Blink-182 just so happens to be a band whose sound has changed drastically more than once over the course of their career. They’re also a band that’s been associated with various genres — some people vehemently denying they were ever a specific genre to begin with — as well as being both blamed and praised (depending on your point of view) for creating a whole sub-genre. What’s more, throughout all of these changes, the group has gone through a potentially crippling lineup change and paranoia-inducing side projects. But their latest release proves they’re capable of pushing forward and overcoming a series of potentially crippling events.
So who is blink-182 anyway?
Right now, the Californian rock/pop punk/punk rock/rock pop/whatever band is touring in support of their seventh album, California (2016), this latest release being the first effort without founding member guitarist/vocalist Tom Delonge who’s now left for, yes, a second time. For the sole surviving founding member, bassist/vocalist Mark Hoppus, as well as drummer Travis Barker and Tom’s replacement, guitarist/vocalist Matt Skiba, the choice of continuing on without Tom meant they needed to discover who they were as a band. All of this soul-searching was going to happen before the world would have a chance to feed the voracious appetite that is judging bands, usually by way of slapping a genre onto them. And blink-182’s answer to who they are came in the form of California.
Thank god for punk rock bands.
Long before Tom’s second (and first) exit, blink’s place in the music industry had already been unclear, even from the very start of their career. As a product of the Southern California skate punk scene of the early 90s, the cards were already stacked against them, namely “punk rock.” While being categorized as a punk band can have its merits, it can also be potentially crippling because it means your music will be perpetually held under an overly shrewd lens for the course of your career, all because of the broad, even ambiguous elements the genre signifies, ones which fans and bands alike are overtly passionate about. Punk is, for many people, a movement rather than “just” a genre. Without getting too deep into what punk rock might be, any form of “growth” is usually perceived as selling out (a Cardinal Sin).
One of the more “popular” rules of thumb is that a punk band must forever strive for obscurity by refusing to conform to the status-quo (which, essentially, is a paradox in and of itself, since, by defining what the status-quo is, you’ve, in turn, created a status-quo for punk rock, which this form of music must always deviate from). But I digress.
During blink-182’s earlier years, the trio (then consisting of Mark Hoppus, Tom Delonge and drummer Scott Raynor) ostensibly adhered to the scene they were born into, finding influence from bands like Bad Religion, Screeching Weasel and, most notably, the Descendents. But even then, there were those who argued that blink never truly fit in. For one, they failed to dabble in anti-establishment rhetoric like many of their contemporaries. Instead, Mark and Tom leaned heavily towards lyrics revolving around relationships, high school/adolescent anxiety and, to an extent, crude humor.
During these nascent years, blink-182 released — in addition to miscellaneous efforts like Flyswatter (1993), a cassette-only demo, along with the first and second Buddha demos soon afterwards — Cheshire Cat (1995) and Dude Ranch (1997).
Despite wrestling with rudimentary views of the ubiquitous rite of passage known as life, blink-182’s sound basically
stayed the same from Cheshire Cat to Dude Ranch. I remember hoping that this would very much be the case when I first bought Dude Ranch on cassette — yes, cassette. I must admit, however, that my hopes had been prematurely boosted after just glancing at the album cover. It was the rather awkwardly angled view of the main image, a bull, that made me dare to dream that the band hadn’t lost their enjoyable sense of humor. Luckily, I found out immediately that they were essentially the same group of guys, thanks, in part, to the punk-fueled dynamics of the album’s opener, “Pathetic,” and the rather inappropriate nature of the followup track, “Voyeur.”
While blink-182 were essentially the same band, that isn’t to say that Dude Ranch was a complete carbon copy of the debut release. Far from it. While the subject matter relatively stayed the same, namely either celebrating the joys of relationships or expressing their frustrations about them (quite possibly groaning about the same relationships they had originally gushed over on an earlier track), the tone became a little more insightful overall. For example, in one of Cheshire Cat‘s more serious songs, “Wasting Time,” Mark obsessively worries about how different he is from his girlfriend and fears he may possibly rub off on her. While a fairly grown up topic, Mark manipulated the tone of the song by elaborating what made them so different, which, in turn, gave the song a much more lighthearted feel, like when he says “she teaches [him] about modern art” while he shows her that “it’s okay to fart.” This dichotomy is what essentially defines the album.
Compare this to Dude Ranch‘s map-placing hit single “Dammit,” and we see Mark taking on a much bleaker outlook. In it, Mark comes to the realization that the path to adulthood is fraught with relationships that are actually much more devastatingly painful than they used to when he sings, “Well, I guess this is growing up.” This rather grown up way of perceiving what it’s actually like to grow up is, interestingly enough, the most upbeat part of the song. Like Wasting Time, Mark sets the mood by elaborating on his main ideas, except, this time, they’re not as cheerful. Instead, he describes the “this” in “growing up” as losing and failing, states that are so intense that when he moves, it feels as though he’s flailing.
