It’s been 5 years since Blink 182 released their last full-length album. Between then and now, guitarist/vocalist Tom Delonge departed from the band and was replaced with Matt Skiba from Alkaline trio. Making ‘California’ the first Blink-182 album not featuring it’s founding member.
The primary concern coming into this album was that, like so many pop-punk groups do at late points in their careers (Green Day, NOFX etc), they would intentionally try to appease fans with a trite and imitative “return to their roots”.
Whatever one might say regarding Tom Delonges contribution and musical ventures, he did push the band to take risks and experiment with new sounds and ideas – inserting a more electronic and atmospheric element to his work. Whether this is considered “punk” or not remains an issue for the mob to squabble over.
California could have very easily been 40 minutes of the same rapid drum beat, fender distortion, and synthesiser, delivering the monotonous voice of an ageing Mark Hoppus trying desperately to stay relevant to a music scene which is now dominated by newer and younger bands.
This worry may have only been exasperated after hearing the pre-album releases ‘Bored To Death’, ‘Rabbit Hole’, and ‘No Future’, which all sounded extremely similar and formulaic.
Whilst still walking that creative tight rope, they’ve mostly managed to subvert that expectation. The vitality of the early albums ‘Dude Ranch’ and ‘Enema of the State’ that was lacking on much of their 2011 release ‘Neighborhoods’ has returned, but the talent and experience they’ve accumulated through each of their own musical adventurisms is well utilised and produces an organic, cohesive sound that doesn’t just nod to their old energy but revives it.
Songs like ‘Los Angeles’ and ‘Home Is Such a Lonely place’ show they aren’t afraid to experiment and drift away from convention. Matt, Mark, and Travis have given legitimacy to their promises of having a refreshed sense of passion and dedication to the band and you can certainly hear this in the album.
Unfortunately, professional production acts as hindrance to that passion far more than it facilitates it. While much slicker and cohesive than ‘Neighborhoods’, which was mismatched and awkward due to being recorded in separate studios. There is real raw energy here but the over-production dilutes it. Whether this is a result of Hoppus spending too much time with All Time Low and Fall Out Boy or the death of their old producer Jerry Finn can only be left to speculation.
The album opens with the song ‘Cynical’ in an honest and pensive expression from Hoppus: “There’s a cynical feeling saying I should give up. You said everything you’ll ever say”. The song promptly jumps into a thrashy punk sound and enters Matt Skibas first lyrical contribution to Blink 182, screaming: “What’s the point of saying sorry now”. This song harkens back to the self-titled album; dark, moody, fast, and mature.
It’s worth appreciating how Skiba doesn’t attempt to reproduce the way Delonges high pitched voice compliments Hoppus’s deeper voice, yet he still manages to fill that void in his own way. The dynamic of Tom and Marks voices bouncing off one another is missed in this album but by no means is Skiba subsidiary in terms of range and vocal ability.
Skiba takes advantage of his vast vocal range. Shifting from screaming on ‘San Diego’ to sentimental melodies on ‘Home is Such a Lonely Place’. Having a background of multiple musical projects: Alkaline Trio, Matt Skiba and the Sekrets, and multiple solo projects, renders any criticism of talent and experience in comparison with Tom Delonge’s otiose.
Skiba and Hoppus do still share very similar pitches and there are a fair few moments where they are almost indistinguishable. In the song ‘Bored To Death’ it is extremely difficult to discern the two. In a way, this does leave Skiba taking on the position of more of a back up singer rather than the secondary vocalist.
Moreover, and this is perhaps the worst consequence of Delonges departure, overall this album needs a lyrical resuscitation. So much of the writing is so cryptic and random that it takes away from the very observable sincerity of the music.
Barkers drumming, who since his entrance into the band in 1999, has not just carried the bands sound but accelerated it to a level of talent beyond anything that any other pop-punk band has yet reached. California is consistent with that legacy as well as allowing him to bring back the punk drumming of the earlier albums in place of the complex rhythms found in the self-titled and ‘Neighbourhoods’ albums.
Songs like ‘The Only Thing Matters’ and ‘San Diego’ stand out as an absolute merging of punk-rock à la 2002 and the more mature, darker sounds Blink have championed as they’ve gotten older. With the addition of Matt’s brooding Alkaline Trio influence and Marks sentimental reminiscence of being 16 years old and when skateboarding and listening to The Cure were all that mattered.
Tracks like this are what really save Blink from becoming parodies of themselves because they utilise each members lived experiences of loss and insecurity. It’s no enigma why ‘San Diego’, perhaps the strongest song on the album, is one Mark Hoppus originally didn’t even want to write. San Diego of course being where Mark and Tom grew up, as well as being where ‘Blink’ first formed.
The biggest flaws one could find with this album may not be anything in the album itself but instead the fact that a lot of fans just aren’t 15 anymore. Songs about chasing girls in High School and naked dudes just don’t resonate on the same level that they once did. In some cases the lyrics are outright cringe inducing: “I’m in deep with this girl but she’s out of her mind (wooo oh oh ohhh oh)”.
Despite all the technically sound elements of the album, it’s hard to ignore the fact it almost seems to be a regression in some ways for Blink. It’s certainly given new life to the band and brings back the much missed catchiness and energy in a way that seems natural. In no way can it be considered a commercial failure either; dethroning Drake from the no.1 position in the Billboard 200 albums chart and selling 172,000 copies in it’s first week.
The progression from the simple, fast paced rhythms and toilet humour in the early 90’s, to the pop sound in 2000’s, to themes of death and loss in the self-titled and ‘Neighborhoods’ albums is itself a direct reflection of growing up.
Lyrically, we’ve come from “Please, mom. You ground me all the time. I know that I was right all along” to “When I was young, the world it was smaller, the cities were vast, the buildings were taller, I felt really strong, my parents seem stronger, but life has a way, it showers with greatness, then takes it away”.
They have bypassed most of the sins of most pop-punk acts by not falling headfirst into desperation and appeasement, this is very much a legitimate album. But Blink-182 have irreversibly changed. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if it were a change that said to fans “the best is yet to come” and not “we’ve still got it, but the glory days are over”.