This is basically how you’d expect this review to go: 1. How brilliant was Source Tags & Codes, d’you remember that? 2. How shit was Worlds Apart, d’you remember that? 3. So Divided is somewhere in between—something less than the bluster and chaos of the group’s major label debut, something more than the follow-up’s misguided pretension.
The trouble with Trail of Dead is one of expectation. For long-time fans of the Austin group’s ragged past there may be no returning to Source Tags’ peak. How could they, when last year’s album signaled the group actually valued conventional formulae—riffs, choruses, crescendos? It was never reasonable to expect a return. But for those turned onto the group’s sound by “Summer of ‘91” or “Worlds Apart”, a less exacting audience perhaps, the route to approval is paved with hook after hook; no-one’s asking for more.
By either measure, it’s not that Trail of Dead fails on So Divided, it’s more that they just don’t quite give enough. Big-sounding, straight-up American rock is one thing, but pretensions to grandeur without the, well, balls will always be ripe for cutting down. There’s a larger problem, too: taking away the brief “Intro: A Song of Fire and Wind”, which thematically sets up the second track, and “Segue: In the Realms of the Unreal”, which doesn’t do much of anything, there are only nine songs here. And even though many are over five minutes in length, the disc feels oddly empty. Conrad Keely and Jason Reece’s continued theme is wounded artistic pride, and its effect on subsequent artistry. When Keely screams, top-point, “Call it a stasis/ Feel like I’ve wasted all this time”, you can feel his wounded pride. But whinging about the fact people were disappointed with Worlds Apart is not going to bring them back.
Still, the best tracks on So Divided show a band that can pen a real indie rock song, and one that brings a measure of innovation to the arena-rock genre. “Wasted State of Mind” effectively combines Muse’s grandeur with early Bright Eyes’ art-tinged folk rock: say what you want about the rest of the album, but when Keely reaches the chorus of this song, the blossoming glory is undeniable. The songwriting works here, pairing a slow melodic line with pattering, hyperactive percussion. Elsewhere, on the oft-mentioned “Cold Heart Mountain Top Queen Directory”,
The song’s originally by Guided By Voices, and though Keely has said the band recorded the song to improve on the original, it is undeniably grand, building from piano-voice simplicity to a lush orchestral climax in (surprise, for Trail of Dead) less than three minutes.
Unfortunately, these are surrounded by a number of songs that attempt a power that feels artificially manufactured. “Naked Sun” starts straight heavy-metal blues and never pulls out of the Metallica-lined rut; “So Divided” tacks an orchestral crescendo to a straightforward rock ‘n’ roll song, bloating it interminably; and “Eight Day Hell” actually sounds like an aborted Shins tune, with the same upbeat stomp as “Mine’s Not a High Horse” and the lilting, falling melodies signature to that band.
So Divided opens with a patriotic swell intended ironically; a handful of claps bursts into whooping applause and the album’s signature driving guitars, as if to say both our power and our melody overcome institution. But Trail of Dead’s indignation barely smolders across the album. ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead has become art rock’s Green Day, a difficult proposition for critics because they are still appealing, even if they’ve lost their early fire. Without it, the band never rises above competence.