Dusk and Summer is my favorite Dashboard Confessional album. How’s that for a contrarian statement? For most fans of Dashboard, Dusk tends to occupy the lower rungs of discography rankings—if not the very bottom slot. There are obvious reasons for this lowly reputation, and they happen to correspond with the various groups of Chris Carrabba fans that exist out in the wild. The first group of fans is the “there from the beginning” group. These people were listening when Carrabba first arrived on the scene and released The Swiss Army Romance (2000) and The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most (2001). Fans in this group are incredibly attached to the stripped-down acoustic arrangements and heart-on-the-sleeve angst of those first two records. They cite Swiss Army and Places as foundational albums in the emo and pop-punk movements, label them as classics, and point to Carrabba going full-band (on 2003’s A Mark, A Mission, a Brand, a Scar) as the moment where everything went to hell.
The second group of Carrabba fans are the people who prefer his post-hardcore band Further Seems Forever. These people aren’t really relevant to the Dashboard ranking discussion, though most would probably let you know that Dusk and Summer is overproduced sellout shite. The third group of fans is made up of people who actually like Carrabba’s full-band sound, but prefer A Mark and 2009’s Butch Walker-produced Alter the Ending to the poppier Dusk. There might even be a fourth, very small group that likes Carrabba’s post-Dashboard folk-rock group, Twin Forks, more than anything he did in the 2000s. (As far as I know, there is no group that would point to 2007’s substandard The Shade of Poison Trees as Carrabba’s finest hour.)
All of these groups of fans tend to have one thing in common when it comes to ranking Carrabba’s work: they think Dusk and Summer is largely mainstream trash, overproduced to the extreme and featuring songs that lack the soul and ache of his previous music. I have heard this argument so many times from so many fans of Carrabba’s music that I spent a good chunk of the past 10 years internalizing it. Though Dusk has long been the Dashboard album I had the clearest personal connection to, I’ve rarely actually identified it as my favorite. That title would go to Alter the Ending—which, for the record, I still stand by as Carrabba’s “best” work. But erase that album from existence and I’d just lose one of the last decade’s greatest and most unabashedly massive pop-rock records. Erase Dusk and Summer and I’d lose a big, big piece of my past.
Let’s start at the beginning: it’s the middle of the summer of 2006 and I’ve just handed Dusk and Summer to my brother, in CD format, for his 21st birthday. I was on a music pirating hiatus at this point in my life, because I’d recently gotten two awful computer viruses within four months of each other—both requiring a complete reformatting of my hard drive. (I’m sure my parents didn’t appreciate this, since the computer in question was not mine, but the “family computer.”) So it’s July 2nd and Dusk and Summer has officially been out for the better part of a week, but I haven’t heard it yet. Five days are not a long time to wait to hear an album, but it’s an eternity when you’re talking about one of your favorite bands and when the record in question seems like it’s destined to be the perfect summer soundtrack. The fact that this album contained a duet with Adam Duritz (of Counting Crows fame) was even more exciting, and almost made me want to tear off the shrink-wrap and give my brother something else for his birthday.
A lot of people were disappointed with how slick Dusk and Summer sounded, but for me, no part of this album failed to live up to expectations. It was the perfect summer soundtrack, and the duet between Chris and Adam Duritz (the piano-driven end-of-summer anthem “So Long, So Long”) was a goddamn perfect song. Looking back, there’s no album except Everything in Transit that encapsulates the turbulence of summertime youth like this one—at least not for me. From the sweltering atmosphere of “Don’t Wait” to the claustrophobic intensity of “Reason to Believe,” all the way to the more introspective second half, listening to this record never fails to take me back. It returns me to those summers when I was 15, 16, 17, 18, or 19 and always willing to hop in the car and drive three hours for a concert, or to stay out until the wee hours of the morning with friends. There are a lot of summer albums, and more arrive every year, but few get me in a nostalgic mood quite like this one.
