10 Years On: Alkaline Trio – ‘Agony & Irony’

 Alkaline Trio’s stellar sixth LP, 2008’s ‘Agony & Irony’; an absolute gem!

In July 2008, ten years on from their famed debut, ‘Goddammit‘, Alkaline Trio put out what is often the forgotten black sheep of their 22-year career: ‘Agony & Irony‘. Described by guitarist/lead singer Matt Skiba prior to release, it’s an “anthemic hard rock record“. Which this 11-track effort made damn good on its word with being a consistent, memorable, point-and-shout rock record with the group’s melodic punk roots still intact. Even merging such sounds with some nice 80s and 90s influences too.

As the name suggests, ‘Agony & Irony‘ is all about duality. Black and white, happiness and sadness, love and heartache, light and dark, good and evil, pop and punk. Titled after a lyric from Harvey Danger’sFlagpole Sitta‘, Alkaline Trio’s sixth offering combines opposing feelings and ideas. For instance, ‘Over & Out‘ sings of suicide and ‘Live Young, Die Fast‘ talks of burn out, whereas ‘Lost and Rendered‘ and ‘Help Me‘ lyrically cry for help from all the way down in the depressed, alcoholic dumps. In a broader sense, musically speaking, this duality is why the record has a mixture of what was heard on the theatrical rock of ‘Crimson‘ (2005), and their earlier, noisier, messier days. (Basically anything before ‘Good Mourning‘). Yet that’s what makes this record so special. It’s both the old and new, with some of the most-accomplished songwriting and best production Alkaline Trio ever had.

“Where did you go once the lights went black?/Looks what’s become of me/I’ve grown to love your disappearing acts, do one more pretty please”

Opener ‘Calling All Skeletons‘, with it’s The Murder City Dolls-esque power chord guitar phrasings, lays down the alt-rock/pop-punk gauntlet with one of the catchiest, seismic songs of the trio’s fabled career. When people ask me what song’s of Alkaline Trio they should check out in order to really get into the band, ‘Calling All Skeletons‘ is right up there. It’s one of the band’s most quintessential songs, and I’ll take that opinion with me to my fuckin’ grave. What a song!

The album’s key single, second song ‘Help Me‘, is perhaps the poppiest, most radio-friendly iteration we’ve ever seen of Alkaline Trio. Yet it’s still such a sing-along-inducing banger, shining a bright light on the emotional darkness of ‘Calling All Skeletons‘ before it. The same can be said for the slower ‘Love Love, Kiss Kiss‘. This one alone gets a lot of hate from “purist” punk fans, yet it’s The Cure influenced and irony that still gives it that classic Alkaline Trio flare. It’s a simple and pop-friendly rock tune, one that’s kinda cheesy and saccharine, yet that’s the intention: to poke fun at and call out smarmy love and vomit-retching public displays of affection. Lyrics of “Love love, kiss kiss, blah blah blah/You’re making me sick, I wish you’d just stop” sets that theme in cold, hard stone.

“Over and out,” he sighed, “it seems I’ve run out of time/Please tell my wife I loved her more than life itself.”

The whiskey-soaked vocals and danceable instrumental syncopation of ‘In Vein‘ fire plenty of hooks into your ears, but it’s just as miserable as most Alkaline Trio songs tend to be lyrically speaking. Though let’s be real, that’s half the bloody charm with this band! What attracted so many to their music is that by the end of a song (or album) you’re smiling and singing along, but with plenty of personal feelings and pain expressed and addressed in the cathartic process. Something also highly applicable to the suicide-ideation and mental illness struggles divulged on ‘Over and Out‘; making for one of the most emotionally touching and musically solemn moments of any Alkaline Trio record. (Even rivalling that of ‘Radio‘ and ‘Blue In The Face‘ from years gone by).

The failed marriage proposals and loveless thoughts of the groovy, shimmery rock of ‘Do You Wanna Know?‘ features one of my all-time favourite Alkaline Trio lyrics. Nestled within the song’s first pre-chorus is this little gem: “my spine is slipping like a fault line, if I go I’ll bury us all“. Say what you want about these guys, but Matt Skiba is one amazing lyricist; poetic, metaphorical, and raw all at the same time. It always baffled me that the cringey, normie Tumblr posts of band lyric tattoo designs never hit the world of Alkaline Trio’s discography. Maybe that’s a real blessing, though.

Anyway, with Death In June’s Douglas Pierce adding a spoken word introduction to ‘I Found Away‘, quoting the first stanza of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, the trio launch into one of the greatest songs of their careers. The layered instrumentation, well-written song format, crisp production, and the sheer energy of this fifth track is fantastic. As is Skiba’s fitting lyrically poetry suiting the song’s own gloomy intro. The impact with which this particular track’s choruses land is just fucking staggering. And it’s so good. Maybe even too good for a band like them. Regardless, ‘I Found Away‘ is the biggest Alkaline Trio have ever sounded. Even people who don’t like this record love this song.

“You’re up there, took the stairs to the stars all alone/You left all the lights burning but nobody’s home”

The thick bass, big guitar hits, twinkling pianos, dreamy “la-la-la-las” and massive choruses of the aforementioned ‘Help Me‘ probably rub some fans the wrong way. However, I see such songs as Alkaline Trio being slightly more chameleon than just another fast-paced pop-punk rock group. Sure, I absolutely adore their Vagrant Records staple ‘From Here To Infirmary‘ (‘Mr Chainsaw‘ and ‘Armageddon‘ will forever be classics), but that’s an incredibly samey album overall. Which didn’t seem lost on the three-piece, as ‘Agony & Irony‘ showed much more variance in tone, vocals, format, and dynamics. Hell, even members of Norwegian legends Ulver contributed strings and programming to the likes of ‘Lost & Rendered‘ and the iTunes-only ender, ‘In My Stomach‘.

