15 Years Ago: Alkaline Trio Embrace the Mainstream With ‘From Here To Infirmary’
It’s difficult to fully express just how integral Chicago-bred punks Alkaline Trio have been to the scene during the last two decades, but a clear milestone in the band’s impressive eight-album career was the 2001 release of From Here To Infirmary. It remains as essential to the modern punk canon today as it did back then.
Following two now-classic, but sonically raw albums (1998’s Goddamnit and 2000’s Maybe I’ll Catch Fire), Infirmary marked the first time guitarist-vocalist Matt Skiba and bassist-vocalist Dan Andriano (and drummer Mike Felumee, who replaced Glenn Porter) realized the sound that would come to define them. From the tight, well-honed songwriting, to the meaty production, to the dark and evocative lyrical imagery, the album rapidly vaulted Alkaline Trio from underground status to Warped Tour main-stagers. They’ve been there at the forefront ever since.
A lot of that initial success has to do with how downright catchy much of the album is, despite its sometimes grim lyrical leanings. The record’s two singles, “Stupid Kid” and “Private Eye,” are two of the band’s all-time fan favorites, along with “Mr. Chainsaw,” another gem from the album. Both singles charted in the U.K., while stateside, Infirmary became the band’s first album to crack the Billboard Top 200, reaching No. 199. Alkaline Trio had found a way to retain their lyrical cynicism and sonic edge, but in a way that increasingly appealed to the masses.
Lyrically, no album better encapsulates the Alkaline Trio aesthetic than Infirmary. While its similarly beloved follow-up, 2003’s Good Mourning, delved even deeper into the band’s dark side, Infirmary does a remarkable job of balancing both the brokenhearted booze-punk of the earlier albums and the Horror-Goth leanings of later works. The metaphorical gore is there, for sure: For example, on “Mr. Chainsaw,” when singer-guitarist Matt Skiba mourns a friend’s choice to embrace the 9-to-5 workforce, he retorts, “Everything that you could never say / Would never matter anyway / I took a hammer and two nails to my eardrums long ago,” and “Before that steak knife took my eyes / I looked up to the sky / For the last thing I would ever see / For the last time I’d cry.”
Those bloodier sentiments, however, exist in perfect harmony with another textbook Alkaline lyrical topic: substance abuse, especially booze. Skiba and singer-bassist Dan Adriano have always veiled their own experiences very thinly in this regard when writing lyrics, adding a kind of flawed humanity and self-loathing that always made the band infinitely relatable. Adriano takes a personal tack with “Another Innocent Girl,” painting a picture of alcoholism and romantic dysfunction by a man who drinks away his regrets, before Adriano admits, “When we get home you'll see / That this part of him is now part of me.” It’s even there among the morose: Skiba’s namesake “Private Eye” hadn’t just “dragged this lake looking for corpses / Dusted for prints, pried up the floorboards”; he’d also “passed out on the floor,” after he “smoked myself stupid and drank my insides raisin dry.” Throughout Infirmary, the lyrics bowl you over with that fantastic fusion of drink and darkness…nightmare anguish and drug-riddled emotional isolation.
The album also sounds phenomenal. Produced by the band with Matt Allison (the Lawrence Arms, the Menzingers) and mixed by the legendary Jerry Finn (Green Day, Blink-182), the record — Alkaline’s first for indie Vagrant — has an auditory hugeness that takes Alkaline Trio’s musical identity to a whole new level. Skiba’s guitars are thick and overdriven, yet crisp and clear while Dan Adriano’s basslines pop in the mix and provide much of the drive within the songs. Felumlee also holds his own with the drums, even if his contributions seem minimal compared to his eventual successor, Derek Grant. For a punk three-piece, on Infirmary Alkaline Trio sound like a much, much bigger band.
This all created a sense of momentum that carried over into the albums that followed, especially Good Mourning, which struck a fragile equilibrium between the morbid and melodic, with anthemic radio-friendly rockers like “We’ve Had Enough” logically existing alongside the twisted carnality of “This Could Be Love” or the bleak imagery of “Donner Party (All Night).” But while Good Mourning felt more like a conscious effort to further cultivate those shadowy influences, on Infirmary such discourse seems like a more natural revelation; a brief glimpse into the disquieting aspects of the human psyche, revealed amid fleeting moments of sobriety. In hindsight, Good Mourning would’ve seemed awfully strange—like Alkaline had raided the Misfits’ practice space—if Infirmary hadn’t first primed the pump.
Fifteen years later, it’s hard to debate against including From Here to Infirmary among the most important punk records of the last two decades, and it remains one of the group’s finest efforts, if not their best ever. That should provide at least some measure of comfort to Adriano, who ponders, “Did I do it right?” on the Infirmary track, “I’m Dying Tomorrow.” Yes, Dan. You most certainly did.