or: Why any alkaline Trio after Maybe I’ll Catch Fire isn’t worth your time
So the story goes like this. Some dude told me about this awesome band called Alkaline Trio around late 1998/early 1999. I hated emo, and that guy said they were emo, so I hated them by default. (Note: they weren’t honestly, truly, fully emo . . . more pop punk with an emo flavor pack added.) I think I only heard about three seconds of one of their songs (“Cringe,” to be specific) until I caught them at a show on October 2, 1999, at the now-(locally)-legendary Asylum in Springfield, Illinois. (I remember the date because it was my friend Skip’s birthday, and lead singer/guitarist Matt Skiba worked “Happy Birthday Skippy” into one of the songs). So after that show, I was completely sold on them and they became one of my favorite bands. It was during the “woah”s in the Dan Adriano-fronted song “Message from Kathleen” that I knew I was a fan. A big fan.
I bought all of their releases; I couldn’t keep them out of my CD player; I made every attempt to see them at nearby shows; I had a band around that time and it can safely be said that the Trio was our biggest influence.
What made them so good was the honesty in their music. The lyrics, be they by Skiba or bassist/vocalist Dan Adriano, were deep but accessible, profound but simple. Dark themes were abundant in their songs, but, as I said, they had an honesty to them. The music had a punk rock grit to it, was poppy enough to go down easy, but wasn’t so over-the-top that it felt cheap. Their image was that of three guys who liked playing music together–it was almost as if they were as shocked as we were that it was so good, and they enjoyed it just as much. From the end of 1999 to early 2001, there was no band better in the Midwest than Alkaline Trio.
But all good things must come to an end. The legend, which I’ve had “confirmed” by people that knew the band, is as follows: around the time that Alkaline Trio was making the switch from Asian Man Records to Vagrant Records, drummer Glenn Porter’s girlfriend left him for Blake Schwarzenbach, lead singer of early emo pioneer band Jawbreaker, and then-emo band Jets to Brazil. Well, Porter was a little upset by this, so he crapped in a box and sent it to Blake in the mail. Word of this got back to the heads at Vagrant, and they told Skiba and Adriano that they wouldn’t have a band on their label with a member that would do something like that–so he was ousted and replaced by former Smoking Popes drummer Mike Felumlee. We fans were sad about that personnel change, but after seeing a few shows with Mike, we were pretty sure all would be okay.
But they wouldn’t be. Their third EP, a 2-song vinyl release called Hell Yes weirded out a lot of fans with its b-side, “My Standard Break From Life,” which sounded more akin to being a Green Day radio hit. I was worried to say the least. Yet a few months later, in late 2000, Vagrant Records released the still-awesome Another Year on the Streets sampler, boasting two songs on it that would be on the new Trio album, “Bloodied Up” and “Crawl.” In short–they were freaking awesome.
All of my worries were cast aside and I got really excited about the new album, which would be called “From Here to Infirmary.”
Wait, what? What kind of name is that? A pun? It was like some lame attempt at being dark and clever at the same time, except in the way that some out-of-touch, 40-year-old rocker would do it.
And then . . . “Stupid Kid.”
It was a complete betrayal to everything we had understood Alkaline Trio to be up to that point. Where “Cringe” punched you in the gut with its raw energy, “Stupid Kid” asked you to dance around with jazz-hands. Where “Bleeder” cut like a knife with lines like, “Woke up to my daily headache and the realization that you are gone; oh my sweet darling happiness, you’ve been away from me all along,” “Stupid Kid” spread icing with lines like, “Remember when I said I love you? Well forget it, I take it back.”
And the album didn’t stop there. There was the baffling crap-piece “Private Eye” that, unless I’m missing some deeper meaning, is really just Skiba rambling on about some childhood fantasy. There was Dan’s odd one, “I’m Dying Tomorrow,” in which he asks, “Did I did I at least try to kiss the prettiest girl at the right time?” There was “Armageddon” that seemed like it was born out of high school hallway angst, “I wrote the words to this song on the back of a photograph behind your back; it goes a little something like this . . .” And what about the two songs “Bloodied Up” and “Crawl?” They altered them. They added in vocal effects and did different takes for the album version that softened them and polished them to that crisp, Good Charlotte-shine.
Something had happened. Not only did the music lose its edge, but the lyrics became artificial. There was no connection with the band anymore in the songs they were singing because they weren’t real about it. The new album felt like an act. A role.
At the time it was easy to make Mike Felumlee the scapegoat for the band changing, but I’ve since gotten over that. Felumlee’s alright by me on his own, or with other groups (especially The Smoking Popes). The truth that I didn’t want to admit at the time is (I think) Skiba and Adriano saw the opportunity to take their band to the next level, and they did it the way they know how. The way that pretty much any band anymore knows how: pick an image, run with it, and turn up the pop accessibility to your music. Since the Trio was already known for being dark with a poppy edge, they picked that as their image, but turned it around, so that they were poppy with a dark edge.
Not long after that, Mike left the group for some reason, and was replaced by the current drummer, Derek Grant. Grant was already established in the punk (and ska) scene of the mid and late 90’s, having played in groups like The Vandals and The Suicide Machines, so his joining of the group was a little like the cred Blink 182 got when Travis Barker joined. (And before Enema of the State, that was honest punk rock cred that Barker brought Blink).