Regardless of the darker mood, the crass humor was still there (“Voyeur” is about a guy who likes watching his “lady” change from a nearby tree and “Degenerate,” a re-release from the first Buddha, tells the story of, well, a degenerate doing things a degenerate would do) as well as regular humor in general (like in the aptly named “New Hope,” Mark pines over a woman he can never have, a fictional character known as Princess Leia from Star Wars, by making amusing references to the franchise). The angst punk riffs and raw vocals were still a major defining part of the band’s sound, too. In fact, the riffs were more angst than before with more heavily distorted guitars and a more distinct, treble-tuned bass, giving it an extra sharp kick, and the rawness of their voices was edgier, with Mark (mostly due to quitting cigarettes) barking out his words and Tom adopting an almost scruffier tone. Overall, they were growing up, as Mark implies they were, yet they hadn’t lost sight of their founding sound.
Well, I guess this is growing up.
But then along came the genre old-blink-182-defying Enema of the State (1999). This is the album with that famous image of porn star Janine Lindemulder on the cover, dressed up as an inappropriate nurse, which as a kid, I remember drooling over, just because of how alluring her pose was. It wasn’t until much later, after finding out what an enema actually was, that I would experience a very different emotion each and every time I thought about what her pose implied, more directly, the particularly unpleasant medical procedure she was about to initiate.
Enema was met with huge success and critical acclaim, jettisoning the band into the mainstream world with hits like “All The Small Things”, a song inspired by the many problems Tom was experiencing with his then-girlfriend, soon-to-be wife; “What’s My Age Again?”, where Mark, seemingly aggravated by all the things he learned about growing up in “Dammit,” adopted a Peter Pan complex; and “Adam’s Song,” a song where Mark quickly ditched that newly adopted complex to sing blink-182’s darkest subject to date … suicide.
When compared to earlier releases, Enema of the State was highly polished and almost, to a degree, overly produced, complete with some extra sellout-like ingredients through the incorporation of synths, most notably in the intro of “All The Small Things” (before the guitars come in). All of this and the fact that Tom decided to pull back a bit on the guitars (read less dissonance and aggressiveness without sacrificing the angst) and the use of more intricate drumming (thanks to the much-needed addition of Travis Barker) created a whole different atmosphere. Plus, both Mark and Tom actually sang in tune on basically every track, thanks, in part, to the extra time they had in the studio.
All of these changes fueled people’s inherent need to do what man has been doing since the dawn of time, labeling bands as sellouts. You would think that since blink-182 were actually my first band, making me one of those “punk rock or die” fans, that I would’ve been bothered by this major shift in sound like most of my punk rock peers. But I wasn’t. In fact, I welcomed the “cleanliness” with open arms. Enema was, just after the first listen, my favorite blink-182 album. Maybe it was because I already had my fair share of punk rock albums. In fact, I remember that I was still spinning NOFX’s So Long And Thanks For All The Shoes (1997), even though it had been released two years earlier. Regardless, the fact blink-182’s sense of humor was still intact (“What’s My Age Again,” “Dysentery Gary,” “The Party Song,” “Mutt”), their angst was still angsty (“Dumpweed and “Anthem”) and their songs were still fast and catchy were all I needed.
Blink-182’s next release, the even more cleverly named and, likewise, more crudely suggestive Take Off Your Pants and Jacket (2001), took all of the elements that made Enema a success and added a boatload of Red Bull to the mix, an overall recipe that dished out an edgier and more angst-filled album, all pluses in my book as well as the books of all my fellow Enema-style fans.
Amidst the happy-go-lucky tunes, there were still a good balance of serious moments (“Stay Together For The Kids,” a song about divorce) and crude humor sprinkled throughout, proving they were still the same guys, as seen in the under-one-minute-long song “Happy Holidays, You Ba*****” and, especially, the bonus tracks. (However, in order to hear all of these extra tunes, you had to find all three different versions of the album, which was difficult to do, seeing as you could only discover what version you’d bought after opening the already-purchased album by finding either the red plane — the play on words for “take off” –, yellow pants or green jacket on actual CD. I got the red plane.)
This perfect blend of similarity and slight progression made Take Off highly palatable, not just for myself, but the world, seeing as it was their first number-one record (something blink-182 wouldn’t experience again for over a decade).
