Love. Alcoholism. Depression. Fire. Drugs. Blasphemy. Death.
Those are the usual song topics covered by Alkaline Trio through their previous five albums, starting with 1998's now-classic Goddamnit on pioneering indie Asian Man Records through 2005's Crimson, the band's last album for Vagrant Records.
And while you can expect more of the same on Agony and Irony, the band's major label debut for Epic Records, produced by Josh Abraham [Linkin Park, Slayer, Atreyu, 30 Seconds to Mars] at his L.A.-based Pulse Recording, founding member Matt Skiba, bassist/co-songwriter Dan Andriano and drummer Derek Grant insist they have found a light at the end of the tunnel this time.
"That dark side always seems to come through," says Grant. "We're all happy individuals with families now, so you're not going to hear too many songs about heartbreak or the girl that got away anymore. But we have friends going through tough times, and both Matt and Dan are influenced by those sorts of situations."
Forsaking the wide-screen production of Crimson for a streamlined return to punk basics with an eye towards the anthems of '80s new wave stalwarts like Billy Idol, The Cars, Pat Benatar, Gary Numan and, yes, Def Leppard ("The stuff Mutt Lange did with them is amazing," says Matt), the songs on Agony and Irony trace a journey towards salvation. The concept was sparked by the likes of Dante's Inferno (the spoken-word intro that starts the album) and Joy Division's Ian Curtis (Skiba penned the first single, "Help Me," after being blown away by the recent Anton Corbijn biopic, Control.)
"There's a heavy theme of duality, light and dark, life and death, on the album," says Matt, who says Agony and Irony is a pun on the Paul McCartney/Steve Wonder song "Ebony and Ivory," like such other plays on words as 2001's From Here to Infirmary and 2003's Good Mourning. "We tried to make it all about the individual songs, and we really took the time to craft each one in the studio."
"We felt it was time to reassess everything we'd done," adds Derek. "We went in without any preconceived notions and didn't record in a liner fashion. We kind of jumped all over the place which, for three guys with attention deficit disorder, was perfect."
"Help Me" is a cry for salvation spurred by Skiba channeling the tragically doomed Curtis, who hanged himself on the eve of Joy Division's first U.S. tour, leaving behind a grieving wife, a baby daughter and stunned band mates.
"Anton Corbijn's film was so brilliant at capturing the moods and emotions of the time," says Matt, "especially the reactions of the people who loved him. People call suicide the easy way out, a cowardly thing to do. I think that's a terrible thing to say because you don't know what someone like Ian or Kurt Cobain has been through to reach that point. Thankfully, they're still here in the music they left behind, which continues to inspire us."
"I Found a Way" and "Into the Night" both came out of Matt's recent discovery of Transcendental Meditation, which helped him develop a new-found ability to not fear death, but accept it as a part of life. "Meditation helped me get over a great deal of anxiety I didn't even realize I had," he says.
Dan's "In Vein," with its gurgling riffs and martial beat, and "Love Love, Kiss Kiss," a cynical, gnarled punk-rock anti-love song, offer a pair of the ink-black meditations for which Alkaline Trio have become known since Skiba started the band back in 1996 in a Chicago suburb.
For "Lost and Rendered," Matt puts himself in the shoes of someone he knew caught stealing from family and friends, who shun her, comparing the feeling to being dismembered and left dead in the woods. With its Who-like guitar break, "Calling All Skeletons" is about opening yourself up totally to your loved ones, featuring a lyrical nod to legendary L.A. punk band The Minutemen's classic album Double Nickels on a Dime, echoing past shout-outs to Skiba faves Big Black and Naked Raygun.
The anti-war epic "Over and Out" starts out with an ominous Joy Division/New Order dance-floor pulse and a tip of the cap to classic punk bands the Clash, Sex Pistols and the Ramones, with a storyline that incorporates the military history of Matt's family, whose parents both served in Vietnam, his mom as a triage nurse in the DMZ. A U.S. News and World Report story he read about a wife waiting in vain for her husband to return from Iraq, where he died in battle, inspires the refrain: "Over and out/She sang/As the telephone rang/There's no pain/In answering no more."
Andriano's "Ruin It," with a spaghetti western flavor provided by drummer Grant, harks back to the more elaborate production of Crimson, announcing: "So this is what I'm looking like these days/I'm all grown up/And full of hate."
"We're truly thrilled with this album," says Derek. "And we have so many songs left over, that we're anxious to get back in the studio and record more. It's an exciting time for us. In many ways, a fresh start, on a new label."
Now relocated from their Chicago home, with Skiba in Los Angeles, Grant in Indianapolis and Andriano in St. Augustine, FL, Alkaline Trio are poised and ready for what they see as two years of non-stop touring.
Each of the band's last two Vagrant releases, Good Mourning (#20) and Crimson (#25), have cracked the upper reaches of the U.S. album charts, so expectations are high for their major label bow.
And things are already off to a great start, with the first single, "Help Me," generating 70k plays in just a single day on MySpace. The album cover, by renowned British designer John Yates, who created memorable sleeves for the Dead Kennedys, among others, during his 10 years at Jello Biafra's legendary punk label Alternative Tentacles, is a take-off on the iconic '60s Time magazine that asked, "Is God Dead?"
Agony & Irony answers that question as only Alkaline Trio can, with 10 rip-roaring punk-rock anthems that take us on a spiritual trip to hell and back.
"We've taken a major step in our growth," nods Skiba. "A bigger one than we've ever taken up until now."