At this point in my fandom, I felt pretty disconnected from them. I saw that a new album was coming out so I decided to get it in hopes that things would have swung the other way. The album would be called Good Mourning. Sigh. Again with the stupid pun. Can you see what I’m getting at here? They went from I Lied My Face Off and Maybe I’ll Catch Fire to From Here to Infirmary and Good Mourning. If that’s not trying to play a made up part, I don’t know what is.
Well I got the album, and it was actually pretty good. It wasn’t as . . . “fluffy” . . . as the previous album. But for all that was okay and good about it, the magic of the earlier releases was still gone. While a lot of the excessive pop had been removed, the slight return to the original feel of the group, just a little more polished, seemed artificial, now. And on top of it, the lyrics were just as bad as before–if not worse. “This Could Be Love,” the opening track, is really the best example of their catalog to that point of trying to be dark for dark’s sake:
Step one — slit my throat
Step two — play in my blood
Step three — cover me in dirty sheets and run laughing out of the house
Step four — stop off at Edgebrook Creek and rinse your crimson hands
You took me hostage and made your demands
I couldn’t meet them so you cut off my fingers, one by one
That’s sick! That’s accessible to sociopaths. What happened to the dark edge they had before? Here’s an excerpt from one of their songs from Goddamnit that perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about when I say “dark edge” and not “gross.”
You t0ld me that you want to die
I said I’ve been there myself more than a few times
And I go back every once in a while
You called me lucky; you called me lucky
You said tonight is a wonderful night to die
Asked how you could tell,
you told me to look at the sky,”Look at all those stars,
Look at how goddamn lonely the stars are . . .”
It’s one or another
Between a rope and a bottle
I can tell you’re having trouble breathing
‘Cause you’ll never be okay
You’ll always be in pain
You’ll always feel this way
‘Cause things they never work out right
The wrong way, the lonely way
You’ll always be in pain
You told me that the daylight burns you
And that the sunlight was enough to kill you
I said, “Maybe you’re a vampire.”
You said that it’s quite possible, “I feel truly dead inside.”
Do you see what I’m saying and trying to contrast? They’re both dark, but “Trouble Breathing” has a sincerity to it. It feels real, like it was written out of an actual, painful conversation with a long-time friend. “This Could Be Love” sounds like he just got done watching a Saw movie, though it was written long before those movies came out. “Trouble Breathing” is clever and uses subtlety. “This Could Be Love” is artificial.
The long-term problem with Good Mourning, I found, was that it grew tiring after a while, and any enthusiasm for the Trio it restored in me fizzled out long before their next album, Crimson, was released.
Sigh. Crimson. I’ve still never made it through the whole album. I appreciate the drama and the power behind the opening track “Time to Waste,” but it’s an otherwise empty song. The actual first song I heard from the album is “Mercy Me.” An old friend played it for me, we listened to it, and we laughed hysterically before turning it off.
I used to long for broken bones
I used to long for a casket to call my own
I never had a problem facing fear
but I’m done, over and out my dear and
Oh mercy me
God bless catastrophe
There’s no way in hell
We’ll ever live to see through this so
Drive yourself insane tonight
It’s not that far away and I just
filled up your tank earlier today
Get it? They’re DARK! OOoooooo! Caskets! Insanity! Broken bones! Spooky!
That marked the end of my Alkaline Trio days, for sure. Several years later I picked up the B-side collection Remains so I could have some elusive comp-only songs like “Jaked on Green Beers” and “Queen of Pain,” but honestly I barely listen to any of it anymore. And what have I caught in my peripheral vision since then? . . .
Those are Nikes, by the way.
I’ve written several things on the twisting and perversion of emo music from honest, talented post-punk into some watered-down, shopping mall, pseudo-goth trend. The Trio is riding that wave big time. In the older days, they did have hints of that dark imagery in their merchandise and album art. At the time it was something of a joke, because they didn’t sound remotely like a band that would use that kind of stuff for their look; there was a cheeky irony to it. Well it’s apparently no longer a joke. It’s clearly no longer intended to be irony. Now the attempt at cleverness has turned into the fashion sense of spoiled, middle-class teens and 20-somethings who think they’re dark and brooding when they paint their fingernails black and listen to catchy guitar hooks and poppy melodies with lyrics about feeling dark and brooding. And Alkaline Trio is the justification for the association.
So two albums have come out since Crimson. I’ve not heard anything on Agony & Irony nor the most recent This Addiction. I don’t care to. I’m moving on to other, better things. At least the album names have dramatically improved. But since we’re here, let’s take a moment to listen to a song from their newest album . . .
. . . hmm. It sounds put on, still. The intro and verse started to grab me, but that chorus ruined it, and the lyrics STILL sound generic. Also the kids in the video are awkward. . . . Well, I’m done. So long, guys; enjoy your success, and then don’t take it too hard when you end up the butt of every Hot Topic joke. You already are, actually, as you’ve clearly drifted into that inescapable prison of self-parody.
Oh, and nice eyeliner, Matt.