Let’s cast aside all preconceptions, bias and overt indie snobbery (you can be as cynical as you want after this, I promise) for a minute. Let’s be truthful instead. Over the last 20 years, Alkaline Trio’s unholy Jawbreaker-Misfits-Ramones amalgamation has been one of the most consistent voices in punk music of any derivation. Find me a contemporaneous band operating between 2000’s Maybe I’ll Catch Fire and 2005’s Crimson that released four records eclipsing those put out by Alk3. You can’t.
Is This Thing Cursed? comes with the worrying proclamation that it was written in the studio. Pre-release comparisons to Maybe I’ll Catch Fire are dashed in an instant – these are not road-worn bundles of fury, stretched taut and anxious and instinctively hammered out in a tiny room. Instead, what we have is a considerately constructed return that also feels natural. For the first time ever, it also starts with a Dan Andriano vocal. Initially reminiscent of his 2015 release, Party Adjacent, the title track rests on a simple piano part before crashing in with some thunderous Derek Grant fills and Matt Skiba’s rhythmic palm-muted chords. The two vocalists trade verses and chorus harmonies (another Trio rarity) and it’s immediately on every Alk3 playlist I’ll ever make.
That notion of partnership is the key takeaway from this LP: each musician is given time to inform its direction. Take ‘Demon In Division’, for instance: it begins with some late-Nineties bass chords from Andriano but it’s Skiba who takes the lead vocal and drives it forward. On previous releases that would’ve been it for the next three minutes but instead the band layer on subtle keyboards, handclaps, acoustic guitars and an Andriano-led middle eight that pushes the song out at an oblique angle. Grant’s battering ram precision keeps the energy up throughout, and he’s an invigorating presence across the whole album, slicing through the mix at exactly the right moments. That a 20-year-old band is still finding new ways to collaborate is immensely satisfying.
Skiba’s writing took a marked downturn as the first decade of the 21st century ended, and the band got by mostly on the back of the Andriano songs. Skiba began to rediscover his touch on 2013’s My Shame is True and he steps up again on ...Cursed, his mastery of pop songcraft truly returned to him. ‘I Can’t Believe’ features the best chorus he’s delivered since Crimson’s ‘Sadie,’ while ‘Sweet Vampires’ and ‘Goodbye Fire Island’ unite his macabre lyrics with a humour and grasp of melody not heard since Good Mourning. The latter is particularly effective, reimagining Blink-182’s dalliance with the disastrous Fyre Festival as a Lord of the Flies free-for-all whose occupants are “feeding on the fading models.” And has there ever been a more Alkaline Trio lyric than “stab me with stiletto heels / feed me pills and Happy Meals?”
Andriano , too, turns in some of his strongest compositions. ‘Little Help’ recalls prime ‘Burnout’-period Green Day and the Trio’s own ‘I’m Dying Tomorrow’ in its depiction of depression, apathy and alcohol-induced self-destruction: “Does anybody here got a place where I could sleep? / I rented me a place and it burned to the ground / I lit a cigarette and then passed the fuck out.” ‘Worn So Thin’ is cut from a similar cloth, but its narrator acknowledges his own part in the inevitable spiral toward anger. Amid all this nihilism sits ‘Stay’, its touching admittance of guilt and desire for reparation acting both as a breather and a reminder that these aren’t the same people who invited us to bathe with radios.
There’s really no dip in quality across ...Cursed’s 40-odd minutes, and repeated listens reveal little touches that add depth to the listening experience. From the strings in the final chorus of ‘Goodbye Fire Island’ to the background arpeggios of ‘Heart Attacks’ and ugly digital distortion of ‘Throw Me To The Lions’, it’s a subtly rewarding collection. You can argue that it doesn’t break new musical ground, and you can keep your noses upturned if you like, but with consummate poise Alkaline Trio have cemented their reputation as this genre’s premier songwriters. It’s not too late to get a heart-skull tattoo.