It doesn't take an analytical genius to notice that Alkaline Trio have gone through two fairly distinct arcs in their career. Going from dingy Chicago basements and an, uh, trio of records in Goddammit, Maybe I'll Catch Fire and From Here To Infirmary that range from "beloved" to "positively infallible, despite the continued existence of 'Cop' and 'Enjoy Your Day'" to larger venues, glossier recordings and more recognition outside the punk scene with albums like Good Mourning, Crimson and their lone major label release that isn't as bad as you remember, Agony and Irony. That record capped the first arc, and despite major-label backing, an apparently unlimited steampunk wardrobe budget and some of Dan Andriano's best songs ever, it tanked.
Down but not out, Alkaline Trio signed with Epitaph and more or less went back to the basement with 2010's This Addiction. The album worked in terms of intent, as the band clearly wanted to record a throwback to their older material. The problem was how obvious they made it, and that kept the songs from being interesting and having an impact similar to their earlier work. It was almost like a wink to their longtime fans. "This is what you want, right?" Turns out you can't go home again.
My Shame Is True is far more of a follow-up to Agony and Irony than This Addiction, and emphasizes the best characteristics of latter-era Trio: Huge hooks, impassioned vocals, allegorical lyrics and massively slick production. This time it's punk producer du jour Bill Stevenson twisting the knobs, and it couldn't be a better fit; he tends to bring out the best in veteran bands and that's the case here, too, as he pushes Alkaline Trio to new heights while keeping them grounded in what makes them appealing in the first place.
"She Lied To The FBI" is a solid opener, with punchy verses and anthemic choruses laced with organs and whoas. Matt Skiba sounds at once assured and vulnerable, his voice powerful but his lyrics rooted in longing. Things get even more gothic on "I Wanna Be A Warhol," with multi-layered vocals and heavy synths, but all of it residing in a decidedly Trio-esque composition. Derek Grant's percussion is particularly impressive; he's always been one of the most talented drummers in the scene, capable of adding flashes when needed but never really overplaying like, say, Travis Barker might. "Warhol" is some of his best work ever with the band and his efforts alone elevate the song from adequate to pretty good. He also adds a layer of unexpected heaviness to the ballad "Kiss You To Death" with some incessant bass drum work in the otherwise straightforward choruses. It makes the song come off as much more intricate and textured than it would with an average player behind the kit.
"Midnight Blue" is another highlight. Some of the guitar work, especially the soloing around the verses, feels unexpected and new upon first listen, and Skiba's vocals are impressive. Same for "One Last Dance" which houses the biggest chorus on the album.
Andriano doesn't get much lead vocal time on My Shame Is True–just four songs of the album's twelve. But his contributions are as reliably enjoyable as they've always been. "I'm Only Here To Disappoint" features some of the classic deprecation-drenched lyrics fans have come to expect, and the hooks are abundant. "I, Pessimist," a duet with Tim McIlrath of Rise Against, works better than it has any right to given the contrasting styles of the two vocalists. Andriano has occasionally shown in the past that he can rise above a croon and be fierce on the mic–see "The Poison"–and he does so again here. "Only Love" is a ballad that immediately follows it, and as such the two songs serve as a brief-but-comprehensive suite into Dan's range. He vocally soars in his fourth and final contribution, "Young Lovers," a song that like some of the Trio's best work, has an understated darkness present surrounded by huge hooks and infectious melodies.
My Shame Is True closes with "Until Death Do Us Part," in which Skiba implores, Tell me everything will be OK / Tell me that you're still in love with me / Please tell me how to get back into your heart / For there I shall remain until death do us part, which, yeah, is pretty cloying, but keeps the Trio's now omnipresent '80s influences even more at the forefront. It also speaks to the band's advanced age, and perhaps hints at a certain desperation for stability that wasn't as prominent in their earlier work. It caps an album that's a nice rebound from the fan service of its predecessor, showing that even this late in the game, Alkaline Trio can still write better songs than the vast majority of their contemporaries and take them to uncharted waters when it feels right.