You get the feeling that Taylor Goldsmith approaches songwriting by asking himself a simple question: What would Jackson Browne do? The only problem with that approach, apart from it being derivative, calculated and banal, is that Jackson Browne is already doing what Jackson Browne would do.
That hasn’t stopped Goldsmith and his band Dawes so far, and it certainly doesn’t stand in their way on the band’s latest. Passwords, Dawes’ sixth studio album, features 10 new soft-rock songs indebted to Laurel Canyon circa 1972, with plaintive melodies, soothing piano and lyrical platitudes that are just unspecific enough to feel relatable, like the scenarios in self-help books. There’s the earnest, if self-satisfied, attempt to find common ground on “Crack the Case,” where Goldsmith murmurs rueful lyrics as piano and acoustic guitars mingle behind him. His regretful would-be lover on “Mistakes We Should Have Made” wishes he’d gone for the kiss despite the obstacles, his ardor framed by the prominent snap of a snare drum pushing a mix of acoustic guitar and keyboards, with distant backing vocals from Lucius. “Feed the Fire” slides around on a slippery guitar riff and shimmery synth parts, and Goldsmith reflects on empty ambition at the top of his vocal range in a way that calls to mind Private Eyes-era Hall & Oates.
Comparing artists to other artists in critical reviews is almost always reductive, but so much about Passwords goes beyond evoking influences and into straight-up pastiche that it’s tough to pinpoint exactly what Dawes brings to this music, apart from a talent for mimicry. The songs are catchy enough, sure, but there’s little unexpected here: just about every chord change, every rhyme scheme, every knowing tug at the heartstrings feels predictable and safe, and Goldsmith sings as though he’s about to offer a wistful half-smile over his shoulder before heading forever into the golden light of some late afternoon in Los Angeles.
So what’s wrong with that? Catchy songs are desirable, and there’s probably not a ton of audience crossover between Dawes and Jackson Browne or Hall & Oates anyway. Doesn’t matter. Simply regurgitating someone else’s sound isn’t art so much as historical reenactment, even when the original context has faded enough that younger generations of listeners wouldn’t necessarily know about it. Dawes’ latest may well sound fresh and new, or at least vaguely soulful, if you don’t know it’s a retread, but Passwords is all too easy to crack, and what’s inside isn’t really worth protecting when others have been doing it all better for decades.