Review Summary: An electric guitar hangs to my knees / got a couple verses I can barely breathe.
On some versions of the Austin, Texas, band …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead’s mammoth third album, there’s a trifling ninety-second intro entitled “Invocation.” It weaves a gently ascendant piano line around choppy, opaque radio samples and far off the dial feedback before a woman’s voice peeks through the static: “You know, if you really wanted to achieve anything at all, you should just go for it.” At least, that’s what I like to think she says – the distortion picks up a bit around “achieve,” obscuring just what she thinks you should really just go for. But I don’t think it could be anything else. Titled as it is, “Invocation” is a pretty cheesy introduction to a record that, all things considered, could have ended fairly poorly, suffocating under its own conceit. I think Trail of Dead knows this – I’m almost confident another otherworldly snippet one can hear is a man complaining about a “pretentious band” around swirling eddies of AM squelches – but what makes Source Tags & Codes
such an unmitigated success is that they never act like that is even a possibility.
Before that dropping bass telegraphs the relentless assault of “It Was There That I Saw You,” all there is is that spectral backdrop of fuzz, an “Invocation,” and that deceptively lazy guitar line announcing a band ready to paint to the furthest edges of their canvas. Then it explodes. Source Tags & Codes
is a massive, loud, abrasive record. It’s also absolutely ridiculous, an overstuffed monstrosity of a quasi-concept record that miraculously ties together all its individual parts with interstitial bits of noise and alien sound bites, crafting a chain to grasp on to through a digital dystopia. Only Conrad Keely could take an up-jumped high school poetry verse like “I’ve rendered every line, every contour of a muse’s eye / painted in my eye’s mind / on canvases of time / I swear I know not why / those eyes have always left me dry” and transform it into a desperate, maddened bit of melancholy. That it never comes close to collapsing in on itself, or burning far too quick, is what separates it from the band’s latter discography, where they too often lost the thread connecting ambition with meaning. Source Tags & Codes
never lets you forget the one without the other – it bludgeons you upside the head with its potential and bonds you breathless to the ragged, incandescent emotional core that holds it all together.
When I first heard Source Tags & Codes
, as a junior in high school, I was thrilled with the way it spun these disparate threads together, religion and technology, love and hate, failure and hope, into a coherent whole that fluidly moved through prog-influenced indie to raucous gutter punk to sweeping, apocalyptic anthems. Those seamless transitions are as important a part of the album as any individual song: the decaying feedback screeching out of “It Was There That I Saw You” and into that ka-thunk guillotine of a guitar riff that opens “Another Morning Stoner”; the phone call filtered through hell’s sewer that closes out “Heart In The Hand Of The Matter”; the twisted fun-house interlude “After the Laughter,” creepy yet strangely uplifting. It was an album’s album. As a 16-year-old, my tastes largely skewed towards the Spoon and the Strokes of the world (in that respect, very little has changed. Sorry Sputnik; it’s not you, it’s me) – predictably, it took a while until I didn’t feel the need to skip past the throaty screams of “Homage.” Source Tags & Codes
was the first album I can remember teaching me to appreciate, really, truly appreciate, an LP as a collective piece of work. Individual songs stand out, namely centerpiece “How Near, How Far” and the gut punch purging of “Relative Ways,” but Source Tags & Codes
was always a treatise, not a compilation. The success it had over latter records in Trail of Dead’s discography has to do, I suspect, with the band members themselves. Aside from Trail of Dead mainstays Conrad Keely and Jason Reece, this is the last record bassist Neil Busch performed and sang on, and his full-bodied baritone and nihilistic lyrical approach provide a counterpoint that would not be duplicated again. “Baudelaire” pummels you with those drums and a driving melody, tearing apart the accordion-soundtracked Old World bazaar it jauntily saunters it on. “Monsoon” doesn’t distinguish between time periods or people – in its ominous crescendo there is only absolution, a reckoning that arrives with the record’s most overwhelming peak. “Pray to God, but I doubt that he’s listening / this world’s a gutter that he likes to piss in,” Busch announces, and then delivers on that promise. Fu
ck yeah! – teenage me would say, air drumming all the way. He might have had a heavy handed touch, but Busch’s influence was always the perfect foil to Keely and Reece, successfully marrying a straightforwardly biting rage with an almost elegant beauty in his songs.
