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Alkaline Trio - Is This Thing Cursed? (Album Review)

Wednesday, 05 September 2018 Written by Huw Baines

Photo: Jonathan Weiner

Perhaps we place too much stock in being surprised - or at least in the pursuit of something shiny and new to entertain us - because we often laud ambition and apparent boundary-pushing at the expense of craft. After all, why should we be impressed by the execution of dog-eared blueprints?

In that context, Alkaline Trio’s ‘Is This Thing Cursed?’, their ninth LP and first in five years, could easily be seen as a retreat to safe pastures. Before its arrival the band discussed its rapid-fire writing and recording with reference to their 2000 album ‘Maybe I’ll Catch Fire’, while their status as elder statesmen of the punk scene has only been underlined by recent preoccupations with side projects, solo albums and, in the case of Matt Skiba, a stadium-sized detour with Blink-182.

But ‘Is This Thing Cursed?’ isn’t a warm, fuzzy retread. To get suitably bloody, this is a veteran boxer stepping through the ropes and staving someone’s head in while the crowd sits open-mouthed.

Here, Skiba, Dan Andriano and Derek Grant have seamlessly slipped back into a groove they haven’t found regularly since 2003’s ‘Good Mourning’. This isn’t a great late period Alkaline Trio record, it’s a great Alkaline Trio record period.

Its biggest strength is a steadfast opposition to those esoteric elements so many demand of music before it can be deemed noteworthy. Instead, its songs are short, sharp, faultlessly melodic and arch in their fan service. Back in July, when Blackbird was released as its first single, we were welcomed by an opening line that immediately lit a gaudy, macabre fire under things. “She's black and red and built just like a spy plane,” Skiba sang, recalling a whole host of pulpy former glories.

The song’s fizzing tempo, anthemic chorus and layered harmonies are repeated across the piece, while lyrically there is grisly wit to underscore a grisly reality. On I Can’t Believe there is the blank-eyed credulity of the MAGA crowd (“He’s no longer breathing, but singing along,” Skiba exhales) while Blink’s near miss with Fyre Festival is recast as Lord of the Flies for the Instagram set on Goodbye Fire Island. “Feeding on the fainting models,” Skiba drawls. “White meat festival, yeah.”

The title track is more of an open book led by Andriano’s experiences with depression. “I tried to throw it in the river, but it washed up in my sink,” he sings. As the song bursts into life the bassist works in tandem with Skiba in a manner that nods to their old friends in the Lawrence Arms and their ‘Oh! Calcutta!’ album.

The vocalists back each other at every turn, injecting their own personalities while bolstering the whole. The song’s spare opening also cribs a little from Andriano’s work with Jeff Rosenstock on ‘Party Adjacent’, while Skiba’s own solo dabbling is apparent in several anthemic mid-tempo moments, including the standout, Chicago-centric throwback Demon and Division.

There’s nothing here we haven’t heard before - both within the confines of an Alkaline Trio album and without - but each element of ‘Is This Thing Cursed?’ feels vibrant and, with apologies to the band, alive. It’s perhaps a stretch to see it becoming as well-loved as ‘Goddamnit’ given the fact that their fans are, broadly speaking, older and less impressionable than they once were, but it looks at home in such exalted company.  

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