The Anniversary

Source Tags & Codes Turns 20

Interscope
2002
Interscope
2002

The question has never been whether Source Tags & Codes is a perfect album. Rather, it’s a question of whether any rock record could be perfect. Matt LeMay, the author of Pitchfork’s 10.0 review of Source Tags & Codes, interviewed …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead in 2002 and already had his doubts: “We’ve been getting a lot of shit from people saying that, because it’s ‘only rock music,’ and because ‘it’s been done before,’ it cannot qualify as an essential record.” Drummer Jason Reece and drummer/guitarist/vocalist Conrad Keely mostly agreed with him and proceeded to lick shots at guitar bands who weren’t considered to be only rock music — such as Tortoise and, if I’ve interpreted their disdain for “blurry photographs and san serif fonts” correctly, Interpol. If I’m to believe the datelines, this interview ran one day after the review was published. Pitchfork’s year-end blurb for Source Tags & Codes and the review of its follow-up, 2005’s Worlds Apart, both began by asking whether they had made a mistake.

Eighteen years later, LeMay had come to a decision. As he told The Ringer in 2020, “If you look at it as a marker of cultural significance that one would expect to extend beyond the moment of evaluation, I think it’s fair to say that it was not a great call.” This quote came in an article that explored the impact of the Pitchfork Perfect Score, inspired by the 10.0 recently given to Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters — the first in nearly a decade and the fifth since 2000. The others include Kanye West’s megalomaniacal masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as well as Kid A and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, examples of two already canonized rock bands taking their sound to bold, experimental new heights, on albums that had already been leaked, shared, and exalted months before their official release. “Instant classic” was the realm of auteurs, geniuses, paradigm-shifters — a descriptors that also apply to the five-star reviews Rolling Stone gave to Beck, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, U2, the White Stripes and… Mick Jagger. Though a uniquely aggressive and artful and ambitious rock band, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead were — and still are — working within a fairly narrow conception of guitar-led indie rock. But if you believe that this style of music can achieve perfection, it probably sounds a lot like Source Tags & Codes.

Look, I know how lame it is to start a discussion on one of the most invigorating, unique, and flat-out awesome rock albums of the 21st century with some dorky inside baseball shit. But let’s be real here: If you’re reading a 20th anniversary piece on an online music publication, this is what Source Tags & Codes is known for in 2022. The album did not make Trail Of Dead famous; as far as I can tell, it had moved 100,000 copies by the release of Worlds Apart, which is way more than can reasonably be expected from a band named …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. That said, it came out (20 years ago this Saturday) on Interscope Records, whose 2002 release slate included The Eminem Show, the 8 Mile soundtrack, yet another posthumous 2Pac release, and the Styles P album with “Good Times” on it. Besides Trail Of Dead, the closest thing Interscope released to rock music in 2002 was t.A.T.u. or that Eminem song that sampled Aerosmith.

It also didn’t inspire a legion of imitators. That really didn’t seem like the goal either, as rock music was still thriving commercially, if not always creatively. The New Rock Revolution had yet to hit its “landfill indie” phase, emo-pop was beginning to solidify its place in alt-rock playlists for the rest of the decade, while the innovations of nu-metal were cast aside for the nu-grunge of Staind and Seether and Nickelback. Source Tags & Codes wasn’t intended to be a 2002 Nevermind, a band smuggling ugly and vital underground rock into the necropolises of post-9/11 suburban living rooms and Clear Channel playlists, though Keely may have thought otherwise — on the title track of Worlds Apart, a mocking voice interrupts Keely’s pissy, anti-capitalist screeds by asking, “Who are you, Kurt Cobain?” But I do see Source Tags & Codes as perhaps the last of a certain kind of record that could only exist thanks to Nevermind making this kind of music commercially viable enough for a motivated A&R to follow a whim — the Y2K version of post-hardcore agitators such as Drive Like Jehu, Jawbox, and Shudder To Think (amongst many others) getting signed to major labels and somehow putting out the best albums of their lives.