Make no mistake – in its violent energy and exquisite, delicate way around a complicated arrangement, Source Tags & Codes
is a beautiful record, even while its themes are conflicted and often oppressive. I first saw them on the So Divided
tour, and I distinctly remember Reece coming out before the show and throwing out a full case of Miller Lite to the audience members. At an all-ages show, mind you. This was the coolest goddamn thing to a high school student, but in that performance and later ones, it wasn’t the riffs that got to me (although they were appropriately bitchin’) or Reece and Keely’s stage banter (flawless) or guitarist Kevin Allen nodding off halfway through “Homage” and having to be helped up (still one of my favorite concert memories). Even then I could see the frustration and hope dueling with each other beneath “How Near, How Far,” the loneliness and self-regret stalking under Reece’s theatrical lyrics on “Heart In The Hand Of The Matter.” When Keely screams out “What is forgiveness / it’s just a dream / what is forgiveness / it’s everything,” at the end of “Another Morning Stoner,” I’m no longer a teenager enjoying being buffeted by these blasts of sound. I’m talking to that same girl who attended that show with me, myself now away for my freshman year of college and listening to her sob from 3000 miles away and call me an asshole; I’m dropping off her clothes on winter break a year later and slipping away like a thief; I’m 25 and sitting at a desk, fresh out of another long-term relationship – this was the one, until she wasn’t – not knowing what the hell I’m going to do with myself. Has there ever been a more appropriate lyric than Keely wondering, “why is a song the world for me?”
I’m older now, the jury still out on wiser. There isn’t yet a volume knob that goes high enough for me to properly appreciate “Days Of Being Wild,” and it makes me feel young, and happy, even though I have no clue what Reece is yelling about. That spoken-word at the end – “a middle finger to the institution” – that’s all the explanation this song, those feelings need, and plainly stated. Subtlety was always overrated. When I used to listen to “Relative Ways,” I always thought that the final refrain, Keely screaming “It’s ok, I’m a saint / I forgave your mistakes,” was snide and sarcastic, a self-congratulating sneer to a romantic party to be named later. I hear it differently now. It’s there in the way his voice tears itself up moments earlier, Keely snarling, “got a couple verses I can barely breathe.” That last chorus isn’t directed at anyone except Keely himself. It’s the kind of lie you tell yourself to make you feel better, to ensure yourself that, no, you were never the problem; really, sleep is hard enough as it is. It’s all relative, anyways.
When the title track hits, closing things out on a shuffling, almost lackadaisical melody, the feeling of resolution is well earned. I left home when I went to college with no intention of coming back. Keely’s last message is universal to anyone who’s ever been in that position: “This city has lost a certain hold inside / feels so worn being chained here to this life / been around and seen one hundred scenes / where those who dare to tread the wheel / one day find out what’s behind that hill.” It’s a triumph tinged with loss, melancholy imbued with optimism, the kind of experience you don’t want to have again but a feeling you never want to forget. “Source Tags and Codes” ends with a rising tide of instruments and vocals, a revelation steeped in realism. “From lives I’ve tried to lead / to the one that I received / each painted sign along the road / will melt away in source tags and in codes,” is the album’s thesis statement on transition, an acceptance of a basic fact of life that, everyone, at one point or another, eventually accepts. But the strings that rise up unbidden after the guitars die down, a final denouement, are stately and grim, a celebration for a funeral. I’m reminded not of resolution or acceptance but of inevitability. The catharsis of Source Tags & Codes
is simple and easily disposed of, by necessity, after such a dense and debilitating listen. It’s the only fitting conclusion.
It feels like coming home.