For ‘Agony & Irony‘, the band worked with producer, Josh Abraham. This was their first time collaborating with another producer since working with Jerry Finn (AFI, Green Day, MxPx), on their last two records. Yet tragically in July 2008 – the time of this album’s release – Finn suffered an intracerebral haemorrhage followed by a heart attack. He died on August 21st after being taken off life support on August 9th as he never regained consciousness. If I had to guess, this close-to-home loss for the band would’ve definitely impacted the release and subsequent memories surrounding this particular album’s cycle.

Another big thing as to why the band don’t play much of this record nowadays was fan reception. At the time, Myspace had just started taking off and now the band were getting direct feedback from fans and listeners around the world. Despite getting some solid reviews from media and publications, it’s never been a hugely revisit-able record for them, even though one of the three members loves it. In a 2015 Noisey feature interview, bassist/backing vocalist Dan Andriano ranked all (then) eight Alkaline Trio records, placing ‘Agony & Irony‘ high at number two. (His top spot was ‘Good Mourning‘). When asked about the fans responses, he defended this record, saying that:

“Well, Agony and Irony is everyone’s least favorite, which I just don’t get. The production is the best we’ve ever had. The best sounding record we’ve ever had, I think. Everything sounds pretty natural on that record considering how much is going on. I really like that we stepped outside of our comfort zone as far as songwriting.”

Yeah, I’m with you, Dan!

“Stumbling through the dark with a broken heart/All alone at it once again/Seeping in like a feeling/You haven’t felt since way back when”

The back-end of this killer-yet-over-looked record gets doubly forgotten about too. Songs like the urgent ‘Lost & Rendered‘ show-off the world-class production Alkaline Trio had, as well as the gripping atmosphere they captured. It’s another prime example of how superb and explosive their chorus melodies and song structures had gotten too. The distorted guitars that start off the jangly ‘Ruin It‘ keep things dark, moody and bleak. Set up against self-deprecating lyrics of not being able to help fucking up and ruining a good thing. There are a couple tracks here that really nail the idea of the title ‘Agony & Irony‘, and ‘Ruin It‘ is certainly one of them. And then the album rides off into the desperate salvation of the setting sun with the bleeding hearts and rotting carrion held close with the falling curtains of ‘Into The Night‘. No doubt one of the best album-ending pieces Alkaline Trio have ever penned and placed onto a record of theirs. (With the exception of ‘Radio‘ and ‘Until Death Do Us Part‘).

Individually speaking, this full-length rocks so hard from each of the members. Matt Skiba’s songwriting reached a high-peak, and his vocal delivery wasn’t plagued by throat issues like past records were. He sounded as comfortable and as confident than ever. Dan Andriano pins solid vocal harmonies against Skiba’s lead, whilst keeping his four-string progressions simple but effective; driving each track along nicely right next to the drumming. Speaking of, drummer Derek Grant does what a lot of the best punk rock drummers do: keep things moving in a tight, flurried fashion. His allegro tempos, busy kit-work and sixteenth note hi-hat runs on ‘I Found Away‘ and ‘Ruin It‘, as well as the rolling tom fills on ‘Into The Night‘ come to mind instantly. There’s a very good reason as to why Grant’s been their longest running drummer too. All of the trio’s performances and songwriting are in stellar form across this record. Them having learnt well from the experiments of ‘Crimson‘ and of the successes of their lavish, pop-punk past.

“This carrion has been forgotten/Left for dead in the sun rotting/The answer lies here in the mystery that starts with you and me/When we’re dragged from the light into the night”

Come August 31st, Alkaline Trio will actually release their ninth record, ‘Is This Thing Cursed?‘, and it’s interesting to plot out the ebb and flow of their career with this new LP on the horizon. From the sharply rising, hook-infused, fast punk rock of ‘Goddamnit‘, ‘Maybe I’ll Catch Fire‘ (2000), and career-highlight ‘From Here To Infirmary‘ (2001); the subtle sonic changes come ‘Crimson‘ (2005) and this article’s very subject; to the returning brisk, melodic pop-punk sounds of the decent ‘This Addiction‘ (2011) and ‘My Shame Is True‘ (2013). So many records, so many songs, so many hits, and so many great moments. Yet one high-achiever is most certainly ‘Agony & Irony‘. Just because it wasn’t “punk” and merely because it was on a major label didn’t make it ‘bad’ or ‘average’. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Is This Thing Cursed?‘ will come years later into the band’s ageing yet still moving career, following their Blink-182 connection and offering some new live cuts to their setlists. A courtesy that sadly isn’t often extended to the ‘Agony & Irony‘ material, save for the odd live performance of ‘I Found Away‘, ‘Calling All Skeletons‘, or ‘Help Me‘. However, while it’s not spoken of with the same fondness as their other albums, ‘Agony & Irony‘ is still one of Alkaline Trio’s better records to date. One that’s just as consistent and cohesive as those rose-tinted fan-faves. Well, I think so, anyway.

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