years on the forums of AbsolutePunk.net, it was easy to see the split feelings this album inspired amidst the emo/pop-punk scene. Some fans really did react like the people who booed Dylan at Newport, and remain “acoustic Dashboard only” purists to this day. Others gravitated toward the added oomph that the loud guitars and crashing drums added to Carrabba’s already-dramatic songwriting style. For the latter group, it never hurt that A Mark, A Mission actually sounds more like a textbook emo record than those stripped-down acoustic albums ever did. So much of emo’s foundation was based on sparkling guitars and big crescendos, and with the help of producer Gil Norton, Carrabba made a record that grafted those elements onto his heart-on-a-threadbare-sleeve songwriting style. Norton is perhaps known best for his work with The Pixies, but he’d also produced a pair of ‘90s alt-rock classics that might as well be honorary emo albums: Counting Crows’ 1996 rebellion-against-fame epic Recovering the Satellites and Foo Fighters’ 1997 sophomore breakthrough The Colour and the Shape. Both of those albums feel influential on the sonic blueprint of A Mark, A Mission: big rock songs with enough pristine studio sheen for the mainstream, but also enough dramatic quiet-loud dynamics, enough rawness in the vocals, and enough grit, angularity, and noise in the guitars that the music retained some indie cred. Not too surprisingly, Norton’s work on this album – and on Jimmy Eat World’s fan-favorite LP Futures, which dropped the following year – paved the way for much of the sound and feel of the emo-pop explosion of the early 2000s.
Ultimately, though, what sold A Mark, A Mission and allowed Dashboard Confessional to ascend from cult hero status to “superhero blockbuster movie” levels wasn’t the electric guitars, or the ace production, or even the fact that, by this point in time, Vagrant Records (which released the album) was backed by a major label (Interscope) that was ready to invest heavily in this genre of music. The reason this album works is because it captures something essential about being young – young and free, young and in love, young and heartbroken, young and unmoored. It feels, in a way, like a guide to growing up, told in little chapters that just happen to come in the form of ultra-catchy songs.
“Hands Down,” the record’s opener and signature song, is one of the best songs ever written about the heart-racing, pulse-pounding intensity of a teenage crush, and about the moment when that crush goes from something you hope and dream will happen to something that is actually happening. Whiplashing back and forth between whispered, palm-muted verses and soaring, triumphant choruses, “Hands Down” somehow captures everything you feel in that split second: the desire and the longing; the nerves; the excitement; the elation; the way your senses seem heightened and attuned to everything that other person is doing – how close they are, the rise and fall of their breath, the scent of their hair, the subtle shift in their eyes, their body language and what it may or may not be communicating. “Hands down, this is the best day I can ever remember/I’ll always remember the sound of the stereo/The dim of the soft lights/The scent of your hair that you twirled in your fingers…” To this day, when Carrabba plays the song, he introduces it with a simple statement: “This is a song about the best day of my life.” He’s probably had better days: His wedding day, perhaps, or the days his kids were born. But there’s a magic to those “first love, first kiss” moments that never, ever loses its hold on you, and “Hands Down” is proof positive of that fact – a song about teenage love that still holds its power despite the fact that even the song has now passed beyond its teenage years.
A Mark, A Mission is packed with songs like “Hands Down” – vivid, visceral, deeply-felt songs about first dates and breakups, about letting your guard down, about getting hurt bad and getting back up after, about romantic feelings reciprocated and unrequited, and about all the coming-of-age stories that break you and make you. Carrabba was already writing songs about most of those things before this album, but the broadening of the sonic palette on A Mark, A Mission makes these messy little foibles of growing up sound like the stuff of a true hero’s journey, like they’re worthy of blockbuster treatment. By the time “Vindicated” ended up in Spider-Man 2, it wasn’t that surprising to us Dashboard fans, because tracks like “Rapid Hope Loss” and “Bend and Not Break” had already conjured up big-screen emotions in all of our lives. And I mean a lot of lives: A Mark, A Mission sold 122,000 copies in its first week and made it to number 2 on the Billboard 200, denied the top spot by only the Bad Boys II soundtrack. Not bad for a guy singing as earnestly as possible about his feelings.
When I fell in love with this album all those years ago, so much of the appeal in it was about being young, and about the possibility of experiencing all the things in the songs. As a 12-year-old boy on the brink of adolescence and puberty, I was fascinated and intrigued by the call of romance, the excitement of young love, the exquisite pain of heartbreak. I’d experience all those things in the years to come, many of them in exactly the way this album laid out, and many of them with these songs playing in the background. During my teen years, this album and its follow-up – the even bigger 2006 smash Dusk & Summer – seemed to be in constant rotation. They were the soundtracks to my coming-of-age.
20 years later, it would be easy to look back at all that and cringe. These songs are loaded with so much baggage from the years I spent with them that I’ll never be able to hear them as anything but autobiographical. But I personally love listening back to A Mark, A Mission and reflecting on everything I experienced (and felt) when these songs were playing loud. Where a lot of people my age shudder at the thought of getting older, I personally think that aging is beautiful. Picking up memories and wisdom and battle scars is a good thing, and being able to convene with a younger version of yourself – even if only for the three minutes and seven seconds that make up “Hands Down” – is its own little miracle. Listening to an album like this one after all these years is like reconnecting with an old friend you haven’t seen for awhile and seeing the signs of age on them: the gray in their hair, the laugh lines on their face, the mix of wisdom and grief in their eyes that only comes from the act of living a life of ups and downs.
In that way, I suppose I love A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar now more than I ever did back in the day. Back then, it was all hypothetical, all possibility. Now, it’s a photobook of past-life memories – of crushes and first dates and drunk dials and lonely drives spent belting along to “Several Ways to Die Trying” at the top of my lungs. It’s a mark of where I’ve been, a mission for where I’m going, a brand of honor for all the good times I’ve spent with it, and a scar for all the bad ones. Most of all, it’s one of the greatest emo albums of its time, a landmark of the era where our insular little music scene suddenly went supernova, and where the outcasts suddenly got to be the superheroes.