Passwords is Dawes’ fifth record of the 2010s—and their fifth great one. It’s also the first time that they haven’t taken a substantial leap forward in terms of sound or approach. Ever since their 2011 breakthrough, Nothing Is Wrong, Dawes have been switching producers with every record, always searching for that new groove. Nothing Is Wrong was a wash of gorgeous 70s-influenced Laurel Canyon folk, earning the band almost as many comparisons to Jackson Browne as Brian Fallon got to Bruce Springsteen. 2013’s Stories Don’t End had flickers of a 90s folk rock record, modernizing and streamlining the band’s songs with a more studio-driven approach. 2015’s All Your Favorite Bands went in the opposite direction, embracing the band’s live, jam-oriented roots for a record full of loose guitar solos and spontaneous energy. And 2016’s We’re All Gonna Die brought in mad scientist producer Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes, Perfume Genius, John Legend) for a bold, expectation-shattering disc—a career left-turn that prompted at least a few comparisons to U2’s Achtung Baby.
Passwords has a less distinct musical identity than its four predecessors on initial listens, though it does carve out its own niche from a lyrical standpoint. Part of the reason is the band’s decision to reunite with producer Jonathan Wilson, who manned the boards for both Nothing Is Wrong and Dawes’ 2009 debut, North Hills. Wilson has a lighter touch as a producer than Mills, which means this record is considerably less audacious than We’re All Gonna Die. For all the fans who dismissed that album as a “jump the shark” moment for Dawes—and there were a few—Passwords will probably scan as an appreciated return-to-form. But for those who dug We’re All Gonna Die and the way it tore down any remaining boundaries for the band’s music career, the slight retreat on Passwords might feel a little disappointing.
Passwords is also more of a slow burn than past Dawes records. This band has always excelled at ballads and mid-tempo numbers, to the point where almost all their best songs (from “Peace in the Valley” to “A Little Bit of Everything” to “All Your Favorite Bands”) rest in this vein. Still, having a rocker here or there—like “One of Us,” the propulsive opener from We’re All Gonna Die, or “From the Right Angle,” a road warrior anthem from Stories Don’t End—always kept past Dawes records lively and well-paced. Passwords is almost exclusively mid-tempo. There are a few change-ups to give the album some pep: the Fleetwood Mac pastiche “Feed the Fire” and the War on Drugs-flavored “Mistakes We Should Have Made,” namely. Still, the record’s mid-section does drag a bit at first, pulling together three of the slowest and longest songs (“My Greatest Invention,” “Telescope,” and “I Can’t Love”) into a lengthy 18-minute break between livelier tracks. It’s a head-scratching sequencing choice that threatens to derail the entire album. It’s only the band’s unbelievable level of musical skill and frontman Taylor Goldsmith’s stunning lyrical work that keeps Passwords from drifting into “sleepy” territory. Luckily, these three songs are growers—especially “Telescope,” which scans as a meandering, minimalist jam on first listen, but is actually a haunting, deeply-felt story song about being a child of divorce and abandonment.
Nevertheless, it’s the opening and closing salvos of Passwords that put it on the level of the band’s past work. The record’s first act is the “topical” segment, featuring the most overtly political music they’ve ever made. Opener “Living in the Future” flits from crunchy guitar-driven verses (written in 7/8 time) to an anthemic, reach-for-the-rafters chorus. Lyrics like “If you won’t sing the anthem/They’ll go find someone else who will” feel all too timely at this particular moment in history. “Crack the Case,” meanwhile, is a plea for understanding in a world where political differences, miscommunication, and twisted words consistently pull us apart from one another. Sandwiched between those two tracks is “Stay Down,” a sunny, serene folk jam about what we probably all want to do right now: unplug, sign off, and disengage. Or maybe it’s just a song about getting over breakup. The genius in Goldsmith’s writing, sometimes, is that it can mean many things at once.
The closing act of Passwords, meanwhile, is where Goldsmith allows himself to get personal. Goldsmith got engaged to actress Mandy Moore last year, and on this record, she’s inspired the loveliest and most earnest love songs Dawes have ever recorded. The first of those—and the album’s best song—is called “Never Say Goodbye.” It takes apart flawed, youthful masculinity (“I never could admit when I was wrong then/Even when I felt it in my bones/I always thought it meant I was a strong man/I wondered why I was alone”) and discusses, in wide-eyed wonder, how falling in love can change your entire perspective on the world (“My dark days showed me how to ask, ‘Why me?’/She’s taught me how to ask, ‘Why not?”). Every line of the song is a beauty—to the point where it’s tough to imagine it not becoming a “First Dance” wedding staple. It’s the rare love song that fully embrace sentimentality while also dodging cliché.
The album’s closing number, the understated “Time Flies Either Way,” is almost as good. Over a lovely bed of acoustic guitars, pianos, and soft-rock-worthy saxophones, Goldsmith weaves another tale of a sad and lonely wanderer, made whole again by finding the right person to share his life. “Finding out that all my proudest moments/Will be spent trying to put a smile on your face/And I’m letting that fact answer all of my questions/’Cause I know now that the time flies either way,” he sings in the last verse. It’s the perfect conclusion to the record—an album that, despite the darkness that shrouds its first half, finds life-affirming meaning in its final two songs. We’re All Gonna Die, as the title suggested, often languished in pessimism. There were songs about divorce, mid-life crisis, quitting, failure, toxic masculinity, nihilism, and mortality. While Passwords is coming along at an even darker time, it feels significantly more hopeful, like maybe we can get through the darkness if we put our faith in each other, trust in our relationships, and try a little empathy. Like Goldsmith sings in the opener: “It may not make it any better/I’m just hoping that it might.”