In this week’s edition of Dusting ‘Em Off, Staff Writer Randall Colburn revisits Goddammit!, the debut album of legendary Chicago punk outfit Alkaline Trio, for its 15th anniversary. A decade and a half later, he discovers that the lyrics he once worshipped as AIM-worthy aren’t so timeless, after all.
The first song I ever played at an open mic was “As You Were”, a deep cut off the Alkaline Trio’s debut LP Goddamnit!. Sandwiched between one of the album’s best tracks (“Nose Over Tail”) and its definitive worst (“Enjoy Your Day”), the song barely makes an impression across its two-minute running time. But I loved “As You Were”, not for its songcraft, but because it has one of the most hilarious lyrics I’ve ever heard: “I would give anything to erase the past nine years of my life.”
I relished singing those lyrics, even as I butchered them with my acoustic guitar, because even then, as a comically sad 18-year old with bright blue hair and Bright Eyes lyrics scrawled on my Converse, I found it hilarious, especially when considering the source. Frontman Matt Skiba was only 20 when Goddamnit! was released, meaning he probably wrote that lyric when he was 19. By this logic, Skiba wanted to erase everything that had happened to him since he was 10. Not even I was that depressed.
And the record’s littered with phrases like that:
From “Cringe”: “You were the last good thing I ever saw/ I lost it all/ I lost it all”
From “My Little Needle”: “Lately I’ve been feeling dead inside/ like my guts have dried up and died”
From “Southern Rock”: “My worst nightmares became real”
From “Trouble Breathing”: “You’ll always be in pain/ you’ll always feel this way/ ’cause things they never work out right/ you’ll always be in pain”
He’s not serious, of course. Except that he kind of is. On Goddamnit!, hyperbole is, as it is for most young people, Skiba’s preferred mode of expression. There’s a finality to his lyrics, as if he wrote them in a bathtub surrounded by plugged-in toasters. They’re also cunning in how they encapsulate the despair, ludicrosity, and resignation of youthful angst, right down to the singer’s tantrum-like delivery.
Upon revisiting some of the band’s latter-day albums (Crimson, This Addiction, even From Here to Infirmary), I was struck by the silkiness of Skiba’s voice, this overproduced thing sheathed in black nail polish. By comparison, listen to the shrieky wail that kicks off “Cringe”, or the two-minute screaming fit that is “Cop”, which devotes its two-minute running time to taking a bullying cop down a peg. This one-two punch serves as a microcosm for the entire record: the first establishes Skiba as emotionally stunted (“you were the last good thing I ever saw”) while the second highlights his immature sneer (“the other cops still call you ‘fatso’”). Nearly every song after falls into one of these categories.
Yet Goddamnit! succeeds, not in spite of this, but by virtue of it. Skiba knows it’s him, not the nameless cop, who looks bad after “Cop”. He knows he’s “fucking pitiful” for wanting an ex to fail in “As You Were”. Where most songwriters are able to channel childish rage, jealousy, and hate into something resembling empathy, Skiba wears it on his sleeve, daring us to judge him between swigs of PBR. But self-awareness does not equal contrition. Skiba is the villain of Goddamnit!, and that suits him just fine.
Even an upbeat track like “Clavicle”, a song that, upon first listen, resonates as a starry-eyed ode to infatuation, contains traces of menace. Though the first half recounts the story of getting a girl’s number six months previous, the second reveals that he’s still “sitting around waiting for your call.” It’s an unsettling image, especially once you imagine the kind of sloppy Chicago shithole Skiba was probably renting at the time. He might as well be singing of the same girl on the subsequent track, “My Little Needle”, which finds him drunkenly asking, “Where are you/ my little needle/ the stack’s been burned away/ but I am so inebriated that I cannot see three feet in front of me.” It’s Skiba’s use of “burned away”, I think, this idea of torching a stack instead of, say, sifting through it, that hints at the true reason for Skiba’s loneliness.
So if Skiba’s the villain, then who’s the hero? Well, that would be bassist Dan Andriano, whose two contributions to Goddamnit! stand in stark contrast to Skiba’s. Sure, they’re about heartbreak and loneliness, but where Skiba subtly acknowledges that he deserves to be alone, Andriano paints himself as a helpless victim, a sensitive, patient man deserving of romance and redemption. In the universe of Goddamnit!, these are the kind of guys who get their ass kicked.
To be fair, Andriano’s hoarse, frantic harmonies on tracks like “My Little Needle” and “Trouble Breathing” are integral to the success of Goddamnit!. And later contributions like “I Lied My Face Off” and “Crawl” aren’t just highlights on their respective albums, but also in the entirety of Alkaline Trio’s catalogue. In truth, it seems over time Andriano’s only grown as a songwriter, while Skiba’s regressed. For further proof, see Andriano’s excellent Dan Andriano in the Emergency Room, an Americana-influenced side project.
But Jesus, his songs on Goddamnit! are awful. “Enjoy Your Day” is the true offender, its gentle acoustic fingerpicking halting the barbed angst of the preceding “As You Were” in its tracks, then transforming it into the lukewarm treacle of an Oh Holy Fools-era Bright Eyes track, except, you know, worse. “So this is how you leave me/ I’m broken-hearted on the floor/ my tears seep through the crack under my door,” the lyrics go, giving way to Andriano’s weary, “I’m so tired of picking myself up off the ground.” When compared to its contemporaries, “Enjoy Your Day” is akin to the newly single guy who cries in the bathroom as his friends bong beers on the back porch.
“Message From Kathleen” fares better, if only because it at least sounds like the rest of the album. But lyrically it feels out of place, telling the weepy story of another sensitive soul whose fierce loyalty qualifies him as some sort of martyr. In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that these lyrics once populated my AIM profile’s away message. Hey, I was a kid. Granted, so was Andriano.
But let’s get back to ballads, as the album closes with one penned by Skiba. “Sorry About That”, indisputably one of Alkaline Trio’s best songs, finds a young man taking advantage of his crush at her most vulnerable, i.e. drunk and brokenhearted. “And maybe I just set aside / the fact that you were brokenhearted/ in my own special, selfish way,” Skiba sings against rich acoustic strums, allowing, for the first time on Goddamnit!, that smirk to fall from his face. His self-awareness mutates into something resembling regret as he considers what could’ve been if, for once, he’d acted like a gentleman.
“Sorry About That” also had a place in my open mic setlist, even though I could never quite hit the notes. See, I liked playing Alkaline Trio songs because they put my depression into perspective. As Irish scribe Samuel Beckett once wrote, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” I never understood that until I started howling my way through “As You Were”: “I would give anything to erase the past nine years of my life.”
Goddamnit! is an evil little record, a collection of songs that wallow in a keg of misery, but it’s also deeply human, a document of angst as it’s so often made manifest by rebellious youth. Sadness, it seems, doesn’t have to be so sad, after all.