If I’m to believe the legend, both Jimmy Iovine and myself shared a passion for reading import copies of NME at local bookstores in 2000; the Interscope exec was fascinated by the band name, their reputation for hyperbolically destructive live shows, and even their look, which occasional Stereogum contributor Stuart Berman once described as a “demonic Beatles.” “I don’t care how long it takes,” Iovine told the Los Angeles Times after signing Trail Of Dead to what I have to presume was at least a three-album deal. “We’ll sit there and let them do their thing. They have the talent.”

In retrospect, this only raises the question of whether it’s better to be a power player’s passion project or a band that the label expects to make money. After 2006’s So Divided flopped worse than Worlds Apart, Keely announced that Trail Of Dead were “dumping” Interscope. Their grievances included, but were not limited to, Iovine dating Nicole Scherzinger, not returning Keely’s phone calls, and working with Phil Spector 30 years ago. This announcement was hosted on Interscope’s blog.

Trail Of Dead certainly were aware things could turn out like this; hell, maybe they expected it. They were not included in Sellout, Dan Ozzi’s excellent oral history of the decade when pop-punk, emo, and hardcore bands were getting scooped up with expectations of becoming the next Nirvana or Green Day. Still, both sonically and chronologically, they could fit right in between the chapters dedicated to At The Drive-In and Thursday.

But they didn’t have to look very far to find cautionary tales. At that time, Austin wasn’t being considered as the “next Seattle,” yet there was still enough evidence of the city being stripmined for talent. “How come I feel so washed up/ At such a tender age?” Britt Daniel moaned on Girls Can Tell, an album that rebooted Spoon’s career after a disastrous stint on Elektra; ironically, Girls Can Tell was released on Merge, the label that Trail Of Dead would leave for Interscope. Then there was the case of Fastball, who actually did have a couple of massive hits with 1998’s All The Pain That Money Can Buy. After that one went platinum, “Their second [album] was gold, and their third was, they were off the label,” Keely groused.

Regardless of how much Trail Of Dead wrestled with the ethics of going major, there was an upside that they simply could not turn down — they could have the finances to record outside of Austin and all of its distractions and finally make an album that sounded as good as they wanted. The “esoteric art” of mixing and mastering is truly absolutely essential for something like Source Tags & Codes and also the reason it inspired raves so immediate and effusive that people felt the need to apologize for them. The album wants to convince you of its awesomeness from its very first second.

Opener “It Was There That I Saw You” did not signify an artistic 180 like “Everything In Its Right Place” or “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”; Trail Of Dead were workshopping it during their touring cycle for Madonna — a record some fans still argue is superior to Source Tags & Codes. I acknowledge a certain “you had to be there” element to that take; having heard Source Tags first, I’m struck by how much wider the difference really was between “indie rock” and “major label” back in 1999. Madonna is indeed required listening, albeit an album where Trail Of Dead were only beginning to recognize what they were capable of capturing in the studio.

After a brief valedictory buzz of static, every instrument immediately operates at peak velocity and volume on “It Was There That I Saw You.” To quote another song produced by Mike McCarthy, everything hits at once. (Also, let’s just take the time to acknowledge that, between Spoon’s Kill The Moonlight and Source Tags & Codes, McCarthy worked on boh the most shockingly austere and the most gloriously over-the-top indie rock albums of 2002.) If the frequencies or the levels were off just a bit, “It Was There That I Saw You” would’ve become an impenetrable brick wall or an indistinct blur. Instead, it comes on like a tidal wave or a wildfire — immersive, overwhelming, permeable and scalable. Source Tags & Codes sounds incredible at modest office or headphone-friendly volumes and even better if you blast it in your car. But, man… play it on a boombox as loud as possible in an open field — it’s fucking incredible.

