The fifth studio album from Dawes, 2016's cheekily titled We're All Gonna Die, finds the rootsy Los Angeles outfit pushing its melodic, literate roots rock in an artsier, more sonically experimental direction. Following up the group's engaging 2015 effort All Your Favorite Bands, We're All Gonna Die feels like the beginning of a creative transformation where the band begins to shed all genre constraints and influences, emerging as its own fantastically musical creature. It brings to mind the early-2000s metamorphosis of Wilco, the most obvious antecedent to Dawes' own thinking-man's folk-rock aesthetic. Still centered on lead singer/songwriter Taylor Goldsmith, Dawes take all the poignant twang that made up their previous work and imbue it with a tactile, delicately experimental vibe on a set of songs that are as imaginative and catchy as ever.
Some of the credit for the band's auspicious phonic shift here must go to former Dawes guitarist Blake Mills, who returned to handle production duties. With his knack for rootsy authenticity and ear for indie rock explorations, Mills' approach brings to mind the similarly inclined work of producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake with artists like Sheryl Crow and Ron Sexsmith. However, rather than contriving something arch and impenetrable, Dawes' songs here are wry, often humorous, and filled with an open-armed joy for life. That joy is reflected in the band's unexpected musical choices. Built around a clipped, low-end electric guitar riff, the leadoff track, "One of Us," finds Goldsmith layering his voice in lo-fi microphone fuzz, deftly undercutting the song's sparkling, infectious chorus. Similarly, the band contrasts a booming distorted bass riff against '70s wah-wah guitar on the euphoric, soul-inflected "When the Tequila Runs Out." Elsewhere, as on the the vibrantly tropical "Picture of a Man," Dawes frame Goldsmith's vocals against a ringing church organ and a kinetic layer of insect-sounding percussion and harmonized backing vocals.
All told, the album vibrates with a dichotomous energy that somehow brings to mind an improbable mix of Tom Petty, Paul Simon, and Electric Light Orchestra. And it's an energy that flows from Goldsmith's lyrics as he finds layers of metaphysical irony and eye-winking depth to unveil in his steady, warm croon. As Goldsmith sings on "As If by Design," "The stars were just the holes punched in the shoebox/That gives a creature all the air he needs to breathe/As if every constellation was just a form of ventilation/From a captor too enormous to conceive." And later, "Every day getting a little more acquainted with the riddles until I'm looking for them everywhere I go." With We're All Gonna Die, Dawes have crafted an album rife with riddles and musical poetry, whose meaning may take a few listens to completely grab you. However, when it does finally hit you, it's hard to shake the feeling that Dawes have opened a door into the cosmos.