AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD: SOURCE TAGS & CODES (2002)
1) It Was There That I Saw You; 2) Another Morning Stoner; 3) Baudelaire; 4) Homage; 5) How Near How Far; 6) Heart In The Hand Of The Matter; 7) Monsoon; 8) Days Of Being Wild; 9) Relative Ways; 10) After The Laughter; 11) Source Tags & Codes.
I do not like to believe, nor would I recommend anyone to believe, in miraculous musical revolutions. It's not that musical talent should necessarily show up on the genetic level — one's skills can be honed through time as well — but situations when artists release a 10-star album right after a 2-star album and then go back to a 3-star album before reemerging with a 9-star album have always looked highly suspicious to me, and, upon careful consideration, unsupported. As far as I'm concerned, there's no irrational basis for this, unless rational factors like too much grass, too much booze, or one too many replacements of the band's drummer are involved.
With the release of the
It is hardly pleasant for me to badmouth albums that, this way or the other, have made history, as I am quite a history buff myself. But, happily, I don't feel any need to. No, nothing miraculous on the horizon: Source Tags & Codes is not a giant step in any unpredictable direction. The band's views on what constitutes cool music haven't changed much, their basic musical schtick still consists of interaction between the jangle anode and the noise cathode, and the vocals are as ugly as usual. There is, however, one important change that seems to trigger all the other ones: the band has grown up.
Maybe it was their realization that they're recording for a bigger label, or, vice versa, the bigger label picked them up only once they started the maturation process, or something else, but all of the songs end up sounding more accessible — in fact, I'm positively sure some of the old fans could have called the record a crappy sellout after the uncompromising explosions of the self-titled debut and Madonna (in a way that one could also call London Calling a sellout after The Clash — or a miriad other similar situations).
Not a great deal more: upon first listen, I remained just as uninvolved as usual. But eventually, this stuff clicks. Of course, a tremendous amount of help comes from improved production: with a bigger and better studio at their disposal, the guys end up with sharper and clearer guitar separation, making it possible for the melodies to come through. They also bring in additional touches, like, for instance, strings arrangements on some of the tracks — they aren't so much heard as felt, according to the Phil Spector principle, but it sometimes adds a real aura of grandness to the tune as compared to the faked aura of grandness on Madonna. The songs still sound similar, but they no longer blend into each other so frustratingly.
However, the melodies themselves are improving — it is now possible to connect with some of them on an emotional level that transcends generic headbanging. As far as I'm concerned, for instance, there is nothing even remotely close to the exhilarating power of the opening riff for 'Baudelaire', or the stately grandeur of the mid-tempo melody of the title track, which is quite worthy of a Neil Young, for instance. The dark chords of 'Monsoon' rumble around you like dark clouds; the chiming chords of 'Relative Ways' weave an epic pattern of unexpected optimism; and most other tracks, which I wouldn't count as highlights, have melodies or atmospheres with either explicit meanings or concealed ones that are well worth decoding.
I don't think this should necessarily mean that I've been seriously misunderstanding Madonna; I'd rather see this as a successful attempt of imbuing their already well-oiled musical machine with certain classical values. Source Tags & Codes washes away much, if not most, of the "punk" attitude of its predecessors — the necessary condition of including a fast thrashy section in each of the songs is no longer necessary, the lyrics are generally less provocative, the screaming less pronounced. The freed-up space is then occupied by a diversity of feelings, from the angry to the contemplative, but mostly, with the epic. You may not know what exactly they're trying to tell you — and analyzing their lyrics won't tell you much except what you already know — but, finally, they have the means to tell it to you with a flair.
The proverbial Pitchfork review from Matt LeMay put it this way: "Source Tags and Codes will take you in, rip you to shreds, piece you together, lick your wounds clean, and send you back into the world with a concurrent sense of loss and hope". I fully concur with the 'sense of loss and hope' thing — tragedy and optimism are both expressed very clearly on this album, sometimes on the very same track. The rest, of course, is a starry-eyed exaggeration; the band is sailing the same old angst-and-depression caravel that was freshly rigged and painted in the days of Quadrophenia, and if it honestly 'rips you to shreds, pieces you together, licks your wounds clean', I can't help but picture you as an ecstatic Pacific island native hailing said worn-out caravel into his harbour.
Source Tags & Codes is quite an emotional roller coaster, but I don't recall it putting me into any kind of emotional state I hadn't experienced a million times before, not to mention it took quite a while for it to put me into those states. If it does turn out to be "the album of the decade", it only goes to show how much that decade had to offer humanity. But if it doesn't (and I'd rather it didn't), it has a much better chance to go down in history as simply one more clever, honest, spiritually satisfying album that, so far, no decade has really lacked. With all that in mind, I'm happy to give it a thumbs up and warn similar-minded people that, unlike Madonna, it does warrant repeated listenings even if your initial conviction that you're still forcing yourself to swallow the same old shit happens to be stronger than mine.