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The Conflicted Inner Self on Dawes’ New Album
To avoid an outright gushing of unabashed praise for the greatness of the latest Dawes album, Stories Don’t End, I have to force myself to concentrate on a particular aspect of the songs. This will keep me on track with an analysis instead of an all-out rave, which doesn’t inform as much as simply hype. So I will bear down on the lyrics and focus particularly on the prevalent theme of the conflicted inner self.
Who we are to others and ourselves is often a messy psychological affair that we all do our best to deal with on a daily basis. We often avoid to a large extent the intense concentration it takes to fully grasp the profound nature of who we all are inside our minds and to the rest of the world. Dawes’ lyricist, Taylor Goldsmith, however, uses it as his muse on Stories Don’t End.
I came upon this album somewhat randomly. I was on Amazon looking for a book, and I noticed that the pre-release was streaming for free. Going on past recommendations of this group by friends, I decided to take a click on it and passively digest while surfing. The first song, “Just Beneath the Surface,” quickly snapped me out of my casual listening state. I’m a fan of a great lyric. I like when a lyric can give you a cold shiver, emotional jolt, or ideally a true revelation about life. This first track on this album does all that effortlessly. The first verse arrests the listener right away:
Have you ever thought your little girl glamour shots
And the events of that whole day spent at the mall
Is maybe a part of you, you didn’t know you were clinging to?
As if that’s where the secret had taken its hold most of all
Like a feather that finds its invisible path as it falls
The first two lines bring to mind those slightly disturbing child pageant photos, but it is also reminiscent of the self-paid “model” shots you see young women posting on social media. The girl herself has usually paid for the shoot, pursuing the exercise for reasons of vanity or some such insecure fancy. This verse is a cutting commentary on the strange ways people view themselves, both subjectively and objectively. We are all, in essence, two people at once: the person who internally judges and grapples with situations, and the person who outwardly reacts in a certain way that is in keeping with acceptable social constructs. Perhaps these glamour shots resemble the dress-up custom of Halloween, when women satisfy odd urges to be risqué, and men dress up as superheroes to make up for their own feelings of weakness in their daily lives. As Goldsmith writes, these are parts of us we didn’t even know we are clinging to. And the last line about the feather is a beautiful way to express fate without confirming or denying its existence. The feather falls as it falls, just like the path of our lives.
The chorus of this song articulates the idea of the conflicted inner self perfectly:
Just beneath the surface there’s another one of me
At the root of all my trouble, in the twitch before I speak
With thoughts and revelations even I could not accept
So just beneath the surface is where he will stay kept
Just under the external mask we wear in order to keep the peace in our lives is another person with a whole different set of beliefs and opinions. This other person, Goldsmith writes, is kept in his/her place by fear or judgment and social isolation. Sometimes this hidden person insides us cannot even comprehend or accept his/her own urges and instincts. Often we are not comfortable with our base emotions and desires; therefore, we rely on our exterior construct to preserve our place in this world. Those who speak their mind without any filter are usually shunned because they make others feel uncomfortable.
Goldsmith exhibits some flashy word play in the bridge, but it doesn’t take away from the song’s theme one bit:
Between the thoughtless words and the wordless thoughts
Between my pointless fears and my fearless plots
Between the parts of me I keep from you and the things that I’m just not
The center keeps on drifting
the music never stops
The “thoughtless words” are the casual things we say in place of the complexities we may feel, and the “wordless thoughts” are the hard-to-grasp inner feelings that we constantly juggle and analyze. He addresses the relationship dynamic and the notion that many times we do not know the other person as well as we may think. We all keep things to ourselves, and we also purport to be things that we are not. Of course, the title brings it all home nicely. It’s not beneath the surface, but just beneath the surface. It’s barely able to be contained; it’s almost but not quite visible. The line “the center keeps on drifting” is reminiscent of the North Pole, when explorers in the 19th century would search in vain for “true north” while the ice kept moving. This is a microcosm of life as an uncertain navigation. The phrase can be likened to Paul Simon’s famous lyric, “You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip-sliding away.” And of course this all ties in with the notion of uncertainty, regarding both the nature of our identity and that of others.
This struggle between the inner and outer self continues in “From a Window Seat,” a philosophical tale told in the first-person. A guy is on a commercial flight, observing the nature of both those around him and his inner self. After watching the flight attendants doing the safety drill which “looks more like a prayer or an ancient dance their bloodline reaches through,” he falls asleep and has a dream about stranded explorers “eating boots” to survive. This symbolizes the often-tragic results of exploring anything too far or deeply, whether it’s a physical destination or otherwise. The storyteller realizes halfway through the song that his projections on someone else are actually about him:
And I find that the hero in this song that I am writing
Doesn’t know he’s just an image of myself
The narrator thinks he is thinking objectively, but he is really thinking objectively.
The song’s title, “From a Window Seat,” is relevant in that the window seat allows you to view the altitude and the minuscule detailing of earth from this perspective. This is not a perspective any human can survey without a bit of trepidation. The juxtaposition between pleasure and danger here is sublime, and it ties in once again with the psychological view of oneself and the ensuing mixture of emotions and varying levels of self-confidence. Looking out the window of an aircraft at 38,000 feet, we need a certain amount of denial to mentally handle that potentially harrowing reality. We implement the same amount of denial in our everyday lives. Indeed, when we enter an aircraft for a multi-hour flight we do enter another dimension. In this altered sense of reality, we are sometimes faced with a more vivid sense of self than normal. We are often alone. We are often tired. It’s an altered state – a perfect atmosphere for Goldsmith’s somewhat disturbing reverie.
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In a relationship context, this theme of the conflicted inner self is perhaps best expressed in “Something in Common,” a somber, regretful ballad about a man who looks back dejectedly on the his role in a broken relationship. In the first refrain, Goldsmith writes:
The man that stands in front of you is not the sum of all his dreams,
But I’m hoping they’ve got something in common
Here he puts forth this theme of duality quite clearly, and it sets the scene for the rest of the song. This is most telling in the second refrain:
But all my best kept secrets are the one’s I didn’t know I had
So I couldn’t even tell her if I wanted
That the way that she remembers me is not the way I really am
But I’m hoping they’ve got something in common
I’m hoping they’ve got something in common
He realizes after the breakup that he doesn’t even know himself well enough to fully examine what went wrong. Perhaps he had even suppressed aspects of himself to be who thought he needed to be for her, and now they’re rising to the surface in the aftermath. He is convinced that her already-ambivalent estimation of him would be lowered quite a bit if she actually knew the extent of his depravity, or least what he views as depravity. This sort of dejection brings on such thoughts, and Goldsmith captures it hauntingly.
Other songs on Stories Don’t End stay consistent with this theme, such as in the third verse of “Someone Will”:
So I hope my voice can stay as clear as I need it to
But that my words take on the nature of a drill
To be set against the frozen sea inside of you
This specific type of nervousness is expressed very succinctly here. The man is trying to make sure his outer voice does not betray his inner feelings. Often people rehearse what they’re going to say to others for this very reason. It’s a great example of a person’s struggle with the inner self. The metaphorical drill blasting its way through the icy wall of her heart is pure lyrical bliss. But I’m getting dangerously close to that unabashed praise again. So I will wrap up.
As I listened through the songs while writing this piece, I was at the same time making mental notes for an article on the musical merits of this record. But I think for now I will take a break from hard analysis and go back to marveling at the record’s vast riches and pleasures.