Judging by names alone, Is This Thing Cursed? is a natural extension of Alkaline Trio’s discography. Next to earlier album titles like From Here to Infirmary and Good Mourning, it seems to slip smoothly into the sense of continuity that the band has established. Indeed, the record is very much reminiscent of the Illinois punk rockers’ earlier work, despite the fact that it’s been five years since their last LP. Yet it couldn’t have been made in any other era but the late 2010s, when the instinctive answer to “Is this thing cursed?” is a resounding, only-half-ironic “YES.” A recent Rolling Stone headline about the group—“Alkaline Trio on How Depression, Trump-Era Mayhem Fueled Their New LP”—says it all. Is This Thing Cursed? has plenty of facetious moments, but they’re always balanced with dark sincerity, whether Matt Skiba is singing about a woman or governmental corruption.
For this reason, the album works best when it sonically matches the color scheme of its cover art. “Blackbird” is a fantastic example of this effect. With lyrics like “The city falls just like the night or an angel does” and “She’s the only spy I ever loved,” it’ll make you feel like you’re getting a one-way plane ticket to Gotham. The guitars keep up the tension in the verses; the pounding percussion gives you the sense that there’s danger to be running from. Fingers crossed that the music video for this one comes out soon—it would be well suited for some cinematic treatment.
“Heart Attacks” is similarly striking. Despite the warning implicit in the song title, when the lyrics progress from the nonchalant “It’s time I should be leaving, it’s time for me to go” to the sobering “They found you Christmas morning beneath the tree in the front yard,” the twist is striking. Sure, the “emo death song” is a bit of a trope, but it’s a trope for a reason. The acoustic strumming and rhyming couplets in the chorus are just sobering enough; so is the silence at the end of the track. “Throw Me to the Lions” has the same haunting pull, with an added bonus—lots of entertaining rhymes. “Focus/locusts/hocus pocus” and “Lions/scientists/silence/violence” are fun to listen to, and presumably even more fun to sing.
“I Can’t Believe” and “Goodbye Fire Island” are of interest for a different reason—they serve as commentary on recent events. “I Can’t Believe” is about Trump; even more so, according to Skiba, it’s “about the people that continue to think that Trump is a good idea, regardless of all the racism, sexual abuse, and pig-nature of this person.” The intricate Biblical knot of a metaphor “Leave me on the outskirts of this/Seven-headed whore of a one-horse town” makes no effort to hide the band’s opinion on the man in the Oval Office. “Goodbye Fire Island” is about a phenomenon that’s almost as strange: the failed Fyre Festival of 2017, which Skiba was supposed to play with Blink-182. Images like “Feeding on the fainting models” and “Entitled waves will wash us all away” paint a unique portrait of a unique moment in music history, shimmering with symbolism.
All in all, Is This Thing Cursed? offers longtime Alkaline Trio fans exactly what they should expect, which is by no means a bad thing. The catchy hooks of bands like Blink and Relient K are here; so are thought-provoking reflections and skillful wordplay, adding gravitas to the rollicking rock tracks. If something around here is cursed, it sure isn’t Alkaline Trio.