Much like California in the late ’90s, Illinois had its own hub of punk acts, a good chunk of which branched off from (or claimed to be inspired by) the initial Chicago scene surrounding a ska band known as Slapstick. The second branch incarnation around 1998 featured three primary groups: spiritual “emo”-esque Duvall, political mod craft The Honor System, and (to date, the most successful) goth-laced Rancid rantings and indie wordplay of American punk outfit, Alkaline Trio. Going from crashing and clattering rhythms to melodic, positively-charged music juxtaposed with a vampire wardrobe, Alkaline Trio continues to keep a strong following.
Remarkably staying close to roots while also testing the waters with new additions like keyboards or very NOFX brass, Alkaline Trio rides wave after wave of stellar lyrics, gradually catchier rhythms a la pop-punk, and subdued vocal delivery most days; between having one of the best compilation releases ever in their seven-strong catalog to only ever changing enough to remain relevant. What do you expect from a band’s newly-hyped claims of “back to basics” forthcoming? Truthfully, in the case of punk rock, you wish for heavy and rarely get it (much to the tune of The Offspring outdoing Splinter with Rise and Fall, but falling below Americana). Alkaline Trio’s This Addiction is a culmination of better and worse, a casual album packaged with hype and failing to deliver what’s promised…while simultaneously getting its Hot Topic groove on.
Misfits nod “Dine, Dine My Darling” (in title alone) and horn-laced “Lead Poisoning” aside, This Addiction is not spectacular, but sends its audience a fond howdy-do with little effort. The usual themes of love and death are still predominantly present (as noted by the aforementioned song titles), the album art is cutely symbolic like the Agony & Irony naming process (yes, they scored “double points” for using a Harvey Danger lyric on that title), and songs like “Draculina”, “Eating Me Alive”, and “Piss And Vinegar” will no doubt make for fine singles or fan favorites. But the tenacious honesty expected from Alkaline Trio’s leading man Matt Skiba does not overdo or undermine anything — we yet again glide by on the happy medium.
Some critics have mocked Alkaline Trio’s use of brass and keyboards; it should be reiterated that said instruments are remnants of the roots Alkaline Trio so fondly tried to recapture (i.e., the ska days of Slapstick via guitarist Dan Andriano). I, for one, really respect that move as it was intended, though those new to the band or those who were introduced post-2000 will likely not get the reference, instead calling them out on a NOFX lookalike front. This minor confusion over instruments that only make brief appearances is moot in retrospect given Alkaline Trio’s reputation for releasing consistently good material, which thereby warrants a sort of “license to jam” nowadays.
As for more punk-oriented accents, they are scattered in bits across This Addiction, most apparent in the awesome tracks “The American Scream” (one of the few directly political tracks by AK3) and “Off The Map”. Overall, the big issue here resides in misplaced wishful thinking; if Alkaline Trio wanted the punk route on a more Misfits-like tangent, the goal was lost somewhere between doing what Alkaline Trio does best and trying to grasp a semblance of the ’90s ska scene. In other words: If you want to hype a return to roots, pick the fucking roots and stick with your guns. Upside? “Eating Me Alive” is the most catchy and healthy combo of ska, ’80s era The Cars inspiration, and pop-punk this side of This Addiction‘s prescription heartstrings (closely tied to “Dead On The Floor” and “Piss And Vinegar”). Primary influences on This Addiction do tread a lot of ’80s material, as Skiba claims to have been revisiting much of that decade’s material on his headphones recently, and this does add weight to the pop aspect of pop-punk, so kudos to that.
Final verdicts are thus: Lots of varied influences were stirred into the melting pot that is This Addiction; the production value is very marketable, though it adds some speculation that the next AK3 release might be heavy-handed in the synth department; the majority of this record feels infused with DC pop-punk moods, extremely danceable without sacrificing Skiba’s lyrical strengths. Is it a “return” as claimed? Yes, but there are too many returns that do not even glance upon a strongly mentioned “heavier than thou” presence. The happy medium exists, and while Alkaline Trio is not exactly striving for precedence here, it definitely has the current fan-base smiling and brings some newbies to the flock, pink-and-black toe socks and faux dominatrix outfits included.