The Century of Self is the sixth album from …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead and it finds them in an uncertain position. Having parted from record label Interscope amidst much bad feeling (and a very public war of words between frontman Conrad Keely and label boss Jimmy Iovine) and relocated from long term base Austin, Texas for Brooklyn, currently the hippest area in New York, they find themselves releasing the album through their own imprint Richter Scale. After following up 2002’s high watermark Source Tags and Codes with the critically lambasted and ever diminishing returns of Worlds Apart and So Divided, they have ejected their long time bassist Neil Busch, fought onstage and generally fallen into all the clichés of the band that has fallen on hard times. Considering the trajectory their career is currently leading there is a feeling that they have to deliver on this album.
It is important to recognise that the band are a very different proposition to the band that recorded Madonna and Source Tags and Codes. Early in their career they harnessed the corrosive dissonance of Sonic Youth and trapped it within a more traditional song structure. Since 2002 Trail of Dead have become increasingly progressive. As is now customary the album begins with an instrumental, but whereas before this would have taken the form of a simple piano motif or experimental noise collage “Giant Causeway” is an overblown spectacle, replete with portentous piano and synths. Only in the last 15 seconds, as the song rings out, does a ghostly piano motif that is so unmistakeably Keely-esque flit near the surface of the song before being sublimated by the feedback that announces “Far Pavilions”. The call and response vocals, heavy tom work and the sheer tempo and exuberance of the track begin to justify some of the claims that they are back to their best. But the mid-section’s chorus of vocals, chiming piano and lead synth line are grandiose and inappropriate, more akin to something Andrew Lloyd-Webber would have written than Thurston Moore and co. This says a lot about Trail of Dead’s progressive intentions, something they announced by covering Genesis’ “Back In New York City” (a song also tackled by Jeff Buckley) for their 2003 EP The Secrets of Elena’s Tomb. “Isis Unveiled” commences with a guitar line that is eerily reminiscent of “Catacombs” by At The Drive-In before morphing into a galloping Muse-esque stadium rock stomp. The structure is similar to “Far Pavilions”, with an extended mid section that is more successful mainly due to the post-rock styling of the guitars and the wistful delivery of Keely’s vocal. Just when you think the song has ended the main riff kicks in, far from seamlessly. Further evidence of the perverse logic that informs much of the songwriting – they have a killer song that is an obvious single candidate but some of the choices in terms of structure blight the song as a whole.
Sequencing also afflicts The Century of Self. There are five songs longer than six minutes on the album, and four of them are placed in the first five and are probably amongst the strongest present. This means that the second side of the album is awash with mid-tempo piano led songs that, while pretty enough tend to meander aimlessly. The torpor of the second side is rescued by “Ascending”, but even this feels like a parody of their earlier work. That is not to say that all of the second side is a failure; “Luna Park”, nominal drummer Jason Reece’s sole songwriting contribution, is an affecting and atmospheric song while “Inland Sea” carries on their tradition of Eastern mysticism with the song focusing on transcendental meditation.
The songs are multi-layered, but Trail of Dead’s songwriting has changed so they are now unapologetically anthemic. The minor key arpeggios and deft interplay between guitars is gone, with the piano becoming a much more integral part of their sound. There have been claims that this album heralds a return to their roots, chiefly prompted by Keely and Reece playing as a duo last year, The Century of Self has more in common with World’s Apart in terms of lyrical theme, song structure, titles and artwork. But the problem with the newer works is excess – they have always had a penchant for bombast but the last three albums in their oeuvre have drowned in overdubs and over-orchestration. Unable to rein in their more excessive elements they have lost the quiet/loud dynamic that they previously used to such success. This isn’t helped on The Century of Self by the sonic compression that envelops the album, layering the album in an indistinct fug.
Comparing an artist’s new release to a previous one will always be a self-defeating exercise. The album’s title intimates the triumph of the ‘self’, that the pursuit of happiness and satisfaction are mankind’s ultimate goal. Free from major label pressure regarding their output, both aural and visual, Trail of Dead are obviously making the music that they enjoy but the feeling is that increased quality control wouldn’t have gone amiss. There are some excellent moments, but the album lacks cohesion and fails to sustain these, and overall it is a missed opportunity for Trail of Dead to be re-established amongst the forefront of alternative music.
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