Since 2001, Chris Carrabba and his not-so-merry band of pop-punk troubadours have been quietly establishing Dashboard Confessional as one of the decade’s most consistent alternative rock bands. Saddled with the much-overused “emo” stigma, Carrabba’s music—combining the heartfelt, earnest lyrics of U2 and late R.E.M. with the gift for swelling, melodic pop hooks of ’90s bands such as the Goo Goo Dolls and Gin Blossoms—surpasses the restrictions of any disparaging genre classification.
In recent years, Dashboard Confessional has balanced its identity between two disparate sounds: urgent punk—like breakthrough single “Hands Down”—and lovelorn, acoustic balladry, such as the early fan-favorite “Screaming Infidelities.” Carrabba’s newest effort. “Alter the Ending,” strikes a middle ground between these two extremes, but the final product is somewhat inconsistent; “Alter the Ending” excels in the realm of emotional power ballads but also contains a great deal of uninspiring three-chord filler, resulting in a uniform-sounding album with limited success.
The album’s opening track, “Get Me Right,” begins with a single, insistent guitar riff and then proceeds to build with electronic synths, gunshot drums, and Carrabba’s voice nervously fluttering above the ruckus as he pleads. “I know you’ll get me right / Oh Jesus, I’ve fallen.” The song’s religious overtones do not quite fit with the remainder of the adolescent-themed album, but thrown listeners will feel right at home as the record then effortlessly transitions into a somewhat predictable pop-punk nugget, “Until Morning.” Armed with chugging guitars and swelling vocals, Carrabba asks his lover to stay by his side, proclaiming, “If this is heaven, or if it’s just a warning / Say you will stay with me, even if it’s just ’til morning.”
Unfortunately, what makes “Alter the Ending” an often dissatisfying listen is the uniformity of about half the album’s songwriting. Consisting of the same thick guitar lines, intense drumming, and vocal acrobatics of Carrabba’s wobbly tenor, the band’s newest efforts sound like weak facsimiles of “Hands Down” and “Vindicated.” The songs feebly retread old territory rather than covering new ground.
Dashboard Confessional unfortunately elects on “Alter The Ending” to limit the usage of their greater strength: the acoustic, heartbrokenly witty ballads on which they built their early career. Two of the album’s finest tracks, “Even Now” and the moody closer “Hell On the Throat,” excel above the rest due to the naked emotion and simplistic strumming, enhanced only occasionally with a shimmering synth or lonely drum beat. On “Even Now,” Carrabba softly sings, “Even now, I can feel your eyes / Watch me as I strum / Much too late at night / And I always can find you again.” His gentle, wavering tone on such tracks complements his music much more effectively than his aggressive screams on louder songs as he paints intimate portraits of failing relationships and missed opportunities.
The album’s most sublimely beautiful composition comes at the conclusion, with the quiet struggle of “Hell On the Throat,” as Carrabba desperately mourns, “All these years in the cold / Play hell on the throat / ’Til everything I say burns like cinders / Well it’s hard to belong / To a girl or a song / In the crease of a strangling winter.” It is at such moments that “Alter the Ending” truly shines; unfortunately, such compositions are few and far between on the album, included as afterthoughts rather than centerpieces, taking the backseat to one too many loud alt-rockers.
Still, the lack of mellow moments on the album does not entirely sour the affair, as Dashboard also chooses to indulge their newfound penchant for power ballads. Without the false urgency of the faster numbers, the ballads still retain the melodic prowess of Carrabba’s songwriting.
“Everybody Learns From Disaster,” with its galloping beat and Bon Jovi-esque lyrics, full of reckless abandon and an “us-against-the-world” mentality, proves to be the album’s best narrative, as Carrabba recalls the glories of a band on the move, reminiscing, “We stayed in the sun too long / Suffered a terrible burn / Now everybody learns from disaster / We stayed on the run too long / Hoping we’d never return.” While none of the ballads can measure up to “Stolen,” arguably one of the decade’s best alternative love songs from the band’s 2007 magnum opus “Dusk and Summer,” many of the tracks, including “Belle” and the Semisonic-recalling “Blame it on the Changes,” come very close.
“Alter the Ending” ultimately proves to be sufficiently satisfying, but on most of the album, Carrabba seems somewhat lazy. “Belle of the Boulevard” and “Hell on the Throat” prove that Dashboard Confessional is clearly capable of greatness, but unfortunately, they failed to harness their skill in order to make “Alter the Ending” a more compelling listen.