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In the current age of people reflecting upon and criticising the boyish lyricism of 90s/2000s pop-punk and emo, many bands have had their past works accused of playing into that sexist, boy’s club mentality. In most cases, rightfully so. It’s a space in which young men got the courtesy of expunging their romantic woes via music, playing the victim in some ways, while the very women such songs were written about -whether old friends, cheating lovers, or just simply ex-partners, as well as the young female fans that consumed said songs – were seldom ever awarded such acknowledgment or a platform to tell their side of the story. You can find plenty of excerpts and op-eds online about how early day Brand New, Taking Back Sunday, and Fall Out Boy tracks were apart of said culture; about how Glassjaw’s debut album has since been viewed as “toxic” and “misogynistic”; and about how these music scenes weren’t as inclusive as we would’ve liked at the time and may have also negatively impacted younger women’s decision on entering the music industry or not. Yet one pop-punk group whom comes from around this same time period but has never been called out or labeled as “problematic” is Alkaline Trio. After combing over their solid new record, August’s ‘Is This Thing Cursed?‘, I think I know why.
Other than writing killer melodic punk rock tunes that stand the test of time (see 2001’s classic ‘From Here To Infirmary‘), Alkaline Trio bred a career from the macabre themes and darkened lyrical metaphors that guitarist/singer Matt Skiba penned. But see, while Matt has written countless tracks over the years about the women who have hurt him, unhealthy relationships, old flings, and withering romances, the finger-pointing always turns back towards him. In fact, the first two songs of ‘Is This Thing Cursed?‘ are completely indicative of this dual approach.
The opening titular track sees Matt and bassist Dan Andriano nail hooky vocal harmonies in the verses, detailing lyrics of whether this “thing” – Matt himself as a person, his vices, and personal behaviors – is cursed or not. It’s a song that seemingly has the frontman lament being a creature of habit over the top of fluttering amp distortion and glamourous pianos; even seeing Matt questioning whether it’s him or something in his life that’s the common denominator to all of these issues? That maybe he’s the jerk in all of this? As far as Alkaline Trio songs go, this kind of self-loathing really is just par for the course. Yet these emotionally surgical lyrics, the general musical packaging, and the overall delivery haven’t lost any honesty or charm from the band’s earlier records. Which I feel is also honest-to-god proof of the potent song-writers these three guys are; exactly why Alkaline Trio will be remembered for years to come once they finally decide to close up shop one day.
This all in turn also works for the album’s second song, ‘Blackbird‘ – the other side of the lyrical coin I was hinting at just before. This absolute banger of a punk rock track sees Matt critique a former partner of his; creatively using Cold War imagery and covert/spy lyricism to paint this scorned lover as a crafty interrogator or double-agent of sorts. That she’s extracting information from him at every single turn; that she’s akin to a spy-plane (specifically referenced as a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird); and just generally taking pleasure in his pain as she dismantles all of his defenses. Again, that’s just a classic Alkaline Trio story of shitty romance. Aside from the indeed interesting Cold-war framing device, songs like these have been sung by Matt since the ‘Goddamnit‘ (1998) and ‘Maybe I’ll Catch Fire‘ (2000) days.
The key thing is, though, the band have never lost that conviction for telling such poetic love-less stories nor their own singer’s affection for self-crit and scathing personal honesty about his own flaws. And that’s what makes it all work; whether it was on their debut album two decades ago or on their newest ninth record now in 2018. Matt holds up a mirror to those who have wronged him but then stands in front of the destructive mirror himself; picking apart what he is as a man, whether by a cry for help as an old fool or just pulling oneself down for the sheer fun of it. (Both aspects there can be found on the fourth track, ‘Little Help?‘). Truly, you could not have one without the other. And if the trio’s music was only ever bitter “fuck you” love songs, then I think they would’ve been one of the first to get lumped into harsh articles tearing down past albums as being sexist, toxic, and so forth. For without either side of Alkaline Trio’s musical equation, the band’s lyricism, motifs, and song-writing formula just wouldn’t be as strong. To quote Thanos: “Perfectly balanced. As all things should be.”