Dusk and Summer is a unique record in the Dashboard Confessional discography. Listening to it today, it’s pretty easy to tell that this album emerged from the midst of the mid-decade emo/pop-punk craze. The previous record, A Mark, A Mission, had dropped in 2003—often cited as the golden year for those genres. Dusk and Summer, though, happened after those genres exploded into the mainstream: after the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack was made up almost entirely of scene bands (Dashboard included), after Fall Out Boy had managed to conquer the radio, and after every major label started scooping up bands of this ilk. As a result, Dusk was the biggest production of Chris Carrabba’s career. The singles got more of a push; Daniel Lanois—famous for his work with heavy-hitters like U2 and Bob Dylan—was brought on to produce (though Don Gilmore ended up finishing the project); Carrabba’s photo landed on the album cover for the first time in his career; the moody torch song “Stolen” soundtracked one of the most heartbreaking moments in Scrubs history. The album even charted at number 2 on the Billboard 200 in its first week, selling 134,000 copies. By all accounts, this record was the peak of Chris Carrabba’s fame.
It’s hard to know for sure whether it was the mainstream exposure or the quality of the songs that doomed Dusk and Summer to the ire of Dashboard Confessional fans. Sure, most of these tracks are big pop-rock songs, verging on arena-sized in scope. These choruses are huge, with sky-high vocal ranges that make them very difficult to sing along to. (Try hitting the high notes on the chorus in “Don’t Wait” or at the end of “Heaven Here” and tell me how that goes for you.) Carrabba was clearly aiming for something larger than life here: a mainstream rock album that injected new layers of pop into his sound while shedding most of his emo and singer/songwriter influences. (The title track is an exception to the latter rule.) The album is also more optimistic than anything Carrabba had ever put on tape before, with most of the songs taking a wistful tack and chronicling summer love with fond remembrance. There are no walls that get angrily dented by fists on this album—though there is “Slow Decay,” a bizarre, remarkably out-of-place song about a soldier coming home from war. Perhaps fans look down upon this album because, after years of giving them a safe place to dwell on the exquisite pain of heartbreak, Carrabba finally changed the game.
I can’t say I have counterarguments for many of those grievances. I’m sure that if I’d heard Places or Swiss Army for the first time while in the midst of heartbreak, I would think of Carrabba’s full-band phase as a betrayal of his talents too. I can also sympathize with listeners who find Dusk and Summer overproduced—though, I’d argue that the gloss is part of the point. Carrabba wanted to make a big rock record that was as sunny and hopeful as summer itself, and the radio-ready production suits those goals. Still, it’s hard not to wonder what a completely Lanois-produced version of the album might have sounded like. Lanois is known for producing very atmospheric records, and while you can hear shimmers of his influence here—the pounding live drums on “Heaven Here,” or the radiant title track—Gilmore’s fingerprints are definitely more noticeable. I like to imagine that there’s a Lanois version of this record somewhere that sounds like a mix between The Joshua Tree and Time out of Mind.
Still, for me, all of the criticisms and flaws don’t matter. I recognize that Carrabba sacrificed some of the diaristic feel of his music to create a more populist piece of work. I think about why Lanois didn’t get a chance to finish the record. I wonder how “Slow Decay”—while a decent song as a standalone—ended up in the middle of this record’s insanely nostalgic second half. And I don’t care. This record is more than just an album for me. It’s above criticism. It will always be my favorite Chris Carrabba album, warts and all, because of what these songs have meant to me over the years.
Dusk and Summer took a lot of different forms for me after I gifted it to my brother on that July evening in 2006. At first, it was a carefree summer soundtrack—an album I played a lot on runs or when I was relaxing in my room on late summer evenings. Later, it was one of my go-to summer driving albums. When I got in the car and drove off to college at the end of summer 2009, I chose “So Long, So Long” to bid farewell to the season and to my hometown. Then, in 2010, the last two songs embedded themselves in my life story.
Ever since the first time I heard it, “Dusk and Summer” (the song) has been one of my favorite summer night mixtape staples. In fact, it might be the best summer night song of all time. Everything about it—from the way Chris strums those chords on his acoustic guitar to the hazy vocal melody, all the way to the falsetto wails at the end—screams “last night of summer.” It’s frankly one of the most fittingly titled songs that has ever or will ever be written. Here, Carrabba perfectly captured a specific moment in time—that moment when the sun is about to set on the last night before school starts or the last night before you leave town. When you’re laying on the beach with the person you love, trying to make the season last just a few minutes longer. Trying to make it last, even as summer slips out of your grasp and out the door. For years, it was one of the last songs I’d play before I went to sleep on Labor Day. Even now, when I’m seven years past high school and three years out of college, that tradition still holds some sway with me. Suffice to say the songs that made it onto the mix every year—Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer,” Counting Crows’ “Miami,” Yellowcard’s “Back Home,” and Jimmy Eat World’s “My Sundown”—all rank somewhere in my top 50 songs of all time.
