One And Done: Alkaline Trio, ‘Agony & Irony’
Posted on July 30, 2014
One And Done is a new, recurring series that will highlight bands who made the jump to a major label, released an album and, through a series of unique circumstances, quickly left the label, were dropped, or broke up. The series will take a look at how the band reached the big leagues, what they did when they got there, and attempt to dissect what worked and what didn’t. This is the first entry of the series.
July 30, 2014
by Bryne Yancey
By the time Alkaline Trio joined Epic for the release of Agony & Irony in 2008, they’d been a band for 11 years. 11 years is not necessarily a long time for one person; it’s more like a panoramic snapshot that’s part of a much larger, more intensive work. A single chapter in the book. For a band, though, 11 years could be the length of their entire career—if they even make it that long. It’s one reason the Trio’s lone sojourn to the big leagues seemed odd: Punk bands just generally don’t sign to majors that late in their careers, unless they’re Bad Religion, it’s 1993 and said signing is as much a result of hard work as it is good timing, which in their case was California punk exploding in popularity. In 2008 though—a full decade into the file sharing era—the major label music industry was entrenched in the nexus between complacency and necessary evolution. The majors, wobblier than ever, couldn’t afford to take risks and rock music, and especially punk music, and especially punk music performed by dudes north of thirty was a huge risk.
What’s even more odd about the move is that it didn’t happen sooner. After an inauspicious but ultimately influential beginning on Asian Man Records with 1998’s Goddammit and 2000’s Maybe I’ll Catch Fire, Alkaline Trio moved to Vagrant for 2001’s From Here To Infirmary, streamlining their sound into something far cleaner and more melodic in the process. The band opened for blink-182 on a spring club tour that year, and “Stupid Kid” charted in the UK; their reach was beginning to exist beyond the underground punk scene, which is usually when the majors come calling. Perhaps they did. At any rate, the Trio began to vaguely resemble a major label punk band with 2003’s Jerry Finn-produced Good Mourning, a record that did well enough on its own but with a larger push behind it, had the slickness and accessibility to be huge; it’s arguable that younger fans of bands like Good Charlotte and Sum 41 would’ve been extremely amenable to the record had it been more heavily targeted to them. The Trio stuck with Vagrant through 2005’s Crimson, also produced by Finn; though airier and more goth-tinged than its predecessor, the band’s knack for arena-ready hooks endured: “Burn” had the makeup of a hard rock radio staple, and the poppy catchiness of “Mercy Me” gave the song unrealized crossover appeal.
The band signed to V2 Records in the fall of 2006, only to become free agents a few months later after the label was shuttered. Though the US iteration of V2 wasn’t a major label, it had the frontline makeup of one, with releases from huge artists like the White Stripes and Moby. It’s impossible to know what would’ve happened, but it seems likely that the label would’ve afforded the Trio the opportunity to get their music out in front of a lot more people—and perhaps just as importantly, a different demographic of people—than they ever did on Vagrant. The move to Epic surprised a lot of people, from fans openly wishing the band would sign to Fat Wreck Chords instead, to industry insiders wondering aloud about their potential appeal to a wider audience. In those preceding 11 years, they’d built up a sizable fanbase comprised of a cross-section of old punks who cut their teeth on Asian Man’s Mailorder is Fun and young kids who did their own discovering at Warped Tour every summer, but growth seemed incremental.
Regardless of label, the Trio were a couple albums too late to the party with Agony & Irony.
It has all the markings of a major label debut: Slowed tempos, huge rock choruses, a couple ballads, an occasional bout of danciness. But it’s a much better album than most people remember and really, wasn’t a huge departure from what the band had been doing prior. Dan Andriano’s songs have aged especially well: “Do You Wanna Know?” and “In Vein” remain impossibly catchy, with the latter enduring as a staple in the band’s live set, and the underlying cynicism of “Love Love, Kiss Kiss” is a classic Trio motif. Matt Skiba’s contributions were solid as well: Though the video for “Help Me” is best left forgotten, the song itself is rather memorable; his vocal performance on “Calling All Skeletons” is one of the best of his career; “I Found Away” stuffs macabre relationship metaphors and soaring melodies into a goth-punk box in a way that seemingly only this band can muster. The album mostly succeeds in taking Alkaline Trio’s core sound and expanding its reach while never fully abandoning it. Skiba had mentioned in an interview that the band “wanted to make a hard rock record with a big element from our punk roots, but also something that’s really anthemic and sing-a-long-ey. I personally was listening to a lot of Pat Benetar [sic], Deff Leppard [sic] and a lot of the 80’s MTV music that I grew up with. So that was a big influence in the writing process, bands like The Carrs [sic], as well as the others I mentioned.” While nothing on A&I channels “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” thankfully, the intent of making a big hard rock record was indeed more apparent than ever; it just didn’t resonate with the band’s built-in audience, nor did it cross them over. The band reportedly amicably left Epic after its release, signing to Epitaph where they remain today and continue to release good-to-great records, most recently 2013’s My Shame Is True.
The truth is, Alkaline Trio never had the visual appeal of My Chemical Romance, the poppy brightness of blink-182, the modern rock crossover appeal of Rise Against or the conceptual deftness of Green Day. They were just a catchy punk rock band from Chicago, which might have been enough for mainstream success in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, not so much in the late 2000s. Good songs matter but timing is still almost everything.