The sound was in service of the emotion. Keely strove to recapture the feeling of living (read: drinking and drugging) in Austin during the mid-1990s, “before America went to shit.” The unorthodox structure of “It Was There That I Saw You,” occasionally replicated elsewhere on Source Tags & Codes, is modeled after the way I remember living at a similar age — unbridled bursts of impulse and infatuation, followed by bottoming-out periods of remorse and reflection, sorting through the spoils and carnage of what came before. The pretty parts of Source Tags & Codes are never just pretty; they’re singed by feedback and moaning strings, lasting long enough for the stale smoke to clear and the beer cans to get picked up before it happens all over again. The vocal parts are either all tension, or all release, or both. I’ve been conditioned to call drum fills like the ones here “gratuitous,” but how can they be gratuitous when they’re absolutely necessary? Even as Trail Of Dead redline throughout, the song always sounds like it’s headed towards a chorus that never comes. Everyone has their own version of this time in their lives, a phase of newfound autonomy to live teenage dreams in an early-20s body. It’s never sustainable, but it can last until the hangovers get too brutal or the realities of adult obligation set in.

For the most part, people predisposed to this kind of music understood Trail Of Dead’s intent. “Their influences are not Berlin-era Bowie and New Order, not Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, not Woody Guthrie and the Flying Burrito Brothers: they’re Sonic Youth, Fugazi, Drive Like Jehu, and Jawbox,” Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber wrote of Source Tags & Codes, which placed #3 in their 2002 year-end list behind, notably, Wilco and Interpol. After listing off his website’s formative bands, he concluded, “When I listen to it, I feel as though I’m 15 years old discovering this world for the first time,” setting a tone for the earnest, apologetic and qualified praise that was all Source Tags & Codes (and, really, all rock music of this sort) could earn going forward — that the overwhelming, fundamental feelings it conjures, of implacable passion, inexplicable torment, or even just discovering the indie rock canon, are somehow less trustworthy because of their immediacy. I don’t entirely agree with his view of Source Tags & Codes as a gateway album; it might eventually lead younger listeners to the supposedly headier likes of Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine, when they’re “ready” for them. But what if it was really the other way around?

At the time, I knew enough about Sonic Youth to recognize how, say, “Baudelaire” couldn’t exist without them — a vocal melody chasing an octave riff is the Sonic Youth thing, especially if it’s connected to some kind of egghead art reference. And while Fugazi didn’t invent the “one guy sings/one guy screams” vocal dynamic, they at least codified it, so I knew why screamo-adjacent explosions like “Homage” and “Days Of Being Wild” were necessary for balance.

Yet I still found it difficult to embrace Sonic Youth and Fugazi as more than passed-down history lessons at the time, largely because of the baggage of “importance” attributed to them. I could get drawn in by the propulsion and drone and unorthodox guitar harmonies of Daydream Nation, but had a reflexive repulsion towards the NYC-exceptionalist boho pretensions that made Sonic Youth fandom deal feel insufferably smug (their “Homerpalooza” cameo notwithstanding). The people I knew that advocated for Fugazi always seemed to fixate on their ethical purity and moral superiority more than the actual music (at least until The Argument made its way to my college radio station and I could formulate an opinion in real time: It fucking rules.). And that’s where Source Tags & Codes comes in — it did all of that stuff while dealing in big, sloppy emotions, and it required no preconditions for understanding aside from being open to experiencing big, sloppy emotions. In other words, it was as emo as they could get without actually being the kind of “emo” that Trail Of Dead despised in 2002.

But surely they could understand why they had been given that tag in some circles, or why modern emo bands are the ones holding the torch for Trail Of Dead; just go listen to “A Perfect Teenhood.” Besides, what is “Relative Ways” but their own answer to “The Middle,” a singsong pep talk to themselves as they got into crunch time creating their make-or-break album. I’m not exactly surprised it never achieved a fraction of the Jimmy Eat World song’s success; I can’t imagine Taylor Swift singing along to “Relative Ways,” since not even Keely sounds like he can sing it correctly. “Another Morning Stoner” appears to be the most popular song on Source Tags & Codes and is a quintessentially emo expression of a romantic deadlock, albeit run through a prism of theological debate. “Is heaven to you a perfect place?/ The look of sorrow on a sufferer’s face?,” Keely shouts, addressing a partner raised in strict Christianity. “Why is it I don’t feel the same?/ Are my longings to be blamed/ For not seeing heaven like you would see/ Why is a song a world for me?” Also, although I can’t totally verify this, I’ve read that “Another Morning Stoner” is actually a reference to wood and not weed.

