01 Aug Blink-182 Thrived on Competitive Balance
With Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba in and Tom DeLonge out, Blink was put to the task of having to reassure their existing fan base that the band was still moving forward, while simultaneously trying to reach a new audience without a full-hearted effort in over ten years, and without one of the founding members of the band.
At the height of their powers, Blink-182 rocketed to the top of pop-radio and provided the score for an entire generation of bratty teens from the late ‘90s through the early 2000s (granted, they did so with songs about their ineptitude with women and dick-jokes, but they were influential all the same). Blink dominated airtime on TRL back when MTV was still playing music videos, and were quite possibly the biggest band in not only their genre, but in the entire world. Now, with all three members of the current lineup in their early 40s, and a good decade removed from the pinnacle release of their career, Blink was going to have to pivot.
California is the record Blink-182 had to release to have any chance a of relevancy in 2016: squeaky clean production, detailed vocal layering, and a relentless attack of pop hooks. Although the majority of their more diehard and obsessive fan base prefers the band’s angrier nameless record, it’s that bright and summer-y sound they perfected on Enema of the State and Take Off Your Pants and Jacket that launched their meteoric rise. On California, Blink-182 went out to prove their music is just as synonymous with eternal youth as it was back when nobody like Mark at 23, and for the most part, they succeed. There are a couple songs that fall a bit flat like “Teenage Satellites” or the title track, but overall, Blink came through with another catchy and fun pop punk record that will be highlighted in party playlists all summer long. The only issue with California is that it illuminates just how far past their peak the band truly is; so, while I’ve had the album on a loop since it dropped July 1st, I can’t help but feel just a little bummed about it at the same time.
They may dethroned Drake’s Views at the top of the Billboard 200 List, but Blink seemed to take a step back towards the rest of the pack with California. Rather than setting the standard for the rest of the pop punk scene, I heard other bands in their sound for the first time in their entire career. When I listen to the new record, I hear shades of All Time Low in the gang vocals on “Sober”, Sum 41 in the blistering post-chorus riff of “Kings of the Weekend”, A Day To Remember in the way the hook soars over the half-time beat of “Bored To Death”, and even Fall Out Boy in whatever the hell they were trying to do with the verses of “Los Angeles”. Blink was so far past everyone else on Untitled that listening to California inevitably feels like watching Michael Jordan play for the Wizards; still dropping 20 points a game, but a shell of the legend we once called the GOAT.
Untitled is Blink-182’s darker, slightly more mature record that came in their absolute prime, and serves as a constant reminder to fans of the portion of the band’s legacy we were robbed of. Smash radio-hits were met with beautifully arranged instrumentation, dark undertones, and a punk ethos that likely spurred New Found Glory’s Catalyst, and the early stages of Fall Out Boy’s career as well. That sound was actually something that Alkaline Trio always did very well, which was why the acquisition of Skiba seemed like such an exciting prospect; unfortunately, we now know Blink didn’t travel back down that path. The reason I don’t think they can ever get back to that level at some point down the line doesn’t have so much to do with the absence of DeLonge himself, but more of fact that the band seemed to thrive on a competitive balance within.
I believe the drastic progression from TOYPAJ to the Untitled era of Blink came from a competitive mindset that manifested from the band’s inner turmoil during that time. DeLonge said in the Angels and Airwaves documentary Start the Machine that he felt he was being asked to chose between his family and the band with their rigorous touring schedule, and the disagreements really seemed to cause a rift between him the Blink’s other chief songwriter in particular, Mark Hoppus. There were instances where the two were visibly annoyed with one another on stage and a suspicious late-night TV performance that looks like it came right after a band brawl, so how is it that Blink released their best record with all of this bullshit going on?
As one of arguably the five best living-drummers, take Travis Barker out of the equation. He generally wasn’t the one who’d conceive the song idea anyway; he’d just add the muscle to its skeleton, and turn Mark or Tom’s little pop punk tune into a juiced-up banger. Barker’s performance is so otherworldly on the Blink records, he’s almost a nonentity in the songwriting process. He’s just there to make every track better. The rivalry, if my assumption is correct, was between Hoppus and DeLonge.
Mark and Tom made comparable incremental improvements as songwriters throughout Blink-182’s first run from 1992 to 2005, but the duo each took a huge leap forward on Untitled. Suddenly, they were both crafting their lyrics around nightmare-ish imagery, using unconventional song structures, and weaving in call-and-return vocals so seamlessly it sounded like they were battling each other for your attention on every track. The songs had teeth but were also suitable for the radio. If it was bubble gum then it would bite back. The hot streak lasted a solid five or six years, starting with DeLonge and Barker’s side project, Box Car Racer back in 2002 and bleeding into the the band members’ first releases in life after Blink, +44’s When Your Heart Stops Beating and Angels and Airwaves’ We Don’t Need to Whisper. Mark and Tom really hated each other for a while there. Just listen to “No, It Isn’t” by +44 if you don’t believe me.
The real strength of Blink-182 always came from the stark differences in Mark and Tom’s songwriting process, and the way their contrasting styles seemed to elevate the other’s performance. Throw some competitive juices into that dichotomy and you get an once-in-a-career type of anthem like “Feeling This”. Although Hoppus and DeLonge share the vocal workload on this hit-single, they wrote their lyrics in entirely separate rooms. Tom sings of brash action where as Mark takes a thoughtful, more emotional approach, and the result is a beautifully chaotic outro of about five choruses being sung at once as the band rips apart from the inside.
Blink probably won’t write another “Feeling This” this time around. They’ll never write another “Stockholm Syndrome” and they’ll never write another “Easy Target”. The band’s dynamic will never be as it was on Untitled with Skiba in the picture despite the punk veteran’s obvious talents. Blink is in comeback mode now, and they can’t toss a brand new member into the line of fire with another drastic departure from their core sound. Mark and Travis just want to put the whole Tom saga behind them and be Blink-182 again; and, although he’s an incredibly accomplished songwriter in his own right, on some level Matt Skiba’s just happy to be there.
For me, Blink-182 had always been the truest representation of the pop punk genre. They were more committed to the sound than the early bands that played around with it like The Ramones or The Clash, they were less up-their-own-ass than Green Day, and they weren’t manufactured like a majority of bands to come out of the neon-era of the scene. Blink pushed back against the bullshit of conventional top-40 music, but also had a stronger grasp of melody and harmonies than any other band playing a subgenre of modern rock music during their prime.
Pop Punk is simple, everyone. It all boils down to how interesting can you be while still being infectiously catchy? How interesting can you be lyrically? Musically? Emotionally? The good bands always bring something extra to the table, and Blink emphatically checks both boxes on California. A good three quarters of this record makes sense as singles, and of course, having Travis Barker behind the kit doesn’t hurt. California is a great pop punk record, likely the best one that will come out this year. The only reason anyone is disappointed with it is because they’ve finally realized that Blink is past their peak.