Alkaline Trio has long billed itself as a “dark punk” band, and at times it has lived up to that—lyrically more than musically. Following the gritty, back-to-basics angst of 2010’s This Addiction, the long-running Chicago trio has set an even lower bar for so-called darkness: basically, monochromatic, by-the-numbers pop-punk with the occasional hint of minor-key moodiness. Not that the group has ever aspired to much more than that—the problem is, it’s usually able to explore that narrow spectrum with a lot more craft and passion.
Thankfully, that threadbare formula works on tracks like “Kiss You To Death”—a brooding, crooning example of frontman Matt Skiba’s knack for narrative—and the keyboard-driven “Only Love,” which sparkles bleakly in spite of sounding like Coldplay with extra distortion and tattoos. “The Torture Doctor” has the most goth-like title this time around, but it’s the disc’s least inspired, most forgettable track. “Hey! Ho! / We know how this story goes,” Skiba tiredly shouts in the song’s chorus, as if acknowledging just how overused its riffs and melodies feel. On “I, Pessimist,” Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath duets with Dan Andriano, injecting a sense of urgency that the album as a whole lacks.
Skiba’s greatest strength has always been wordplay, but even in that department he cruises on autopilot. The disc’s title is not only a weak play on Elvis Costello’s debut, but it also tags an album that couldn’t be less on Costello’s level. “I Wanna Be A Warhol”—another guest-spotted track, this one featuring Brendan Kelly of The Lawrence Arms—hits a glass ceiling of cleverness with the lackluster couplet, “I wanna be a Warhol / Hanging on your wall.” When Skiba’s on fire, he’s one of pop-punk’s best tunesmiths; but when he’s coasting, as he is throughout My Shame Is True, his songs feel less black than beige.