Album Of The Week: Alkaline Trio's Is This Thing Cursed?

Chicago's kings of dark punk return in spellbinding form…

Album Of The Week: Alkaline Trio's Is This Thing Cursed?

When Alkaline Trio convened at The Lair studios in Culver City, California in April of this year, they had precisely no idea what kind of album they were about to make. Despite a five-year absence from active duty, with singer/guitarist Matt Skiba finding employment in blink-182, he and bassist/singer Dan Andriano arrived for work with no fully-formed songs at their fingers. Instead, the group that started in McHenry, Illinois, some 22 years ago allowed themselves a two-month window in which to write and record their ninth album. It is a testament to their chops and experience that they emerged, blinking into the light, with weeks to spare.

Those already familiar with Alkaline Trio’s charms will recognise that the band’s Unique Selling Point is not so much their musical elements as their lyrical ones. Although good, and often very good, the songs themselves rarely attain the altitude or fluency of, say, Green Day. But what makes this band a much more fascinating prospect than they might otherwise be is the turbulence, violence and darkness in the lives of the characters and narrators that inhabit their songs. Here, listeners are rendered ‘Sick and lonely’ by something as quotidian as the anaemic sounds of the radio. Lovers are tortured to death, or else end up in jail as patsies in hare-brained crimes. There are overdoses, heartbreak and fracture; there is death, death, death.

Alkaline Trio, Blackbird

Fortunately, Matt and Dan are no more able to change their stripes than they are to exorcise these ghoulish concerns from their writing. On Is This Thing Cursed?, the threats to life and liberty take an eerily more shapeless and ominous form. ‘I tried to throw it in the river, but it washed up in my sink, and now the city cut my water, and it’s all I have to drink,’ sings Dan on the title-track, without bothering to explain what the mysterious ‘it’ of which he speaks might actually be. ‘Leave me here alone to collect my things, she sees music in the terror she brings… there is no crime of treason that she hasn’t seen,’ announces Matt on Blackbird. It’s haunting, but as usual, there is a dark sense of humour at work here, too. The characters in Krystalline ‘Kissed away our memories and fucked away the pain,’ before going ‘Out for coffee’ and repeating the cycle all over again.

If Is This Thing Cursed? lacks the gun-metal grey coherence of 2003’s Good Mourning or 2001 breakthrough From Here To Infirmary, it is nonetheless an album peppered with strong and vibrant songs. Little Help? flies by like a band fleeing a crime scene, while I Can’t Believe – ‘Nothing to see here, move along, nobody to hear your black swansong’ – features a chorus to kill for. Elsewhere, the velvet-smooth covering over Sweet Vampires’ grisly heart and Heart Attacks’ tainted nostalgia are also highlights that demonstrate just what a meticulously produced and exquisitely written album this is.

Despite having become effectively a part-time concern and thus an outfit whose status remains steadfastly cult, at the very least Alkaline Trio can take a (grim) pride in having returned and reclaimed the title of Punk Rock Connoisseurs’ Band Of Choice with criminal ease here. As ever, on Is This Thing Cursed?, their music comes in any colour you like, so long as it’s black.

Words: Ian Winwood
Photo: Jonathan Weiner

Is This Thing Cursed? is out now on Epitaph Records. Check it out on the stream below.

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