In truth, with Matt Skiba moving onto Blink-182 and with this band’s last album, 2013’s decent ‘My Shame Is True‘, I honestly thought we’d never see another Alkaline Trio record come to pass. But here we all are, and I’m damned thankful for that! Yet on paper, ‘Is This Thing Cursed?‘ is simply yet another Alkaline Trio album. To the point that I had two very conflicting thoughts when I first heard this new release. The first was “Fuck yeah, another Alkaline Trio record“, whilst the second thought was “Oh… another Alkaline Trio record“. The uplifting refrains and the massive hooks; the usual power chords and Dan’s chord progressions; drummer Derek Grant riding his crash or belting his ride’s bell during the choruses, to Matt’s dry and whiskey-soaked-styled vocals and sexualized, bloody and grim lyrics – it’s all there. All of the long-defining tropes of an Alkaline Trio record are all present and accounted for. So while ‘…Cursed?‘ is a new release, it’s quite the familiar listen at times. Which does mute some of the impact, I gotta say.
However, and I must stress this part as hard as I fuckin’ can, the good definitely outweighs the “bad”. Alongside the rip-roaring ‘Blackbird‘ and the ‘This Addiction‘ sounding B-side of ‘Sweet Vampires‘, there are some sweet new classics here. Namely ‘Goodbye Fire Island‘ (written in-part about the disastrous Fyre Festival Matt was set to perform at with Blink-182 in 2017), the racey ‘Throw Me To The Lions‘, and the powerful layering of ‘I Can’t Believe‘ all being fantastic songs. Each tune inarguably seeing the group at their melodic best in years. For real, those chorus melodies are fucking lethal! These particular cuts also showcase some of Derek’s best drumming that he’s ever tracked for an Alkaline Trio record to date; flexing why he’s one of the tightest drummers in pop-punk. These shows also dictate that when Alkaline Trio “over-produce” things, their music actually hits its peak; seeing the band playing around with new vocal effects and guitar modulations to really spruce matters up.
For those unaware, 2012’s ‘Damnesia‘ – a stripped back acoustic LP full of re-envisioned Alkaline Trio songs – unequivocally proved that the three-piece’s music was just as moving without over-driven distortion backing up the miserable, bleeding heart lyrics. Proof that the acoustic guitar could weave just as many heartfelt emotions as their electric counterpart could. Ergo, this album’s closing moment, the acoustic and sparse ‘Krystalline‘, is honestly one of the record’s finer moments. The airy ambiance that swirls in the background behind Matt’s acoustic guitar chords and his dry, earnest singing gives it a whole new quality, as do the occasional backing “whoa’s” vocals that show up too. All of this places the song’s headspace of uncomfortable and unstable love, in which both parties toss and tumble in and out of each other’s lives, front and center; making the choruses pop that much harder and the lyrics all the more bittersweet. From that, the track concludes, softly transitioning into ominous atmospherics and a noisy ether as it all fades to black; finally hanging up this record’s phone call.
Admittedly, it’s hard for me to one-hundred-percent “get into” an Alkaline Trio record these days as I’m not single. I’ve been with my partner for almost six years now and I just do not have the same relationship experiences that Matt speaks about in their music. So at times, I can’t fully relate. Yet even then, there’s still such a likable and endearing quality to Alkaline Trio’s music for the married, the divorced, the taken, or the single. And that’s all down to immensely catchy pop-punk songs weaving brutally honest and palpable stories that lyrically pull no punches. For this band’s music still burrows deep into your eardrums with catchy hooks and big chords, all the while poetic wordings plunge daggers right into your heart. Ten years on from what I feel is their career best ‘Agony & Irony‘, and 20 years on from their debut release, Alkaline Trio hasn’t lost their knack at all.
‘Is This Thing Cursed?’ is living, breathing proof that Alkaline Trio does not have a bad album within their musical bones. ‘Is This Thing Cursed?’ is solid front to back – no curses or hexes to be found here holding things down. Now, will it be a classic late-game record for the band’s career? Honestly, probably not. Is it, by many standards, just another Alkaline Trio record? You betcha! Yet when so many bands fall off of the wagon this deep into a career, Alkaline Trio remain as one of the most consistent bands in alternative/rock and pop-punk going nowadays. And, as always, this new LP is infinitely better than anything Matt Skiba had produced with Blink-182 thus far.
- Is This Thing Cursed?
- Demon And Divison
- Little Help
- I Can’t Help
- Sweet Vampires
- Pale Blue Ribbon
- Goodbye Fire Island
- Heart Attacks
- Worn So Thin
- Throw Me To The Lions
‘Is This Thing Cursed? is out now via Epitaph Records & Cooking Vinyl.