“There must be fifty thousand people here,” I think to myself. I turn to my buddy and ask him how many people he thinks are here. He surveys the crowd and says, “I’d say fifty thousand.” No wonder so many kids want to grow up to be rock stars.
And then the band comes out. Fireworks explode, everybody cheers. The new guy plays the opening riff and sings the opening vocals to “Feeling This.” The letters “F-U-C-K” are aflame on the backdrop, and drummer Travis’s shirt reads “Thank God for Punk Rock.” Blink 182 is back.
Sort of. After a five-year wait and with one-third of its original lineup, Blink 182 released California this summer to solid reviews by objective music critics, and mixed reviews from emotional long-time fans having difficulty dealing with the departure of founding member Tom DeLonge.
Scott left – or was kicked out – in 1998, and Tom was officially ousted a year ago. It is fitting, then, that California’s onset features last-man-standing Mark Hoppus alone on bass and voice – “There’s a cynical feeling saying I should give up” – before the full band joins in and takes off at ludicrous speed, marking Blink 182’s fastest song since 2001. Should Mark have given up? Was it fair of Tom, the primary reason the band had released only one album in thirteen years, to hold Mark and Travis hostage? Should Mark and Travis have dissolved the band?
“Cynical” clocks out at a little under two minutes, and it doesn’t take long for the new guy to make his presence known. Matt Skiba didn’t quit Alkaline Trio; he’s going to be in both, which will probably cause problems for at least one of the bands’ fan bases down the road, but for now it seems to be going well. Skiba belts out some solid “whoas” to back up Hoppus’ vocals before taking over lead for the final refrain.
“Bored to Death” follows, the album’s first single and the band’s first chart topper in twelve years. “Bored to Death” is an interesting song and it could be a punk song depending on the context of the band performing. It’s not a fast song, but the energy is certainly there. And besides, punk bands for decades have recorded one or two slightly atypical songs per album that often get turned into the lead radio single.
Which leads us to this age-old argument: is Blink 182 punk? Who cares! you protest. Does it matter!? Well, if I was writing for Rolling Stone, then, no, the question would be irrelevant. But Dying Scene is dedicated to punk rock and its subgenres. Given Travis’s t-shirt, the line “Thank God for punk rock bands” in California’s “Kings of the Weekend” – a solid pop punk song very much in the Takeoff vain in which Matt’s voice shines during the second verse – and the fact that “is Blink 182 punk?” was such a hot topic of my formative years, I’m going to memoir on you for a bit.
Already a fan of Dude Ranch, it was love at first sight the instant “What’s My Age Again” debuted on the local listener-supported radio station that had been playing Blink 182 since M+Ms. Roughly sixty of my closest friends bought Enema of the State the week it came out, and glowing reviews abounded, singling out new guy Travis’s drum work but never giving enough credit to new producer Jerry Finn’s genius production skills.
One girl didn’t like it, though. She’d been a Blink 182 fan since before I’d even heard of them. I had a crush on her and in my desperation to find something to talk to her about, I asked her what she thought of the new album. “I threw up a little when I heard the piano,” she said.
Then, one day, a self-proclaimed Backstreet Boys enthusiast freshman girl wore the same Blink 182 shirt as me. That was the last day I wore a Blink 182 shirt.
More damning than the few seconds of piano in “Adam’s Song” on what I now refer to as – dare I say it? – the Greatest Mainstream Punk Album Of All Time was the band’s incessant presence on MTV, back when the “M” still stood for “music.” MTV was not punk; that was one thing we could all agree on. I had a Bouncing Souls shirt with the MTV logo on the back crossed out, a la “no smoking”. NOFX stopped making music videos for nearly ten years specifically so MTV couldn’t play them. And here was Blink 182, all over MTV, as if they welcomed it.
Later, my friend, The Misfits super fan, guffawed that, despite references to the Warped Tour in Takeoff Your Pants and Jacket’s lead single, “they don’t even have the balls to call it `The Punk Show’.” Others would adamantly insist that, although they still liked Dude Ranch, “everything they’ve done since is crap.” That they weren’t truly punk became an increasingly common complaint among my social circles, leading me to hesitate before saying “yes” whenever asked if I still liked Blink 182.
