“Drop the “The.” Just “Alkaline Trio.” It’s cleaner” – Mike Park to Matt Skiba. Probably.
Growing up in the northwest suburbs of the Chicagoland area, they were among the more well-known punk acts, despite getting little radio play. I’d say that’s due to their sound and timing. They came together at the tail end of the 90s, when the glory days of pop-punk had already faded from the airwaves and was being replaced by the heavy audio assault of nu-metal. So there probably wasn’t much demand for Jawbreaker-influenced punk rock about heartbreak, drugs, alcohol, death, and the devil. Not unless it was smeared in eyeliner and was ready-made for the Hot Topic crowd.
The Trio consists of Matt Skiba, from McHenry County, on vocals and guitar, Dan Andriano, from Elgin, on vocals and bass, and Derek Grant, from Detroit, on drums. Alkaline Trio has a shared history with other Chicago punk acts such as Slapstick, Smoking Popes, Tuesday, and 88 Fingers Louie, as there was a revolving door of bassists and drummers before Dan and Derek decided to stick around for what is now the most recognizable line up.
My fandom began small and slowly when I first heard “Stupid Kid” on Q101, Chicago’s Alternative. The scratchy chord attack was catchy enough as were the lyrics to get you to sing along. I was 13 when that song was released and it felt like the right age to hear it. A song about a disaffect romance that leads to acts of vandalism and death wishing. Of course, I might have been too young to really appreciate the nuances of the song, but I knew if I prayed hard enough, it would come true.
Alkaline Trio has been a fixture in my life beyond just a band. They wrote songs have become the soundtrack not to teenage angst but also adulthood disillusionments, especially in the romance department (and I’ll cover that later). They’re ingrained in me. Literally.
A few things I’d like to highlight:
- I will be reviewing albums chronologically but when I first heard them might not same year of release, so I’ll be sure to indicate that in each section.
- I won’t be reviewing EPs, just LPs and compilations (except for Damnesia).
- I’ll be providing hyperlinks for full albums to reduce the amount of embedded videos. The hyperlinks will be the section headers.
Goddamnit (1998, re-released 2008; Asian Man)
I’m linking to the 2008 re-issue as I feel that’s the more definitive issue of this album. Though, as far as the 1998 album goes, it’s a helluva proper debut album. Opener “Cringe” is punchy and crunchy and makes you wanna turn your volume all the way up to scream along. I know I do.
I didn’t really listen to this album in full until about 2010 – up to that point I had heard a handful of songs I downloaded from torrents in high school. I decided to make a decent journey through their back catalogue as I was going through a very painful break-up at the time and needed more of their angst to fuel me while I mowed the lawn in a state of utter despondent woe.
Frankly, there’s not a bum track on the album and it’s difficult to really choose which songs to showcase without feeling neglectful to the rest. I mean, this album has everything. “Nose Over Tail” is a love song built around codependency and psychoticism.
“San Francisco” is Matt’s ode to the most expensive city in America. And “Trouble Breathing” is about those times when you wish only the worst for the one you’re with.
Dan doesn’t get more than 2 songs on the album for him to let his sorrowful croon carry the melody, but he gets off some choice lyrics in a song about being the reliable one for a potential romance.
Like I said, this album has everything and Matt’s wicked lyrics that equate love with addiction were what my brain and heart needed to ease the more anxious periods at the time.
Maybe I’ll Catch Fire (2000; Asian Man)
Alkaline Trio continue the punchiness of their chord-laden punk with Maybe I’ll Catch Fire, and kick it off with another solid opener in “Keep ‘Em Coming,” a song I wish I could hear more often.
Matt’s got a gift for turning a phrase inside out and painting morbid imagery. Throughout the song he’s lamenting a relationship between informing us about his yellow smile, the toothpicks in his eyse to prop them open, and that he’s singing a song by a dead milk man.
This is still a solid album overall, but I feel like it’s easier to pick stand-out tracks. Also, this album shows off an angrier Matt, as he affects slightly raspy, more nasal delivery on much of the album. None more prevalent than on “Madam Me.”
