Would you like the V8 or the hybrid? The bacon burger or the salad? No, sorry, you have to choose. And since we’re already forcing you to make difficult decisions: Do you want your rock refined or raunchy?
… And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead have no problem dealing with this eternal conundrum. While 2002’s Source Tags & Codes stubbornly insisted on delivering real hooks and interesting compositions, it didn’t pull nearly enough punches to qualify as not hardcore. While you couldn’t call the album typical of the genre, you also couldn’t ignore the fact that any time a chance for understatement arose, the band took it into the alley behind the club and rearranged its face – reaffirming, in resolute and polarizing fashion, their own scene cred.
While Trail of Dead did go on to explore some other options, most agree they missed a signpost along the way, privileging extremity and caginess over focus and precision. Now, ten years after Codes, they present Lost Songs [out Oct. 23 on Superball], a record that recalls not only the sound, but the ethos of the band circa 2002.
Frontman Conrad Keely still sees the world through the same intensifying lens; every breakup is an apocalypse, every memory a 2×4 to the solar plexus. But Keeley is forty now, so instead of blotting out the sun with stories of failed relationships and professional frustrations, he’s more concerned with the zombified indolence that keeps people from taking action as the world falls apart around them.
“We’re catatonic, looking for something new,” Keely wails on “Catatonic,” sounding like a football coach trying to rally a team of seniors still hung over from last night’s prom. Fortunately, Trail of Dead have a way of making themes resonate both lyrically and sonically, bolstering the lyrical frustration of “Catatonics” with spazzy guitar lines that evoke the persistent itch of a hard-to-reach rash. Throughout the record, this same theme of destructive inertia resurfaces over and over; on “Open Doors”, Keely laments the ways in which hardship nudges us all down the easiest, least effective routes, everyone “[w]aiting for the answer/Walking through open doors.”
Closer “Time and Time Again”, with its acoustic strums and surprisingly melodic bass line, is Lost Songs’ greatest departure, and maybe its greatest achievement. Instead of turning inward and clawing at the walls of his skull, Keely gives us a melancholy anecdote buoyed by resignation instead of rage. “Drifting through the crowd I saw you glancing away/Terrified to meet my eyes,” he sings, the plain fact of his failure uncharacteristically speaking for itself.
The one sad takeaway from “Time and Time Again” is that it doesn’t belong; that, no matter how well done, that kind of song on this kind of record – a record otherwise so consistently vicious – is destined to be known as the runt of the litter. Until Trail of Dead work up the courage for another, more thoroughly considered reinvention, they’ll be captive to their own insistence that you simply have to choose.