Finally, as if I was searching for an excuse, I officially disowned the band and excommunicated them from my lengthy list of favorite bands upon hearing “Feeling This” – not a punk song – on the radio for the first time. I didn’t buy their new self-titled album; I wouldn’t even give it a chance for years to come.
At the turn of the century, Blink 182 was blamed, perhaps unfairly, for paving the way for a never-ending barrage of crappy copycats Good Charlotte, Sum 41, and New Found Glory – I’ll never forget my disappointment at not being able to get into the Strung Out show because opener Simple Plan had hit it big on MTV since the tour started and all these little kids who wouldn’t even stick around for the main act had gotten in line ahead of me. Had California been released fifteen years ago, this blame may have been justified. Songs like “San Diego” and “Left Alone” resemble that sub-genre of pop punk more than Enema of the State did, as well as the influx of whoas, na na nas, and gang vocals.
Blink has never been an angry band. Sure, they’ve been bothered by breakups, and they’ve never been a fan of jocks who made fun of them at school, but with few exceptions – “Anthem Part 2”, for instance – they’ve steered clear of social issues that often dominate the lyrical content of “grittier” punk bands. Nobody has more fun on stage than Mark Hoppus; smiling and skipping around with his bass, I genuinely expected him to, at some point, say into the microphone “I love my life”. He’s a suburbanite, and the suburbs are reflected in many of these songs describing a worry-free party lifestyle in Southern California, a lot like a Bret Easton Ellis novel, without the murder and massive drug abuse, but with a little homoeroticism snuck in partway through (“I want to see some naked dudes; that’s why I built this pool.”)
The album in general is a tribute to their home state. The power ballad and title track “California” nearly closes out the album before an unnecessary joke song makes last call. “San Diego” harkens back to Mark’s hometown, recalling the days when he and Tom formed the band, while “Los Angeles” is an homage to Blink’s adopted home.
The present band members are all over forty now, but they’re still singing about girls (“She’s Out Of Her Mind”, another prototypical Takeoff throwback), breakups – both with girlfriends (“I know I messed up and it might be over, but let me call you when I’m sober”) and former band members (“Late at night I call your name. Abandoned love songs smashed across the hardwood floor. I read the sadness on your face.) – and lost love (“Where did she go? And what did she hope to find there?”)
This is their third consecutive “fresh start” album (prior to writing and recording Self-Titled, Travis urged the band to think of the new album as the first Blink 182 album; Neighborhoods was the first album after Blink’s “indefinite hiatus” due to Tom’s inability to focus on a single project; the band had been brought back together after Travis nearly died in a plane crash.) Some may view California as a return-to-form album, even with the lineup change, and I do agree that California resembles Takeoff Your Pants and Jacket more than any previous album, particularly more than the radical shift in direction of Self-Titled (which I’d initially rejected but eventually grew to love) and the near-total failure of the last full-length, Neighborhoods. Songs like “She’s Out of Her Mind”, “Rabbit Hole”, and “Teenage Satellites” would’ve fit in with Takeoff’s sing-a-long-ability just fine, as would “The Only Thing That Matters”, the most straight-forward punk-sounding song here.
Other songs don’t resemble anything they’ve done before. “Los Angeles” features what sounds like a theremin (like The X-Files theme music) in the beginning, and later some drum machine-like drumming only Travis Barker can pull off, as well as vocal effects and echoes – I’m not sure how to classify this song, but it’s not punk, if that matters. New producer John Feldmann, the brains behind Goldfinger, shares writing credit on every song – another first for the band – which might explain the band’s new-found fondness for gang vocals prevalent throughout. Also mildly noteworthy, California represents an all-time low in the number of F-bombs for a Blink 182 album, and all in the same song, too.
Fans will forever be conflicted when it comes to Tom Delonge’s departure. While he was clearly instrumental in the formation of the band and the band’s first ten years of success, California is so much better than Neighborhoods that I’m tempted to view his absence as addition by subtraction. At sixteen tracks, including two joke songs totaling a combined 46 seconds, California is a tad long – like this review – and has perhaps one too many slow songs. When all is said and done, however, this is an excellent return from one of punk rock’s all-time most successful acts.
But is California actually punk? Is the band? I don’t know. Who cares.