Dan also gets one more song on this album (3 total!), with one of them being the title track, which is a somber number about feeling isolated and looking towards ending yourself as means to escape the coldness. This was a song that kept me grounded during those times that I felt like there was little I could do to fix myself.
One of Dan’s other contributions is “You’ve Got So Far To Go,” which is a love song in the sense that maybe it’s best to let go of the best thing in front of you because you don’t want to hold them back.
As much as I’d like to highlight “Radio,” a staple of Trio shows now for ages and it’s plea for the person it’s directed towards to take a bath with an electric appliance, I would rather take the time to share a song with a sentiment that anyone from my area (or near-by burbs) can agree with, “Fuck You, Aurora.”
Maybe I’m indulging in my bitter side with this one, given that Martin resided in the Aurora in question and maybe I’m projecting, but hey, that’s I do with music. And this is most definitely a song about loss and projecting that anger towards an entire city, and that’s not more evident that the blame might reside in the singer himself than in these lines: ”Letters meant to be sent have been torn/The phone lies off the hook, on the floor/All these “I’m sorry’s” and “I miss you’s” are useless/I fucked this one up long ago.”
Alkaline Trio (2000, Asian Man)
This album is a compilation of all the various singles and EP releases between 1998 and 2000. And it’s an incredible compilation. “Goodbye Forever” is a personal favorite as it perfectly sums up my personality and ideas of romance with a tinge of darkness found in the chorus of: “And we say goodbye and go underground/Or up towards the sky/Up in smoke burnt down to size/At least we’re still friends, at least we’re still alive”
The video also shows Trio and friends demonstrating proper punk hygiene.
“Bleeder” is one of the several songs that reflect my state of mind from the period of 2010.
Skiba sings a song about never being able to admit he was happy and maybe that’s why this particular relationship ended and leaves him lonely with his dreams broken “by the ring of a telephone.” Honestly, this song really captures a lot of my emotional state post-mega-heavy-relationship-break-up, with my despair being a swirl of madness and sorrow. While that dual-flavor milkshake of depression had a great anthem, “My Friend Peter” is perhaps the song I look towards for recovery from bitterness.
A song that speaks more truth to me than others, especially when Skiba sings about how his friend is far away but his former love lives right down his fucking street, well, that’s me. My Ex lived around the block, a quick 1 minute walk from my home to hers and my best friend was all the way in Iowa.
Of course, that rejection of bitterness may just be a disguise of snark and cynicism as Skiba boasts that he doesn’t care who his former flame eats with, kisses, or sleeps with these days and all he needs his is friend Peter (for me, it was my best friend Paul, and then my college friends Ryan and Rafi ).
It’s a song I will always gladly sing along with, as I try to match Skiba for scorn in his voice on the delivery of “And then I’ll drink 23 more/To wipe this stupid smile off my fucking face.”
The one line I most agree with these days is “I’m tired of sleeping with myself,” and it’s true; I’m sick of feeling lonely. But I’ve learned from my days to not mix bitterness and alcohol, as is celebrated in this song and “Cooking Wine.”
I think “Sorry I’m late, I was out spoiling my liver” will serve to be one of the best excuses for tardiness ever. “Cooking Wine” is a salutation to the hangover and seeing double.
I’m glossing over Dan for this album, which, is not a knock on him, but his contributions at the time these songs were recorded was still minimal.
To wrap up this album, I close out with another well-known live staple, “97.”
This song perhaps best captures the spirit of Alkaline Trio – grim lyrics, clever lines, and a sneer of bitterness that hints towards personal empowerment. It’s a song about loss, waiting, pain, and fate and it requires no more than the lines of “I’ve got it now/A thorn in my side the size of a Cadillac,” and “I don’t deserve this.”
From Here To Infirmary (2001; Vagrant)
The Trio jumped to Vagrant for a “major” label debut in the pun-tastic From Here To Infirmary, signaling their love of wordplay. Well, I wish I could say more about this album beyond the clever title. At one time, this was a rotation-heavy album for me, but now that I’ve moved past a lot of my self-loathing and have accepted truths about past relationships, this album doesn’t have that same spark.
