It was 1997, and Blink-182 were a group of absurdly crass upstarts who managed to write the rock song of the summer,”Dammit.” The song’s themes of maturity and growing up caused it to become a classic single, and it remains legendary within the punk community. Written by bassist Mark Hoppus, it tells the story of a breakup and the difficulty of seeing the former partner moving on and entering a relationship with someone else. It ignited the beginning of an era, and in the late 90’s and early 00’s no pop-punk band could supplant Blink-182 because no one could write songs that were both immature yet inconceivably wise.
And you’ve been there for too long
To face this on your own
Well, I guess this is growing up
“Dammit” exemplifies Blink’s seemingly contradictory style of immature wisdom, and it has proved to be poignantly prescient in the past few years. Mark Hoppus, guitarist Tom DeLonge, and drummer Travis Barker seemed to be inseparable friends, but Tom caused turmoil when he left the band to pursue his UFO obsession.
The subsequent fallout has been messy, and nostalgic 90’s babies who remember the band fondly have had to watch helplessly as one of their idolized childhood bands splinters and separates. Unsurprisingly, fractured relationships is a central theme of Californina, their first album in six years. Released last week, the album is the band’s first without Tom and their first with Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba. So for those of you who want to hear more of Tom’s nasally singing reminiscent of his famous “Where are you / and I’m so sorry” from “I Miss You,” you will not find it here.
Instead, Matt Skiba’s voice adds something that comes curiously close to solemn sentimentality, which was always rare from Blink’s past six studio albums. Yes, Blink has always been capable of writing heartbreaking tunes (about suicide – “Adam’s Song”, or about divorce – “Stay Together for the Kids”) but they always returned to their pop-punk juvenile ways. Skiba only sings in small doses, mostly ceding the floor to founder and band leader Hoppus, but when Skiba is called upon to do the vocals it makes for a pleasant change.
The change is so noticeable and the breakup lyrics so ripe with double meaning alluding to Tom’s departure that California is practically a concept album. On the opener, “Cynical,” Hoppus laments,
There’s a cynical feeling saying I should give up
You said everything you’ll ever say
There’s a moment of panic when I hear the phone ring
Anxiety’s calling in my head
Is it back again?
Are you back again?
Receiving endless phone calls from his band manager or Tom himself about the state of Blink-182 must have been tormenting, and knowing a long lasting relationship was spiraling towards its doom? Heart-breaking. “Cynical” clocks in just under two minutes, but it leaves enough time for Skiba–from Tom’s point of view, perhaps–to respond to Hoppus’ cynicism, “What’s the point of saying sorry now? / Lost my voice fighting my way out.”
A lot of the album continues in this manner, but even in Tom’s absence, California sounds exactly like another Blink-182 album. Which is as it should be. On “Bored to Death,” the spacey drum intro and snappy guitar riff immediately signal that Blink-182 has returned. Mark Hoppus would not even need to sing a note to make that evidently clear.
While Blink-182 has always been Hoppus’ brainchild, without the return of drummer Travis Barker this new album would have been a failure. His unique style and relentless work ethic has sustained the band’s success and has proved necessary to maintaining their trademark sound. His unique expressionless calm while performing combined with his absurdly fast drum rhythms continue to balance out his colleague’s volatile immaturity in such a way that holds the band together. On “No Future,” he backs a potentially boring first verse with a drum pattern so interesting that it steals the show. After listening to the album a couple dozen times I still unintentionally ignore the lyrics and am held hostage by Barker’s talent.
Despite the success of the throwback sound, Blink-182 are trapped in their melancholy nostalgia and angst a little too long. Perhaps that comes with getting older, but California is much too long and it would have better suited their style if they had made something more concise. Even though the 16 song album is only 43 minutes long, a lot of the songs accomplish their goal at their halfway point.
They also fall for a few clichéd traps, such as the tiresome pandering to “kings of the weekend” who have “no self control,” but even then their explanation of why they included it on the record (at first “Kings of the Weekend” was not at all close to the final cut) makes sense in almost an endearing kind of way. And the song very nearly redeems itself with the line “Friday nights always saved my life / from the worst of times we ever had / thank God for punk rock bands.” Later, on the de facto closer “California,” they sing about the depressing aspects of suburbia in a wholly unoriginal way, which is unfortunate because the song had the potential to join their podium of ballads.
Nonetheless, Blink-182 have once again made a good album, and after being around for a quarter-century, that is saying something. They capture well the spirit of middle-aged malaise surrounding relationships and purpose, one that is entirely familiar and unchanged from their youth–for better or for worse. It should also be noted that California dethroned Drake’s Views from the Billboard top albums chart. It is Blink-182’s first number one album in over fifteen years, which is pretty incredible.
Twice during the album Hoppus pays tribute to the band’s infectious adolescent energy. “Built this Pool” and “Brohemian Rhapsody” are seventeen and thirty seconds long, respectively, and the only lyrics on either of them are “woo woo / I wanna see some naked dudes / that’s why I built this pool,” and “There’s something about you / that I can’t quite put my finger in.” Those only interested in the band’s golden age might frown upon California, but they will smile at these little quips and heed their message within the album’s larger narrative. It is a familiar one, after all: Well, I guess this is growing up? Fuck you I’ll still hold on to my childish ways for as long as I can. It sucks and the inevitability is suffocating, but you never have to grow up too much.
A tank of gas is a treasure to me
I know now nothing is free – “Carousel” 1994
My friends say I should act my age
What’s my age again?
What’s my age again? – “What’s My Age Again” 1999