“Dusk and Summer” eventually came to be the one of those songs that meant the most to me, and it’s all thanks to the summer of 2010. On the last night of the season—the last night before I headed back to college for my sophomore year—I was supposed to meet my girlfriend at the beach for precisely the kind of “last hurrah” that “Dusk and Summer” so perfectly encapsulates. I was driving my step dad’s car because mine was in the shop until the next morning, but that also meant I didn’t have my FM transmitter. Robbed of the ability to use my iPod in the car, I worried that I’d miss out on my usual “last night of summer” mixtape tradition. Luckily, I had a single blank CD in my room, so I burned my usual playlist to a disc and took it with me.
Later that night—much later, after the sun had gone down and the last vestiges of western glow had disappeared from the sky—my girlfriend and I sat in the car, saying one of our last goodbyes. We’d started dating about a month and a half before and had spent most of July and August inseparable—falling harder for each other than either of us ever had for anyone else. But the end of summer marked the end of assurance for us and our relationship. We were both going back to school—different schools, on opposite sides of the state—and neither of us had ever attempted the long distance relationship thing before. I wasn’t at all sure what was next for us, and a part of me definitely worried that this was the best that things were ever going to get. I didn’t know what apartness would do to a relationship we’d built on the foundation of getting to see each other for 12+ hours a day.
So when I kissed her goodbye and “Dusk and Summer” started to play, it cracked my façade. We both started crying, and for a moment, us, that song, and the front seat of the car were the only things that existed. When we finally managed to calm our tears and part ways for the night, I shifted my step dad’s car into first gear and drove, skipping back to “Dusk and Summer” to hear it again. Somewhere on the 10-minute drive home, I found myself in tears again, trying to sing along to Carrabba’s wistful words, but unable to shake the feeling that the lyrics might be prophetic.
She said, “No one is alone, the way you are alone”
And you held her looser than you would have if you ever could have known
Some things tie your life together
With slender threads and things to treasure
Days like that should last and last and last
But you’ve already lost
When you only had
Barely enough of her to hang on
What if I had let go too easily? Said goodbye too soon? Kissed her a second shorter than I should have? What if college and long distance and the end of summer were about to kill the best thing that had ever happened to me? What if, in the morning, I was going to drive away from the one thing in the world that I knew I really wanted, and lose it? And then my tears stopped and I had a moment of clarity, and I said to myself: “I’m in love with that girl.”
The next morning, after I picked up my car from the shop and packed it with all my stuff, I met her one last time, for the second part of our goodbye. By some stroke of serendipity, the song playing in her car on her iPod was “Heaven Here”—Dusk and Summer’s big, anthemic closing track. Again we tried to say goodbye a million times before we could actually mean it; again, we both fought tears and lost. This time, though, the lyrics felt more hopeful: “When heaven’s not waiting, it’s spilling its secrets/It’s right here between us/And we’ve no other choice but believe/So let it last all night.” Later, as the song reached its dizzying zenith, the message was even simpler: “Heaven is here, and tonight, we are the only ones who feel it.” Hearing that song as I bid farewell to the greatest summer of my life, it silenced all the fear and doubt I’d felt the night before. We were going to be fine. We were going to make it. We were going to beat the distance and beat the odds and be together. Because heaven was there in that town that summer, and we somehow got to be the only two people in the world who knew what it felt like.
Three years, 10 months, and 23 days later, that girl walked down the aisle and married me. And that’s why Dusk and Summer is always going to be my favorite Dashboard Confessional album: without this album, I might never have found the strength to fight so hard for her. Without it, I wouldn’t be me, and we wouldn’t be us. So happy 10 years to Chris Carrabba’s most-maligned masterpiece. Sometimes, even an artist’s so-called “worst” albums can change lives.