If anything, Alkaline Trio followed the Jawbreaker pattern of releases with the third album being slightly polished and clean (of course, Dear You is a great album, no disrespect). The album is good, not great, but what’s great doesn’t get held back. Opener “Private Eye” finds Matt regretting his New Year’s Eve plans and casting lines about digging up corpses as metaphors for secrets.
“Mr. Chainsaw” is a song about losing a friend to the daily grind while using some very vivid imagery like “Every breath that I could barely breathe/Could barely make it past my teeth
/I took a blowtorch to both of my lungs a long, long time ago.”
The more I look over the track listing for this album, I change my mind. This is actually a pretty solid album; I think I’ve just forgotten how much these songs have stuck with me because of how they made me feel and how the lyrics really captured the essence of feeling helpless in the face of misery and pain. That dark time in one’s life where you’re looking for answers. There’s the aforementioned “Stupid Kid,” and Dan’s strongest indictment against a man milking “injury” for sympathy in “Another Innocent Girl.”
“Armageddon” was me after every night drinking and thinking that the words that came to mind were genius.
“I’m Dying Tomorrow” finds Dan checking off all the things he needs to have done before… dying tomorrow in Chicago.
And “Trucks and Trains” is a song about taking caution as days go by and you find that things change, and things and people are no longer what they once were and you’re wanting something new.
Good Mourning (2003; Vagrant)
Good Mourning to me is the perfect Alkaline Trio album, front to back. I think this is their sound perfected, it strikes the balance in the dynamic between Matt songs and Dan songs, plus it’s the introduction of the full-time line-up with Derek taking over drums.
I’m going to do something different here and not highlight a single song off this album because I fully fucking encourage you to abandon this Spotlight right now, go listen to the album and come back in about 46 minutes and pick up where you left off.
You back? Good. You were not disappointed.
What makes this album solid? The chords are dark and muddy, but soft and full of warmth. Matt’s at his absolute best with a sharpened tongue-in-cheek singing love songs of doom and gloom. Dan has fully come into his own as a songwriter, for his contributions help to lift the album where Matt chooses to only look on the downside of life. Fuck, I could do an entire album spotlight on this fucker (and I probably will). Not here, though. This baby’s already long enough.
What also makes this album a classic is the vocals. Dan’s voice has improved and is less warbly and much more from the throat; a pleasing baritone. To contrast, Matt’s voice is ravaged by illness that he had endured at the time of recording, taking the sore-throat rasp that was hinted at on Maybe I’ll Catch Fire and amplify that with anguished strains that only serve to intensify the severity of his words.
This album served me well through high school, being the first Trio album I ever purchased. It’s an album I can sing along to (and still do), and it holds significance in my heart and brain. This was an album I shared with The Ex when we first started dating. They didn’t become our band, but she did become a fan and I felt like a connection had been made at that time. There’s nothing more joyous than a crush liking the things you like. Plus, it made my heart swell to think a girl could enjoy songs about slitting throats and washing off the blood in Lake Michigan (“This Could Be Love”), writing love songs while in pain (“One Hundred Stories”), enjoying life as a blasphemer (“All on Black”), escaping death at the hands of a jilted flame (“Fatally Yours”), a song about cannibalism as a metaphor (“Donner Party (All Night)),” and a song about drugs, vampires, and lost love (“Emma”).
Of course, that relationship ended in utter devastation and was a complete downgrade of emotions until I was rendered a vessel for alcohol. If anything, while all the songs on this album are still relevant to me, “Blue in the Face” pretty much serves up the most apt delivery of my failings in relationships, with lines such as “Can’t say I blamed you one bit when you kept it all inside/
When you left that night,” and “It’s about time that you got sick of me/No longer fun and so far from interesting.”
Crimson (2005; Vagrant)
In my opinion, it’s kind of hard to follow up Good Mourning with anything, but goddamnit, Trio pull it off with Crimson. Now, I’m not sure I would have felt about this album if they had released it under the original title of Church and Destroy, but I’m glad they eschewed the puns for a much simpler title that evokes something beautiful yet sinister.
