In this instance, you’d be forgiven if you judged a book by its cover. One glance at Conrad Keely’s Bosch-meets-bullshit album cover and thoughts of bloated rock glory are sure to gallop across your skull. Worlds Apart, Trail of Dead’s epic and hotly anticipated follow-up to 2002’s Source Tags and Codes, is so clearly the sound of a band struggling to top past triumphs in bulky major-label shoes you could quite nearly write the band’s entire back story after a couple listens. The band’s fourth full-length, while big on ambition, is bigger on schmaltz.
Source Tags and Codes, Trail of Dead’s major-label debut, remains one of the most vivid documents of rock ‘n’ roll’s blissful struggle released in recent memory. While the music imploded around them, vocalists Keely and Jason Reece sounded on the verge of enlightenment — or projectile vomiting. The broken strings and blown amps on “Monsoon” create the sound of a band struggling with a talent dwarfed by limitless energy.
But “Summer of ’91,” Worlds Apart‘s plodding tribute to teen angst, is the sound of a band planted firmly in the studio. In the lead-up to this album’s oft-delayed release, Trail of Dead expressed delight in being able to spend more time amid sound-proof walls, and the results don’t surprise. It’s not that great records haven’t been made behind the boards, but for a band that built its reputation with scorch ‘n’ burn live shows, “Summer of ’91,” with it’s Elton John keys and open-diary honesty, is the near antithesis of what’s come before.
The contrasts aren’t quite so stark throughout the rest of the album, but Trail of Dead’s newfound ambition, though admirable, remains fatally confused. “Classic Arts Showcase” and “Lost City of Refuge” lurch painfully through string and vocal arrangements unable to balance their half-assed prog-isms with more familiar guitar drone. And although “Will You Smile Again?” builds its steely-eyed drama with grand swathes of pounding percussion and ringing guitar, Keely’s Chris Farley-as-Matt Foley motivational lyrics leave much to be desired.
The title track, and lead single, cashes in on Trail of Dead’s most affecting traits, with Keely’s bratty wit pulling together 9/11 symbolism and MTV decadence into a thrilling three minutes of vindictive, surging guitars and fuck-you strut. But as an album, Worlds Apart, never manages such concise statements. Most of the sincerity and spontaneity of previous efforts remains buried under repetitive hooks and tiresome self-absorption. For a band so bent on visceral, sweaty inspiration, Trail of Dead leaves us yearning for a bit more grime and a bit less gloss.