At its best, punk is made by kids for kids. Listen to the searing electric introduction of “In the City”, the Jam’s 1977 breakthrough single, and you can hear all the proof you need. The music — a bass pummeling a guitar smashing itself against a brick wall — has all the venom and velocity of young men discovering how to expunge their frustrations for the first time. “I wanna tell you / About the young ideas,” a 19-year-old Paul Weller sings. But he doesn’t need to tell you anything; the “young idea”, that inexplicable admixture of passion and angst that courses beneath the history of punk, is there in the urgency of his voice.
Over the past few years, several pop-punk and hardcore groups of yesteryear have tried to recapture what made the music of their youth so effective, to varying degrees of success. Blink 182 released California to acclaim; New Found Glory dropped Makes Me Sick Again to moderate fanfare; and Fall Out Boy pushed out the Lake Effect Kid EP, featuring the From Under the Cork Tree wannabe title track, without causing so much as a ripple. Alkaline Trio, the Chicago-bred bashers behind seminal Warped Tour anthems “Mercy Me” and “Stupid Kid”, have now joined the ranks of their peers. With Is This Thing Cursed?, their ninth studio LP, frontman Matt Skiba, co-lead vocalist, and bassist Dan Andriano, and drummer Derek Grant show that, although their mainstream peak is long gone, they still know how to write a hook that shoots adrenaline through the blood.
“Blackbird”, the album’s first single, is borne from a vision of punk kids sweating, throwing punches, and screaming choruses simply for the sake of screaming. The song rushes forward with charred power chords that sound battered but ready for a fight, one they’ll most likely lose. Skiba’s vocal, still the everyman shout that it’s always been, is at home here, pleading yet cocksure. The story he tells is a familiar one: a boy with his life in disarray meets a girl-enigma who dresses in black and crimson and seems to hold the key to something life-affirming and ecstatic. She’s the woman from the Beatles’ “Blackbird” — “Blackbird singing in the dead of night / Take this wings and learn to fly” — but she learned to fly long ago, and now she’s used to the skies and all the freedom they signify. The chorus is arguably the album’s most immediately gratifying moment.
Almost every track here careens ahead with blistering momentum. “Demon and Division” hurls wave after wave of high-voltage energy over Grant’s insistent drum rolls. “Pale Blue Ribbon,” sitting with a spare two-minute length, is built around a breakneck guitar melody that sprints through sunshine with bare feet. Similarly, “Throw Me to the Lions” seems to move so fast that the band struggles to keep pace, but they do, and the effect is one of speeding through a landscape so quickly that the scenery blurs beside you.
“The songwriting process is almost like what it was back in the day. We would just kind of write a song, be excited about it, then move on. We wrote in that spirit in the studio. I really feel like we made a record that the old school fans are going to dig,” Andriano said. He’s right. While Is This Thing Cursed? won’t win over any more acolytes, or incite anything close to a Billboard pop-punk resurgence, Alkaline Trio diehards will find themselves, by turns, nostalgic for what came before and thrilled by what they hear now. Maybe, for a moment or two, they’ll feel like the “young idea” never left them at all.