Whether they meant to or not, Blink-182 paved the way for a new version of pop punk. Acts who wanted to emphasize the uplifting melodies of pop while yelling about life’s frustrations had a stencil they could follow — so the Joyce Manors and Modern Baseballs and All Time Lows did. Blink-182 perfected a new style, but singer-guitarist Tom DeLonge couldn’t seem to take it seriously anymore. Now that he quit and Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba has replaced him, Blink-182 are back on the melodic pop punk train, but it’s rife with setbacks: stale jokes, over-produced harmonies, half-baked lyrics. It’s easy to fault California for that, but if nothing else, their first album in five years shows older Blink-182 heading where older Blink-182 were meant to go. The fact that they were able to produce something salvageable comes as a pleasant, though shaky surprise.
California desperately needs a new sheet of lyrics. Lead single “Bored to Death” reverts to elementary wording: “I met her at the minute that the rhythm was set down/ I said I’m sorry I’m a bit of a let-down/ But all my friends are daring me to come over/ So I come over.” If the production didn’t make those words so clear, they could be easier to ignore, but this compression is too intense to muzzle, even if bassist-singer Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker give it their all musically.
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So if Hoppus’ own production work helped salvage the careers of Motion City Soundtrack and New Found Glory, why not save his own? California’s biggest mistake is producer and co-writer John Feldmann, the man who started off in ska punk act Goldfinger but now spends most of his time producing generic pop punk songs. All Time Low, 5 Seconds of Summer, Good Charlotte, and more have him to thank for charting songs, but Blink-182 has him to fault for sinking songs.“Los Angeles” would demolish the city’s chances of profitable tourism if it wasn’t so famous already. When not cranking the compression on the vocals, Feldmann ruins other songs with nonstop gimmicks: the piano interludes, the stiffened handclaps, the sappy title track. Blink-182 know how to craft hooks, but much of those are chopped in half and paired with “na-na-na” garland (“Sober”) or “whoa-oh” confetti (“Teenage Satellites”). When comparing overall sound, California stands between Take Off Your Pants and Jacket (pop bass, quicker drumming, limping jokes) and Blink-182 (hyper-clean production, dramatic vocal effects, dull lyrics). Of course, both of those albums beat California by a mile, but California fits there sonically because it clings to the weakest parts of those records.
Don’t let props fall to waste there, though. Fresh off a lineup change, Blink-182 managed to create a record that holds similarities to albums from 2001 and 2003, part of their peak period. Skiba’s harmonies with Hoppus work. The two introduce seamless chemistry on “No Future”, a song that also showcases Barker’s skills behind the set. The guitar slide in “Rabbit Hole” and back-and-forth storytelling of “The Only Thing That Matters” recount the glory days of DeLonge without having to deal with his moping in studio. Barker remains in top shape throughout, nearly smashing his kit in half on opener “Cynical”, bringing the intensity and urgency of early material, not to mention D-beat rhythms absent from the last 15 years of their music. Not only is California an exercise in sweetening the pop side of pop punk and — at least for the members — getting a momentary sugar high, but it’s Blink-182 sounding more like a unit than ever.
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Lyrically, the trio largely talk about adulthood, and when they do talk about youthful times, it’s through the lens of adulthood. Maybe it’s because all three are fathers with kids old enough to understand jokes made onstage. Does anyone want to hear dads sing about getting touched by a friend’s mother? Please, say no. What they do offer in “Brohemian Rhapsody” (“There’s something about you/ That I can’t quite put my finger in”) and “Built This Pool” (“I want to see some naked dudes/ That’s why I build this pool”) happens too quick to give the subpar jokes a kick. Even when combined, their runtimes don’t exceed a minute, and yet both songs feature rapid, energetic riffs that deserve longer stage time. It’s as if the punk edge that makes their radio brand of pop such a success was stifled in favor of Feldmann’s structure.
All 16 songs tally up to an experience that isn’t a comeback but isn’t the disaster people predicted when DeLonge left to chase aliens. Who’s to say what’s better: telling a friend “This is better than expected” or “I didn’t hate it.” The first implies enjoyment. The second implies stagnancy. Both make it clear that expectations were remarkably low. Blink-182 never claimed to be anything other than musicians refusing to grow up, but breaking up signaled the death of that attitude — and Neighborhoods, an album of forced guitar work and intensity that got too dark too quickly, confirmed it. To work around that, Blink-182 take note of their charisma and tried to find middle ground. They even include miniature Blink-182 trademarks like distanced yelps or vocal cracks — yeah, they may be forced, but they’re there — which shows an awareness of their crowd and cherished flaws. What they end up with is a record that, by the end, is pretty average.
There’s a level of disappointment with bands over 20 years old: Listening to their past records holds them accountable for age, for growth, for changes beyond their control. California was made for an older crowd, people not quite mid-40 like Hoppus but familiar with those references to Marilyn Manson and Bauhaus. At this age, a boy’s suicide note or leaving for college aren’t depressing; dreams of reliving youth — getting drunk at The Cure’s show and hanging in parking lots — are. Yet “Kings of the Weekend” and “Teenage Satellites” fail to affect the listener regardless because of forgettable guitar work. The glossy production isn’t antonymous with Blink-182; they proved it could work on their self-titled LP. The difference is that California doesn’t go out of its way to stay creative. Here lies the death of the immediate hook, but Blink-182 are having fun regardless — and hearing that may be the best part of this album.
Essential Tracks: “Cynical”, “Rabbit Hole”, and “No Future”