WORDS: KEVIN FLINN
Alkaline Trio has been around for over 20 years. In that time, the trio (ah that’s where it comes from!) has toured around the glove, put out 9 albums, with the most recent, ‘Is This Thing Cursed’, released in 2018, and have created a loyal following many bands only dream of. But even after over two decades worth of music and touring, the band has kept things relatively low key, at least to those who aren’t familiar with the punk and alt scene. Compared with other prominent 90’s punk bands like blink-182 (who Matt Skiba now co-fronts), Green Day, and The Offspring who all saw high levels of commercial success, Alkaline Trio never quite hit that mark. But it wasn’t to their detriment.
The group debuted in 1996 and released their first album ‘Goddamnit’ in 1998. At this point, pop-punk and what it would become in the turn of the millennium, was at its infancy. Where there were hints of where the punk genre was headed, ‘Goddamnit’ ignored that. Instead, it kept what had made punk such a glamourous genre and refined it with a Chicagoan twist.
“A classic punk sound, with Matt Skiba’s vocals acting as the glue to hold it all together, unapologetic in tone and melody”
Good punk doesn’t take itself too seriously, that’s the beauty of the genre. Where other genres market themselves to be well, marketable, the punk scene grew out of a desire to counter that mentality. But with most things in life, all good things must end (or in this case, head back into the underground). The pop-punk subgenre would be the missing link between being marketable to the vast majority, while maintaining the frantic, rebellious nature of punk, albeit with a more polished tone. Now that’s not a bash on pop-punk. Early pop-punk shaped a generation, gave us some of the biggest names out there today, and some of the most well recognized and respected songs and albums to date.
‘Goddamnit’ came at a time when Green Day had essentially created the foundation of pop-punk with ‘Dookie’, and blink-182 would revolutionize it further with the 1999 release of ‘Enema of the State’. Where both bands had pushed the idea and theory of punk into the mainstream, Alkaline Trio ignored that. Instead, keeping with a less polished route.
A prime example of this is the opening track ‘Cringe’, acting as the epitome of everything the record is and what it stands for. An in-your-face guitar riff, a raw bass cut, and a heart pounding drum groove form this track. A classic punk sound, with Matt Skiba’s vocals acting as the glue to hold it all together, unapologetic in tone and melody.
Whereas bands like Simple Plan and Bowling for Soup kept a woe-is-me attitude in their music, Matt Skiba’s lyrics reflected a person who was terrible and they knew it. He embraced the anti-hero mentality and never apologized for it. This is shown in ‘Cop’, an ode to a cop that Skiba and then drummer Glenn Porter dealt with often while working as bike messengers in Chicago. “Slowly crawling up from the down low, the other cops still call you fatso”, echoes in each verse, continuing with “A short fuse and a top to blow. Unhappy wife, shitty life, hit the bottle”. Skiba doesn’t mask his feelings for this cop, probably most notably in the chorus, “left you with meaningless things to prove, like why you became a cop”. ‘Cop’ is just a sample of the anti-hero mentality that permeate throughout the record, a theme that cuts across many of Alkaline’s future releases.
Skiba, bassist Dan Andriano, and Porter, created a record for those who found themselves lost to the genre they helped create. There’s a sincerity to ‘Goddamnit’ that could be argued was missing from some of the trio’s more mainstream counterparts. The debut record was created by a band that was true to themselves, and if you didn’t like it then whatever, Alkaline Trio didn’t care.
“Skiba, bassist Dan Andriano, and Porter, created a record for those who found themselves lost to the genre they helped create.”
A record mostly about heartbreak, it never feels preachy or generic. Instead of that woe-is-me attitude mentioned previously, Skiba declared himself the resident asshole. Creating songs like ‘As You Were’, where Skiba sings, “I’m fuckin’ pitiful”, the listener gets to hear the anti-hero theme first hand. Instead of the more pop-centric lyrics heard from other bands, we get a foreshadowing of the emo bands to come. Mixing dark imagery with stanzas that break the typical formula, ‘Goddamnit’ packs track after track with visualizations that goths and punks would have wet dreams over.
Take ‘My Little Needle’ as an example. The opening verse instantly draws you in with its melancholic vision. “I’ll come down to get you high, or maybe sing you a lullaby. Sing you to sleep, a sleep you’ll never wake from. Sing you to coma so to speak”, is just the beginning of a song packed with more of these visions. A sign of what was to come throughout the rest of the track, taking a simple idea (a soulmate) and turning it into a dark romance (“Trade in my bike for a shopping cart and beg change from a world that needs some, like I need someone. So where are you my little needle? The stack’s been burned away”). Of course that’s not the only song that uses this imagery, going to show that ‘Goddamnit’ wasn’t just one or two dips into the emo pool, but a full on cannonball.
“A record that dared to be different from the growing popularity and streamlining of the punk genre and stick to its roots.”
Time has been relatively good to Alkaline Trio. And although they lost Porter, they gained Derek Grant who no doubt aided in the recognition the band gained in the mid-2000’s. As mentioned previously, they’ve released a new album in 2018 and are still touring to this day, even with Skiba working as co-frontman for a band that helped shape the very genre they earned success from. Their albums, ‘From Here To Infirmary’ and ‘Good Mourning’ put Alkaline Trio on playlists and iPod’s everywhere, pushing them to become staples in the alt-rock and punk scene. But it was with that first record that started it all.
A record that dared to be different from the growing popularity and streamlining of the punk genre and stick to its roots. At a time when pop-punk bands were creating radio hits sung with whiny vocals, Alkaline Trio created a record that was an ode to what came before. Dark and gritty, a tortured anti-hero who gave no f**ks, a couple punks in an ever-evolving world. ‘Goddamnit’ may not have been revolutionary to punk music, but it was a necessary collection of tracks to a genre that was losing its identity. And for Alkaline Trio, a record that proved the foundation twenty years in the making.