My Alkaline Trio fandom peaked at the turn of the century and like presumably every Trio fanatic, I loved “Radio.” Spotify tells me that “Mercy Me” has more plays, but that seems like a quirk of streaming statistics and I refuse to believe that it’s a more popular track among the band’s fans; if you’re asked to think of one Trio song, you’ll think of “Radio.”
There are sonic reasons that “Radio” is so beloved: Its quiet-loud dichotomy is on point, the chorus is huge and melodically excellent, and the opening riff is both iconic and simple enough that any fan with access to a guitar can learn to play it. But, of course, “Radio” is also a titanic hit because of its aggressively upsetting lyrics. Disturbing lyricism is a fundamental component of the Trio’s DNA; at various points, the band has suggested that “we are one with the larva and the dirt”, and claimed that “I took a hammer and two nails to my eardrums long ago / before that steak knife took my eyes”, and that you should “tuck me in with the tarantulas” because “I wanna let ‘em in my mouth and down my throat to lay their eggs.” Unpleasantness is, clearly, their thing.
Across 25 years of misery, no Trio line is more unpleasant or memorable than the opening line of “Radio,” a line that I would like to take a moment to apologize to my parents for having blasted through their house for years:
Shaking, like a dog shitting razorblades
Poetry, that ain’t. The song’s chorus is also filled with exactly the kind of misanthropic angst that plays to disenchanted teenagers with great success:
I’ve got a big fat fucking bone to pick with you, my darling / in case you haven’t heard, I’m sick and tired of trying / I wish you would take my radio to bathe with you / plugged in and ready to fall
That’s, uh, really something. As much as I loved, and continue to love, the Trio, my appetite for this type of thing has substantially declined in the years since I stopped being a misanthropic angsty teen. And yet I still spin every new Trio release at least once. They’ve given me enough over the years that such courtesy continues to feel warranted. Which is how I’ve come to love the two-minute pugilism of “Pale Blue Ribbon.”
Once a Matt Skiba acolyte, I’ve found the best songs from the Trio’s recent vintage tend to be Dan Andriano tracks and “Pale Blue Ribbon” exemplifies why: Andriano has become the more focused songwriter, particularly in his melodic execution. “Pale Blue Ribbon” still makes reference to bleeding, scars, and broken bones, but the song is successful not because of its grotesquerie but because of its sharp hooks—listen to it once and you’ll be humming “no prize for winning this race” for the rest of the day—its unrelenting pace, and its extreme efficiency. “Pale Blue Ribbon” lasts only two minutes but it feels like more song because that runtime is used so robustly. That’s good songwriting.
I’ll always think of Alkaline Trio as the band that wrote “Cringe” and “Bleeder” and “Private Eye” but, to paraphrase Andriano and “Pale Blue Ribbon”, I’m glad that they’ve been able to stretch out and move on from the horror that once defined them.
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