This is not to say that Trail Of Dead lacked pretension; I mean, look at the damn name again. The multimedia syllabus that fully unlocks Source Tags & Codes‘ mysteries is far more intimidating than their record collection, but to Trail Of Dead’s eternal credit, they ensure all of their references are supplemental to the experience, not elemental. Whatever romantic slight that causes you to punch a wall along with the chorus of “Hand In The Heart Of The Matter” — “I’M SO DAMNED! I CAN’T WIN! MY HEART IN MY HANDS AGAIN!” — matters more than whether or not you’ve seen Fallen Angels, the Wong Kar-Wai assassin romance that influenced its lyrics. “Days Of Being Wild” takes its title from another Wong Kar-Wai film, but all you need to grasp where they’re coming from is some actual wild days of your own — or at least nights of wilding the fuck out at a hardcore show that ends after 15 minutes.

I did not know who Stendhal was in 2002, nor the syndrome attributed to his name. Nor was I aware of neo-classic oil painter Maxfield Parrish or his muse Sue Lewin, or the book that detailed their relationship, which served as the inspiration for Keely’s lyrics for the incapacitating nostalgia of “How Near, How Far.” It took me years to realize that there was an actual name for the fugue state that it induced as I pounded out every drum roll on my steering wheel, bench press, or whatever other slightly pliable surface is within reach. I could tell that Neil Busch really meant it on “Baudelaire” when he outed boredom and emotional distance as the only crime in this life of ours; I didn’t know that Baudelaire himself was actually responsible for that quote. You could argue there’s an irony in shouting down aloof intellectualism on a song called “Baudelaire,” but then again, what passionate 20-something has a totally coherent ideology?

The engrossing din of Trail Of Dead’s music made it easier to appreciate or even overlook their more academic bent, which probably explains why Worlds Apart was such a shock — at once both more arcane and more pop than anything that preceded it, Worlds Apart tried a little bit of everything except Source Tags & Codes II. While I cannot fucking wait to talk about Worlds Apart‘s 20th anniversary three years from now, I’ll admit that I’m still unsure about whether Trail Of Dead were trying to transcend their inevitable backlash or lean into it (in their 4.0 review of Worlds Apart, Pitchfork noted that the reputation of Source Tags & Codes was “beginning to dwarf the band itself in importance,” which is some real Hot Dog Guy stuff). Unlike its predecessor, it did manage to chart on the Billboard 200 at #88. I don’t doubt Keely’s account of being demoralized by the artistic vision at Interscope HQ, but just look at this incredible video for “The Rest Will Follow”; at the very least, he got How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb to pay for that.

I don’t remember much about 2006’s So Divided aside from thinking it had one (1) good song upon first listen; that is, until I discovered it was actually a Guided By Voices cover. Trail Of Dead moved on from Interscope and have since become right-sized, dependably making quite good and occasionally great records that have in no way deescalated their prog fantasias. Indie rock has moved on as well, and no one seems to hold Trail Of Dead’s older work against them anymore; all parties seem to agree that getting another Source Tags & Codes is as likely as Jimmy Iovine doing A&R scouting at Borders.

But what does it say about Source Tags & Codes‘ place in the canon if no one has come close to matching its golden ratio of aggression, accessibility, and artifice? Dogleg were one of the few bands I’ve ever seen specifically namechecking it as an influence, and the string-soaked, six-minute “Ender” is pretty clearly modeled after the title track from Source Tags & Codes. Every now and again, a Touché Amoré or Cloud Nothings song, or even just a section of one, might get the balance right. Or maybe ULTRAPOP if the Armed weren’t so intent on maintaining a veil of secrecy about themselves. It’s not like there’s been a total lack of dynamic and melodic heavy indie rock. In fact, there’s probably more of it now than at any point in the past decade or so; perhaps what’s really missing is the major-label push and unrestrained enthusiasm that created a capital-e Event out of the kind of album that hasn’t had access to either in these more circumspect times. Twenty years later, this somehow makes Source Tags & Codes feel like an aspiration, a model for an album that we’re still leading up to, something that can unify everything exciting going on in emo or post-hardcore or metal or arty indie rock. I don’t know if this makes Source Tags & Codes a perfect 10. I just know I always want to turn it up to 11.

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