It’s frankly quite surprising to see how much of a prevailing influence that Dashboard Confessional seem to have had within emo and pop-rock. For an act so resolutely of-their-time, there’s still a healthy number of ripples of their polished, sometimes over-earnest emo-pop that seeps through into modern work, particularly in that of singer-songwriters looking to take up a similar mantle within alternative scenes. It’s definitely impressive to see, but it can also feel kind of odd, especially when Dashboard Confessional’s particular take on emo was never all that nuanced, and to see copies of copies drawing so heavily from it only leads to the feeling that an already thin sound is becoming leached down further and further. And yet, with an artist like Cory Wells, there’s been a level behind him that suggests he’s more than just another face in the crowd; his previous singles have all been rather well-received, and bringing along fellow star-in-the-making Lizzy Farrall for a guest spot on this debut album does seem to be going in the right direction for something that manages to rise above some admittedly meagre influences and into its own level of quality.
Of course, there’s a couple of stipulations that come with that notion, namely the fact that an album like The Way We Are will doubtlessly not appeal to everyone. Even in the realm of acoustic-driven singer-songwriters, Wells’ approach is a lot smoother and cleaner in its instrumental palette, with those key connections to emo-pop and even pop-punk having a fairly prominent emphasis. And yet, it’s hard to deny that, within those boundaries, he does a good job here, grounding himself in a heartfelt simplicity that might be a bit too simple to have more of a resonant impact, but is still solid in what it’s trying to do nonetheless. Even in a lane that doesn’t typically allow for much experimentation or sonic diversity, it feels as though Wells brings enough here to actually stand out quite well, and that’s something worth celebrating overall.
That’s something that generally comes down to Wells as a presence, and how his vocal timbre pulls far more heavily from throaty pop-punk tonality that brings a pleasantly contrasting roughness to the album. On a track like Broken that builds into full-blown screaming in its final third, it makes for the sort of progression and demonstration of emotional rigour that rarely feels as potent on albums like this, and the fact that Wells has enough malleability within his voice to slide effortlessly into these harsher vocal ranges brings a sourness to proceedings that, on the whole, stacks on a layer of depth that feels imperative in getting this album to have more of an impact. While the only real mark of diversity is unfortunately squandered when Lizzy Farrall gets disappointingly little to do on Fall Apart (even though the set-up dynamic between her and Wells has potential), there’s a lot in the sharper twinges of pathos on Harbor or the quivering elements of Patience that feel more well-realised, and lead into that sense emotionality with a lot more force, both physically and emotionally. It makes up for the acoustic guitars having a bit less bite than would be preferable and the production not having quite the organic, earthy sensation that it should, but a number of decent buildups into full-band compositions go a long way in differentiating Wells among some of his contemporaries, and the results come together to be extremely listenable without feeling lazy or complacent.
That’s something that doesn’t always translate into the writing however, though to Wells’ credit, it’s at least easy to grasp the sense of underlying weight even if it isn’t made all that explicit. It’s mostly painted in the usual broad strokes emblematic of an albums like this exploring breakups and lower emotions, and that can run its course rather quickly without a lot of detail to anchor itself in and create a more tangible touchstone for such emotions. There are certainly exceptions, like Wells’ mourning of the loss of his father on Harbor, but on the whole, The Way We Are is more concerned with getting the broader image onto the page and letting Wells’ voice move everything as far into place as possible. And to be honest, that isn’t a terrible tactic, especially when he can pull it off well on multiple occasions, but it’d still be nicer to have that extra step towards greatness that some more lyrical flavour could bring. There’s only so much that can be achieved from this sort of present but restrained catharsis, and while Wells’ ends up wringing as much as he can from it, it doesn’t quite make for as full of an experience as it could be.
But overall, there’s still a lot to like about The Way We Are, and what Wells’ is doing to make an admittedly limited pool of resources feel a lot more vibrant and interesting. Whether that can have a deeper impact beyond this one collection of songs remains to be seen, but right now, there’s something here that feels like a condensed sharpening of the singer-songwriter formula that’s unequivocally a good thing. There’s enough to make Wells feel like a distinctive voice within the scene if nothing else (often more literally than anything), and that’s a harder hill to climb than it might initially seem, especially at a relatively early stage like this. It’s all yielded a good album though, and that’s something to be praised.
For fans of: Dashboard Confessional, SayWeCanFly, Speak Low If You Speak Love
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘The Way We Are’ by Cory Wells is out now on Pure Noise Records.