In late 2009, as part of Aquarium Drunkard’s decade-ending coverage, I named …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead’s Source Tags and Codes my second-favorite record of the previous ten years. A little more than a year later, I panned Tao of the Dead in the pages of FILTER, in what is one of only two deeply negative reviews I’ve ever written. Source Tags is a sprawling field of chaos, united by a strange and melancholic core; Tao is bloated and arrogant, and doesn’t justify its lengthy runtime.
These are the two poles between which Trail of Dead operate, the sublime and the ridiculous. Like every other record the group would put out, Madonna relies on the tension between the refined and the primitive. It’s a concept that’s broadly applied throughout Trail of Dead’s catalog, whether it applies to the music, the emotions it stokes, or the intellect it reflects: it’s hard to think of any other contemporary indie-rock band so invested in art history, and equally difficult to imagine any other contemporary indie-rock band willing to put a steampunk fox on an album cover. And while Madonna would mark the last time the band kept ambitions in relative check, its success, like the success of the records the group would release in its wake, can be read in the dust of the arena where art and punk and prog bash in one another’s brains and hearts.
It almost always works on Madonna. The album’s opening line, from “Mistakes and Regrets”: “If I could make a list/Of my mistakes and regrets/I’d put your name on top/And every line after it.” Taken alone, Conrad Keely’s lyric is exquisitely stupid, and that’s before you consider that conditional verb. (“Could”? What’s stopping you? Lack of pen and paper?) But taken over braided guitar lines and Keely’s downcast delivery, it does an excellent job of building tension, tension that eventually pops into octaved guitar runs and full-throated shout-singing. “Mistakes and Regrets” is the wellspring that the group would tap three years later with Source Tags, an unspeakable melancholy kicked up by resolution.
Even at its clangiest, there’s a calming warmth to Madonna. Around the time that I first went around venerating Source Tags, shortly after its release, a friend didn’t understand how I could like Trail of Dead and not Sonic Youth. Listening now, the SY influence is readily apparent, particularly in the mid-section of “Totally Natural,” a breakdown in the most proper sense of the song’s mechanics totally giving out. I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but even at the edges of extremity to which Trail of Dead push their song’s structures and textures–and we reach some serious outer ripples here–they still subject everything to the purposes of traditional pop songs, with traditional pop payoffs; while the group huddles in a migraine cluster in its bridge, they let “Totally Natural” give in to the kind of rushing emotion that Sonic Youth typically eschews in the chorus. At the time, I didn’t even hear the similarity between the two bands; the latter always seemed to be trying to alienate me, while Trail of Dead seemed (and still seem) much warmer and more inviting. Check the notes of electric piano that cascade across the monolithic surface of “Blight Takes All,” mirroring Jason Reece’s vocal, if you don’t believe me.
All of which makes it even stranger, even funnier, that in 1999, Trail of Dead were better known for their chaotic live shows than for their emotionally freighted art-punk. (I’m fairly certain that the romantic promise of trashed instruments and on-stage fist-fights was what first turned me in the group’s direction.) Madonna’s most memorable track seems to have been written as a soundtrack to that chaos–or, no, as a guaranteed catalyst for it, spending the record’s intellectual and emotional capital for the sake of cheap and artless and completely thrilling hardcore. Sure, now, with iron knowledge for good cannon fodder, I can hear that that opening run in “A Perfect Teenhood” is nicked from Sonic Youth’s “Dirty Boots,” but Trail of Dead barrel through their song with such gleeful intensity as to render criticism impenetrable. The whole thing is a blunt-force trauma. Its lyrics, spat out in a hurry and almost ahead of the beat, are a non-sequitur compilation. “Believe it or not, this is a plan of action/A perfect teenhood is a drug racket,” and then that four-line chorus: “Tommy gun/Blood lust/A perfect teenhood/Fuck you,” the expletive tossed in just to shove you off the scent, then repeated ad nauseum over the hammered-out coda. It’s idiotic and thrilling, and flaunts the balance between careful restraint and primal emotion that, to this point, has given Madonna its power. And yet, it’s undeniable. There’s probably no other band that could get away with it.
I can’t quite remember when or where I picked up my copy of Madonna, but it had to have been some time between the night me and a handful of good friends saw Trail of Dead tear apart the French Quarter House of Blues in early 2005 and the approach of Hurricane Katrina. I’d interviewed Conrad Keely for ANTIGRAVITY’s cover that March, my first-ever interview, and had stumbled around, asking him about the Romantics despite not being totally sure who the Romantics were. Then I spent that summer driving around the Quarter with my friend Shannon, the windows down, blasting “A Perfect Teenhood” at volumes loud enough to frighten the tourists and cruise-ship passengers. I hadn’t quite learned how to think about music yet.