Now, I will highlight songs from this album, but I’m going to do my best to limit myself on which ones. It’s a tough choice. This album has a different sonic palette than Good Mourning, incorporating delay, reverb, string flourishes, and piano twinkles into the songs.
There’s a sense of maturity on the part of Alkaline Trio, not just musically, but lyrically. Matt’s voice healed up and he actually sings a little more from the diaphragm to carry out his words, especially those woe-drenched whoas on tracks like “Sadie,” one of my absolute favorites, a song about Manson Family member Susan Atkins (if I have children, I want a daughter and will name her Sadie).
Perhaps another stand out is the song that comes before “Sadie,” “Settle For Satin.”
Dan’s voice is never better and his lyrics are never tighter in a song about seeking positivity in those darker moments when we would rather drink for comfort.
The rest of the album is on point, as there’s imagery of death, love, and Satan scattered throughout. At this point, it’s worth noting that both Matt Skiba and Derek Grant are card-carrying members of The Church of Satan (I’ve looked into it and I’d get one, too, but I’m not paying $200 for that). So, there’s almost this subtext of light versus darkness that underlies the album, especially on songs like “Fall Victim,” “Back To Hell,” and “Prevent This Tragedy,” a song about the West Memphis Three.
Something else to mention about this album: the face of the woman on the cover belongs to Matt’s then fiancée. This will be mentioned again later to talk about doing things we might live to regret.
Remains (2007; Vagrant)
I don’t want to get too caught up on this one. Remains is a fine album and as a B-sides collection, it paints a great portrait with songs that are strong but couldn’t fit elsewhere. Opener “Hell Yes” is an ode to Lucifer that was recorded around 2001 but could’ve fit in with the themes of Crimson.
Standout tracks to me are “Jaked On Green Beers,” “While You’re Waiting,” “Old School Reasons,” and “Hating Every Minute.”
Perhaps the one song that stands out most to me is going to be the one from which my tattoo is derived from: “Warbrain.”
Listening to this song takes me back to two moments in time: one is 2008 when I co-hosted a radio show at my college for a semester and would play this while singing along and dancing in the studio.
The other is deeper within the lyrics, when I decided to take the my depression seriously in the aftermath of the break up with The Ex. The song is about overcoming an illness to be stronger and thinking back to better days. Of course, this song also points out the importance of music in my emotional management with the line “Those trusty chords can pull me through.”
Agony & Irony (2008; Epic)
Alkaline Trio made the jump from Vagrant to Epic, and with it came perhaps their most epic album to date, Agony & Irony, whose title was lifted from a line from “Flagpole Sitta” by Harvey Danger.
I think this album shows where the band began to dip below the high-water marks of their previous two albums. Not say this record is bad by any means, but it is such a departure for Alkaline Trio lyrically (at least for Matt) and musically, that I don’t think I’ve heard them play a single song from this album the times I’ve seen them live. It’s a poppier record, sonically, and that creates a level of deception for the lyrics.
It’s funny; I was gifted this album by my Ex when it came out, at the strongest point in our relationship, but in various re-listens, this album appears to be written at a time when Matt’s relationship was into its weakest. “Calling All Skeletons” is a call to stop hurting each other and seek reconciliation even though he’s “lost all faith in” the other person, and “Help Me” is a plea to his love to help him as he finds himself in a scary mental space.
I feel like this is the album where Matt and Dan did some role reversal because Matt’s off singing more straightforward heartbreak songs, Dan’s taking a turn for darker, especially on “In Vein,” with lyrics like “Now there’s blood in the water, that heart bleeds from this stone here/And we turned into our cheap wine/And I swallowed every drop, yes, I could feel my stomach rot/And you were so supportive as I drank through the pain.”
To me, this album is the furthest from the essence of Alkaline Trio that Alkaline Trio gets, and it’s not all bad. Over time, I’ve changed my mind a lot on this album: Is it weak? Is it their best? Is it artistic re-invention? Is it a product of a bigger budget? Is it grandiose?
Well, it’s the beginning of an end.
