I’m of the mind that no artist—band or solo—has had a more stellar run this decade than Dawes. After debuting in 2009 with the promising North Hills, the Los Angeles quartet fired off Nothing Is Wrong (2011), Stories Don’t End (2013), and All Your Favorite Bands (2015) in the space of just under four years. Not only are all of those records among the best of the decade so far, but they are also all markedly different from one another. Nothing Is Wrong is pitch-perfect Laurel Canyon folk rock, emulating Jackson Browne so successfully that Browne actually agreed to provide backing vocals on a track. Stories Don’t End took the band’s sound in a more modern, studio-driven pop direction, while last year’s All Your Favorite Bands was an Americana road trip of a record that returned the band to their live, improv-heavy roots. The latter features arguably the best playing of any rock album released since 2010.
After All Your Favorite Bands, I expected Dawes would take a break. They’d released a masterpiece anchored by what will likely go down as their definitive song (the title track, which landed at the top of American Songwriter’s “best songs of the year” list). Plus, considering frontman Taylor Goldsmith’s role in 2014’s New Basement Tapes project (a Dylan-inspired super group), things in the Dawes camp had been going more or less non-stop for years. A break would have been well-deserved.
Instead, Dawes turned around and put a record in the can quicker than they ever have before. We’re All Gonna Die, the band’s fifth full-length, arrives just 15 and a half months on the heels of All Your Favorite Bands. In other words, Dawes basically got off the road from the Favorite Bands touring cycle and went right back into the studio. The quick turnover hasn’t stunted the band’s thirst for growth and experimentation, though. On the contrary, We’re All Gonna Die is maybe their most daring escapade yet—a record where Dawes feel like they are actively trying to tear down any preconceived notions that fans might still have about their talents or aspirations.
Rolling Stone Country compared this album to U2’s Achtung Baby as the possibly game-changing album in the Dawes catalog. While I wouldn’t go quite that far, We’re All Gonna Die certainly strays farther and tries more things than any Dawes record that came before it. Opener “One of Us” gallops along with synths, fuzzy guitar, fuzzier vocals, and a lot of bass. There’s nary a trace of Laurel Canyon or Americana to be found, but the booming pop chorus is enough to draw you in anyway. “When the Tequila Runs Out” is straight-up novelty pop—the kind of bizarre (and bizarrely catchy) song that would have probably made Dawes misunderstood one-hit wonders in the ’90s. And closer “As If By Design” is part Bob Dylan, part Ennio Morricone, part vaudeville jazz club, and part golden age Broadway musical. Elevated with a triumphant trumpet blast and tinkling keys played two octaves up, the song is a thoroughly bizarre finale that only barely even sounds like a Dawes song.
But the chances that Dawes takes here are a big part of the charm. It’s kind of cool that the song that most hearkens back to their previous records—the sun-soaked slide guitar symphony that is “For No Good Reason”—ends up feeling like a surprise. The song, with lyrics about the inexplicable nature of the choices we make, plays almost like a sequel to “A Little Bit of Everything,” the cathedral of a closing track that made Nothing Is Wrong a classic. It’s the kind of song you would have expected to hear Dawes writing five years on from their breakthrough. On this album, it’s maybe the only one.
What’s really refreshing about We’re All Gonna Die, though, is that it flips the narrative on Dawes without changing a lot of what made them special. Chief among those qualities are the writing chops of frontman Taylor Goldsmith. A lot has changed with the Dawes sound this time out, but Goldsmith’s character studies and vignettes are still as vivid and deft as ever. Dark and played in a minor key, “Less Than Five Miles Away” is a cinematic standout where the stories of a bank robber, a “shifty fortune teller,” and a mother with cancer are blended into a sobering examination of what it takes to get by in the unforgiving modern world. Even better, “Roll with the Punches” chronicles divorce proceedings with a little heartbreak and just as much wry, mocking commentary. “How dying love manifests/In a rug or a chest/The decorations of a room,” Goldsmith sings in the verse. Love dies in triviality, in other words. Shakespeare would have loved the irony.
With so many lyrical gems dotted throughout the album, it’s easy to view We’re All Gonna Die as a songwriter’s record. Certainly, with lyrics like these, Goldsmith could go solo without missing a beat. The first verse of the title track is particularly fascinating, as an uninspired rocker takes the stage only to be astounded by the conviction and passion he sees in the kid screaming his songs back at him from the front row. Similarly unforgettable is a verse in “For No Good Reason” where authorities find the body of a famous actor dead “in his Culver City home” of an apparent suicide. “Maybe all his demons were settling their debts” Goldsmith muses in the chorus, “Or maybe it’s for no good reason at all.” We’re All Gonna Die may not be a record about death in the way that something like Sun Kil Moon’s Benji is about death, but the theme of mortality certainly crops up repeatedly here—and in consistently fascinating ways.
But while Goldsmith is in top form throughout We’re All Gonna Die, the record’s most immediately noticeable quality is how much of a sonic feast it is. Produced by Blake Mills—a former classmate of Goldsmith’s and a recent Grammy nominee for Album of the Year for his role in producing Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color—this record flourishes with big booming arrangements that straddle the lines between pop, electronic, roots rock, and even soul. On the last record, the focus tilted heavily in favor of Goldsmith’s guitar, with the jammy arrangements providing perfect breeding grounds for his long, improvisational solos. Here, Goldsmith gets a few shining moments on the axe—the slide guitar refrain in “For No Good Reason” is particular thrilling—but Mills pays more attention to fleshing out the low end. Bassist Wylie Gelber goes from skilled sideman to band MVP, anchoring every song on the record with his highly present electric and upright bass lines. The switch in sound and production style might take some getting used to for fans who gravitated toward the mostly downbeat compositions of All Your Favorite Bands, but those who found that record to be lacking in energy (somehow, these people exist) will find the antidote in Mills’ punchier style.
We’re All Gonna Die could prove to be a one-off diversion before the inevitable course correction of album number six. Knowing Dawes, though, it seems like this record is just the first left turn in a career bound to bring many unpredictable decisions. There are a few growing pains along the way: the attempt at a more soulful sound occasionally results in some extremely heavy-handed backup vocal sections, a factor that nearly ruins the otherwise thoughtful “Picture of a Man.” (To be fair, the issue is more a problem with mixing than writing.) Meanwhile, drummer Griffin Goldsmith takes lead vocals on “Roll Tide,” a song that is pretty enough, but which doesn’t quite justify its five and a half minute runtime in the middle of the record. For the most part, though, We’re All Gonna Die is another winning entry in the catalog of the winningest band of the decade so far, and one that opens up a whole new arena of possibilities for the band. I can’t think of many acts I’m more excited to follow throughout the next few years.