20 Years Ago, One Album Made Emo Serious Business — And Nothing Was Ever The Same
This is when screaming infidelities wasn’t enough.
Before 2003, the biggest band in emo rock was arguably, not really a band. Dashboard Confessional began as a side project of Chris Carrabba and released two albums prior to 2003, both of which solidified him as the king of a genre that basically didn’t exist in 1999. But with the release of his third album, A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar, Carrabba turned Dashboard Confessional into something new. On August 12, 2003, Dashboard Confessional dropped a pivotal album, and in terms of the legacy of the band, it marked the clear moment where Emo finally felt like a serious rock genre.
If you never owned a Dashboard Confessional album in the early aughts, your entire knowledge of the band might just be the song “Screaming Infidelities,” which appeared on countless mix CDs, burned by your friends using Napster or LimeWire in dorm rooms which may or may not have been plastered with Dave Matthews posters. This song was so ubiquitous from 2001 to 2002, it’s easy to forget that future Jesse Pinkman, Aaron Paul, was in the music video. And, if you were just casually aware of Dashboard Confessional, that entire song may have represented a one-hit-wonder.
But, what makes A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar such a strange and fantastic album is that when you listen to it now, it’s like Chris Carrabba knows he’s already released his most commercial songs already, and just doesn’t care anymore. A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar is the first Dashboard Confessional that truly employs a full band, rather than just being stripped-down acoustic pure Emo. As a lot of people said at the time, it's the closest Carrabba comes to making Dashboard Confessional sounds like the other big Emo band of the time, Jimmy Eat World.
Scott Schoenbeck’s bass on the album may not be anything special, but he gives the album more sonic weight than the previous album, The Place You Have Come To Fear The Most. While that 2001 album was technically the second Dashboard album, it was kinda the first album insofar as it also featured “Screaming Infidelities” as the big breakout track. Although you’ve got a lot of Dashboard EPs and singles, and the MTV Unplugged album in-between 2000 and 20003, A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar is really the first time the band feels like a band. Drums and backing vocals from Mike Marsh were present on The Place You Have Come To Fear The Most, but he feels more present on A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar. According to some sources, the “band” had only rehearsed a handful of times before recording The Place You Have Come To Fear The Most, while A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar seems to reflect a pseudo-collective that more or less has congealed.
The excellent track “Am I Missing” finds Carrabba trading vocal duties with guitarist and singer John Lefler, who might be the true MVP of this album. Watch any live performance from this era and you’ll be convinced that without Lefler, Carrabba’s approach to a song like this threatened to get a little too Sum 41 or Simple Plan. If it's fair to compare A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar to Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American (it isn’t, but we’re gonna do it again anyway) then it’s Lefler’s deft contributions that seem to steer this album away from dudes winning and into something a bit more artful.
Still, Dashboard is very much Carrabba’s creation and his unique vocal stylings make this album a testament to what only he is capable of. Two decades ago, when Emo became a strange subgenre of alt-rock, which was immediately derided by critics and your too-cool friends, defining it became even harder than defending it. What was the essence of what made Emo good? Why was Chris Carrabba so good at this particular type of music?
The long answer can be found on the totality of the record A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar. The short answer is this: Good Emo makes the listener care very much about heartbreaks, and makes you feel those heartbreaks in a way that was uniquely expressed by a kind of cathartic, and yes — whiny — vocal explosion. It was a natural extension of ‘90s alt-rock, so, complaining was sort of the point of Emo. If you didn’t like that vibe, you didn’t get it. But, that’s only just what good Emo was about.
Great Emo went a little deeper; and on this album, Dashboard Confessional figured out what that secret was. Everyone can complain about “screaming infidelities,” but being truly Emo might simply mean that you’re already over it, and still willing to talk about your feelings, way after the fact. A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar is a more thoughtful and complete album than, perhaps, any of the other Dashboard records. Because it’s right here when Emo started to grow up if only a little bit.
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