Matt’s headspace at this time was most likely one of late nights, lack of sleep, and paranoid delusions exacerbated by doubts born from frequent fighting and emotional damaging. That’s my speculation because when I first listened to this album I was riding a great high, being in love, engaged, and looking to a future, but in later times I listened to this album through a veil of pain, misery, regret, and absolute defeatism. The cracks in the relationship were there; they were just more obvious to Matt than they were to me.
“I Found A Way” is perhaps the most positive of outlooks Matt could have at a time of portending bleakness. This was most likely the time that he read David Lynch’s Catching The Big Fish, a book about Lynch’s process as an artist and how trascendental meditation helps him. I’ve read the book myself during my dark period and while not a practitioner of the method, I did feel that there was something to be said in his metaphor for “fishing” for ideas: When you fish, you don’t go for the fish at the surface; they’re smaller and aren’t anything worthwhile. You have to go deeper to catch the bigger fish.
But “I Found A Way” also hints at pushing away someone in favor of trying to fix yourself, as evidenced in the lines “‘I’m diving in, don’t follow me/Stay right here, I’ll be back for you someday.”
“Ruin It” should have been the album closer, but that’s okay. It still punctuates itself with the chorus of “‘Cause I might break and I might bend/Your heart strings out of tune again/And I might try to apologize/On a good day/On my best day, if you stick around.” This is the song that best shows the flip Dan and Matt did mentally and lyrically, as Dan affects a rasp to his croon, spinning a song painting himself as the one at fault.
This Addiction (2010; Epitaph)
Alkaline Trio’s time at Epic came to an end and they made their way to Epitaph, home of all manner of punk, creating an imprint label, Heart & Skull.
Now, remember how I mentioned that Matt’s then-fiancé was on the cover of Crimson? And how Agony & Irony hinted at cracks in their relationship? Well, This Addiction was recorded as he was divorcing his wife. So this entire album is just a joy to listen to! Well, also, time this album was released, I was facing my own relationship struggles.
February 2010 is when I faced my own doubts about my future and present. I dropped out of grad school due to poor performance, I was contemplating quitting my job due to stress and fatigue, and I was having my own uncertainties about my relationship because of the infrequency in which I’d hear from The Ex, which caused me to grow paranoid. I’d instigate fights between me and her just so that the arguments would actually lead to something and we’d talk about was going on, but that would backfire on me. I felt like she refused to be sympathetic and supportive of me with my struggles, as though I was becoming more a burden to her. The stretch from February through March was distraught and entangled in a web of loaded questions and forsaken feelings that lead to the April implosion.
This Addiction was the soundtrack to the demise of my relationship.
In retrospect, this is perhaps Alkaline Trio’s weakest album, but not without cause. Matt’s relationship struggles were at the forefront, and that experience took its toll on him and the album, creating a disjointed experience.
The album also sounds like a deliberate effort to walk-back the theatrics of Agony & Irony.
The title track kicks things off with a riff that would be at home on Goddamnit, but the metaphor of drug addiction for love is a tad underwhelming at this phase in Alkaline Trio’s career. Compare to “My Little Needle” off their first album, whose lyrics are whip-smart and snappy, “This Addiction” pales.
Looking back on things, there’s very little meat that’s fresh from this animal. Dan has three songs and they count among the strongest of the album, primarily the closer, “Fine.”
There’s no finer verse than “You see a storm knocked out my super power/Now I sleep through thundershowers/Wake me when you learn to be cool/If I’m the captain of this boat then all my shipmates are fools/And all the the stars in the world couldn’t help me steer my way out of this kiddie pool,” as well as the self-aware line of “It’s ironic that I drink to make my insides stop hurting.
Matt’s contributions almost derail the album, with the few bright spots being in “Piss and Vinegar” and “Dead on the Floor.”
This song sums up the collapse of a relationship in a nutshell and this was the one on repeat for the remainder of 2010. I wish I could just paste in all the lyrics right here but that’s cheating.
Instead, here are some of the best lines that capture the pain and reality of watching something you’ve sacrificed to sustain fall to pieces and you are paralyzed, prevented from doing anything to save it.
