It’s hard to understand why pressure from a major label would cause a band to put out a tedious yet sprawling disaster (Worlds Apart) and an effete, distracted whimper (So Divided) rather than reprise the weighty, borderline exploratory rock with which they’d made their name. The Century of Self is …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead’s first full-length release since their liberation from Interscope’s clutches in 2007, and free from said pressure, the band claims they’re now able to return to form, specifically the form of 2002’s notable Source Tags & Codes, though this feels more like a regrouping than a rebirth.
The mostly exaggerated thunder of praise surrounding Source Tags has put the band in an awkward position, unable to surmount an album whose shadow appears much longer than warranted. It was a solid rock album, nothing earth shattering, yet every review or piece on the band makes some mention of its supposed importance. Century of Self provides scintillating echoes of that still much better work, but the best it can muster is slim imitations of the band’s former glory. “Far Pavilions” sounds like a direct transposition of “Another Morning Stoner,” and while there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, it feels slightly worn.
Even on their earlier work, the sonic fiddling the band draped over their meaty songs felt arbitrary and detached; here it’s the same but with weaker songs. The delicate marimba-like shuffle that ends “Halcyon Days” and “An August Theme”, a brief, pointless chamber music aside, are all little touches that exist outside the actual structure of these songs—production notes that amount to nothing more than window dressing. Moves like this are not the only example of faux-artistic pandering: There’s the two part suite, separated by two filler tracks, that ends the album, and snippets of found sound and unnecessarily oblique lyrics. When the band did this before, like the distant sounding effects passages that bridged songs on Source Tags, it felt like a quirk; here it’s a spindly crutch that doesn’t amount to anything.
Even when the band does step outside of itself, it’s right into the shoes of others, like the Jesus and Mary Chain-reminiscent “Luna Park” and “Insatiable (Two),” the second part of the abovementioned suite, which cribs Beirut’s waltz tempos and bass-y male choruses before snapping back into an artificially rousing sing-along ending. Century of Self is at times a stirring, effective rock album, familiar but stable, but the band’s general creativity is less vital than they think, and rather than settle down they continue a fussy streak of projects loaded with hollow, stilted ambition. If the only result of total freedom is a dusting of cool sounds followed by wanky instrumental intros, then the band may have dug themselves a hole from which no amount of creative control can free them.