Review: Dan Kwas – Dreams Die Hard (Self Released, 2010)
What happens when a power pop songwriter’s 20-something angst resurfaces in the voice of a married, 50-something father? Dan Kwas answers that very question with his second solo album, a dispirited collection whose mid-life crisis runs a great deal deeper than adolescent heartbreak. Kwas finds that the end-of-the-world urgency of his earlier years was little more than naivette, while the disillusion of middle-age is considered from a vantage point that affords little remaining time for achievement. In contrast to music careers that stretch continuously from youth to middle age, Kwas put his musical dreams away at a young age, only to crack open the amber twenty-five years later. The emotions he freed no find youthful romantic crises upon which to alight; instead they weigh him down with the tired sense of mortality one develops in middle age.
Kwas first solo album, 2007’s A Life Too Long Forgotten, was meant to be a “catharsis for the longings of middle age,” but in making new music, he awakened long-dormant dreams and ignited the realization his musical ambitions were killed off prematurely. His early-80s band, The Sidewalks, found regional fame in Milwaukee, but failing to attract a larger audience or record label, the group folded and Kwas moved on to other endeavors, including marriage and children. Dreams Die Hard is a home-brew affair, with Kwas singing and playing all the instruments, and writing everything save a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.” The tracks were “recorded in a cold, damp basement in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin,” which befits his intimate complaints of middle-age’s settlement.
Kwas isn’t (or isn’t any longer) a hot-shot guitarist or drummer (the bass sounds to be his main instrument), but that works in his favor, as the home-spun folk-rock productions befit the album’s ragged emotional tenor. His slow-motion take on the Stones’ “Last Time” leans more heavily on the song’s indecision than its spittle, and by the time he finally sings of romantic distress on “My Heart” and “Never Saw it Coming,” it’s overshadowed by the larger disappointments that have already been cataloged. Kwas existential crises surface in “Nowhere to Go But Down” and “One More Nail in My Coffin But One Less Day of Pain” mulling death more closely, and he closes the album with a Salvation Army band rhythm and bitter faithlessness in “Jesus Saves (Save for Me).”
There’s tremendous irony in a happily married power-popper discovering that romantic harmony leaves room for larger, previously unimaginable life disappointments. The issues of earlier years have been replaced by the forsaking of a musical mistress (“Don’t Dreams Die Hard”), the repetition of work life (neatly echoed in the clock-like rhythm of “Worn Down”), and religious disillusion (“Magic Touch,” which could also be heard as begging a second chance with his artistic muse). Kwas’ middle-class jealousy, depression, and emotional malaise are topics well explored in books and films, but less regularly a wellspring for pop music. Listeners of a certain age will find that having these realizations couched in the power-pop tones of their youth is a powerfully depressing combination.