“We navigated past the point of logical thinking/Lost sight of the stars up above,”
“Now my heart is a mess/murder scene in my chest”
“As I wandered away deep in shock and dismay/in a daze just repeating your name/Well the fact of the matter is both our hearts shatter/way too goddamn easily”
“When you asked me if I’d stay forever/Guess you meant just for the week/We felt so good together/it was way too good to be”
For me, “Dead on the Floor” is everything that Alkaline Trio means for me: a band that can deliver on heartache, sorrow, anger, bitterness, and the complexities of one’s own fragile emotions in the span of a few short minutes.
It’s a shame that This Addiction has fallen flat for me in the last 6 years; it was such a cornerstone of my life for that period in time.
My Shame Is True (2013; Heart & Skull)
2013 was a return to form, somewhat, for myself. I was 3 years removed from the disaster that was 2010 and I severed all contact with The Ex in that time. I also quit my stressful behavioral health career and had switched to a stressful career as a data analyst. I had been managing my depression, dropped weight, gotten control over my alcohol intake, and started to really pay attention to my neuroticisms. I also decided to take dating seriously, somewhat.
So if 2013 was a return to form for myself, was it the same for Alkaline Trio? Eh, kinda. By far, My Shame is True is a better, stronger album than This Addiction, but is not as strong as earlier efforts, although, I think if this record was made 3 years earlier, it would have been a better follow-up to Agony & Irony. My Shame Is True feels like a more complete record and sounds like the kind of record Matt Skiba has always wanted to make. The warmth of the chords, the lock-step rhythms, the lyrics of heartbreak that lie beneath a devilish smile; this is a collection of Alkaline Trio’s best traits in one dynamic album.
Now, lyrically, most of the songs are a bit shallow and don’t dive too deep, but that’s not a bad thing. Here, Skiba channels his inner Joey Ramone going with the less is more approach to paint in broad strokes, especially on the catchy opener “She Lied to the FBI.”
“I Wanna Be A Warhol” is a smooth number with a cool synth lead played behind a simple chord riff that keeps the rhythm as Skiba intones he wants to “be a Warhol, hanging on your wall” to signify that he’s “still hung up” on someone. The someone? Why it’s his latest girlfriend with whom he was on the outs with! So really, this album plays like a “I’m sorry, let’s make up” gesture, and the shows on the more skippable tracks like “Kiss You To Death,” “Midnight Blue,” and “One Last Dance,” which plays up Matt’s fondness for 80s rock bands like Psychedelic Furs and The Cure (and it’s actually not a bad song, but the line “Acting like a school boy trapped in a man” just conjures up a “Dumb and Dumber” joke).
The Dan songs are pretty solid, but the one that really gets my blood flowing is “I’m Only Here To Disappoint.” A stellar song about how sometimes, in relationships, it’s lover beware and that perhaps it’s best not to take that chance if all they’re going to do is hurt you.
As the chorus goes, “Like all your dreams you wind up dead/All those promises I never kept/I laugh and you will cry again and again and again and again/These simple things I just can’t say/Remove the you from you and me/I’ll stand to bring you to your knees again and again and again”
And if you can help me identify those movies in the lyric video, I will love you forever! I already know Manos is in there.
The two other top tracks are from Matt. First is the Crimson style throwback “The Temptation of St. Anthony.”
The other is the killer track “The Torture Doctor,” a song inspired by HH Holmes with soaring sing-along chorus of “Hey, ho, we know how this story goes/Hey, ho, the plot it thickens and grows/Hey, ho, there’s nothing left to hide/Hey, ho, down here on the south side.”
Really, My Shame Is True is a solid album that’s only really guilty of Matt indulging once more in his recent heartbreak to dominate the majority of his contributions, but this time, I think he does a better job of not letting those emotions dominate the overall sound and vibe of the record. It has a more classic Trio feel than This Addiction and aims a little higher.
In the three years since the release of …Shame…, I’ve grown up a lot more. I’m 29. I’m still single. I still and will always have depression and anxiety, but I’ve made better sense of my emotions and the causes of distress in my relationships. Alkaline Trio has served to be the soundtrack of my personal growth, becoming the default favorite band in my life. I cautiously await their next album, but who knows how much they’ll have changed given all their solo/side projects (not to mention Matt’s new role as Blink-182 member).