When Dashboard Confessional left the stage at the end of a recent concert in New York City’s Central Park, true fans knew the show wasn’t over just yet. Frontman Chris Carrabba hadn’t played “Hands Down,” one of his most beloved songs. No performance would be complete without it, and the audience knew the band they grew up listening to wouldn’t let them down like that.
Moments later, Carrabba returned to the spotlight as expected. “This song is about the best day I’ve ever had,” he announced. On a memorable 2002 episode of MTV Unplugged, he introduced “Hands Down” with the same words. Little did he know he’d be singing it at nearly every single concert for the next 15 years.
Many things have changed since 2002, but Carrabba’s loose definition of “best day” hasn’t. “There’s no such thing as one best day you’ve ever had in your whole life,” he told me over the phone days after the show. “But you’re lucky if you can identify even one of them, right? So that’s what it is for me, more specifically.”
For many Dashboard Confessional followers, likely including known fan Taylor Swift, “Hands Down” feels like a time capsule of the early 2000s. It conjures up images of unrequited middle-school crushes, Myspace Top 8 lists, and AIM away messages typed in Comic Sans. For Carrabba, though, the song’s victorious finale — “You stood at your door with your hands on my waist / And you kissed me like you meant it” — vividly recalls a scene from his life that seems lifted straight out of a rom-com.
“Whenever I sing the line ‘The streets were wet and the gate was locked / So I jumped it,’ I can remember it,” he said, referencing the same swoon-worthy verse. “I can remember how the street felt under my sneakers, I remember finding the locked gate, jumping over the other side and unlatching it from the inside. And I think of it every single time without fail when I sing that line.”
Carrabba doesn’t shy away from performing his early music in favor of newer songs. At the Central Park show, in addition to playing “Hands Down,” Dashboard Confessional made room for fan-favorites from The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most (2001) and A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar (2003). They even opened their set with “Vindicated,” off Dusk and Summer (2006).
“I’ve never quite figured out that gripe some bands have with hating their own songs because people like them enough that they want them to be played every night,” Carrabba said, “because to me, how could it ever be the same as yesterday? It’s a different audience, they’ve brought in their own emotionality to the moment.”
Of course, Carrabba keeps writing music, and he said to expect a new Dashboard Confessional album soon. After a four-year hiatus, a follow-up to 2009’s Alter the Ending (2009) is finally ready. A release date hasn’t been announced yet, but Carrabba previewed two new songs at Central Park: “We Fight” (an empowering anthem with political undertones) and “Heart.Beat.Here” (which sounds kind of like a 2017 version of “Screaming Infidelities”).
Dashboard Confessional’s performance that night included one outlier, however: a cover of Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” co-written by Ed Sheeran. On the surface, it’s puzzling how such massive pop stars inspired a band often described as “emo” to cover one of their songs, but Carrabba was enamored by the tune’s stripped-down composition. It was a “very brave” release, he said, because Bieber usually found success with “records steeped in heavy production.”
“While recognizing how amazing Justin Bieber is, because you just have to hear his voice to know it, I never had really connected very deeply with his songs before,” Carrabba confessed. “That’s not a reflection of his songs that he put out. That’s a reflection of my taste in music and what I’m looking for. One of the things that I respond to are really threadbare songs and when I heard ‘Love Yourself,’ I was just stunned.”
Carrabba was so impressed, Dashboard recorded their own take on Bieber’s chart-topping song for their Covered + Taped EP, a compilation of four covers released last January. More recently, they’ve begun performing “Love Yourself” in conjunction with “Remember to Breathe,” another classic from their early ’00s heyday.
Both songs share the same DNA: an acoustic guitar and lyrics about a mystery person who cares too much about appearances. “Remember to Breathe” opens with the line “She fixes her lips / They always look perfect,” which is the perfect segue into “‘Cause if you like the way you look that much…”
As the fan video above shows, the crowd knew every word to two songs separated by 13 years. There’s no secret formula to writing the perfect tune, but Dashboard Confessional’s enduring legacy proves they got it right at least a few times.
“All I can ever do is make the music that’s right for me at any given time,” Carrabba explained. “I’ve had times when I’ve been in line with the kind of music people seem to want to listen to, and there’s times I haven’t been. But right now, it feels like I’ve written songs that are connecting with people very deeply. I can’t tell you why that is, I don’t know what those factors are, but I’m happy to be in that place.”