What’s more, an incident that occurred during the recording process further cemented my liking of my already favorite band (if that were even possible). In short, after playing what would soon be Take Off to their manager, Rick DeVoe, blink-182 were told that, to paraphrase Rick, they needed more feel-good, summertime, anthem-type songs before they could release it. Suffice it to say, both Tom and Mark’s made it clear how they felt, literally swearing-in Rick’s face, before going on to write what would later become the album’s hit singles “First Date” and “The Rock Show.” In fact, still fuming, Mark apparently went straight home after Rick’s feedback and wrote “The Rock Show” in 10 minutes.
I wish I could change the world.
It’s after the release of the plane, pants and jacket album when tensions in the band started to rise. As far as blink-182’s identity as a “punk rock” group was concerned, now with a completely revamped fan base — one consisting of the sole surviving die-hards and those enamored by blink-182’s new sound — the question over whether blink-182 was truly punk or not no longer seemed relevant, nor did it really matter. One, it never really seemed to bother Blink-182 and, two, blink-182 had already started a legacy of their own by inspiring a new type of artist to emerge (what would later be known as the pop rock or pop punk genre), creating bands like Good Charlotte, All Time Low, Sum 41, Paramore and Avril Lavigne. It just seemed foolish to argue whether or not blink-182 were a punk rock band.
But despite the unquestionable stability their success provided, success is, as the adage goes, a double-edged sword. Due to various reasons of his own, Tom felt he needed to find new ways of expressing himself and thusly created Box Car Racer, releasing their eponymous album just a year after Take Off in 2002 (with Travis Barker manning the drum kit). While the subjects Tom tackled in Box Car Racer were vastly different to that of blink-182’s (religion, the apocalypse, conspiracies and Freemasonry), what truly defined Box Car Racer and separated them from blink-182 was their darker sound, influenced mainly by the punk band Fugazi.
Upon Tom’s (and Travis’) return, everything about Box Car Racer instilled paranoia and mistrust within the band. Despite all of these feelings now running rampant (or maybe because of them), Blink-182 ended up creating what many fans refer to as their magnum opus, untitled (2003) — sometimes referred to as self-titled or blink-182. It was very clear that the band had completely changed as a band.
Untitled illustrated blink-182 as a band that had, within the span of two years, matured immensely, leaving all of the cheeriness and carefree views of the world behind. While most of the themes blink-182 wrestled with during this new era were essentially the same, namely relationships, both the lyrics and the music itself took on a much darker tone holistically. Probably the most stunning contrast between untitled and their past catalog was that, in making untitled, they took elements from their darker and more serious songs, namely “Adam’s Song” and “Stay Together For The Kids,” and expanded upon them. The end result was the creation of a brooding, almost foreboding, atmosphere, a feeling that was sustained throughout the course of the record, and an album that discussed darker topics that were, while less optimistic than the majority of blink-182’s previous songs, not as dramatic as the two songs (“Adam’s Song” and “Stay Together For The Kids”) blink-182 undoubtedly drew inspiration from when channeling energy into this new record.
The latter approach is the most compelling. Previously, “Adam’s Song” and “Stay Together For The Kids, songs where the band explored themes of suicide and divorce respectively, were the only times Blink-182 moved away from lighthearted-sounding songs by experimenting with darker tones. The fact that Blink-182, when creating untitled, wrote songs about things they always sang about but doused them all in darkness was a pivotal step in their overall progression. Untitled proved that Blink-182 didn’t have to just write about something inherently darker than most things in order to write a darker-sounding song. They could now take a more relatable (and less dark) experience and embellish it with the same darker sound. Blink-182, basically, without having to sing about divorce or suicide, dragged all of life’s experiences down towards the level of “Adam’s Song” and “Stay Together For The Kids.”
An empty heart (replaced with paranoia).
When I think of blink-182’s shift in tone, I look at all the subsequent albums chronologically, regardless of whether they were blink-182 records or not. The fact that blink-182 plunged into a much darker sound in untitled just a year after Tom began experimenting with it in Box Car Racer isn’t a coincidence. This is especially the case when you notice how untitled was written, which, while masterfully done, greatly diverged from how blink-182 wrote before.
On every record by blink-182 pre-untitled, the vocals were, for the most part, evenly split between Mark and Tom. In fact, on both Enema and Take Off, this singing dynamic was exemplified by how the track-listing was formatted. In each setup, a Tom song would be followed by a Mark song, which would then be preceded by a Tom song. This pattern of Tom, Mark, Tom, Mark would continue this way throughout the course of the entire record. The only difference was that since Tom always sung the lead in both the first and final track, there would be, in the case of Enema, two Mark-heavy songs in a row, and, when it came to Take Off, there would be a Mark song, followed by an equally split song, “Stay Together For The Kids,” where Mark sung the verses and Tom each chorus, and then another Mark-centered song.
Keeping the above set up in mind, Mark adopted a very different role on this post-Box Car Racer record, one that could be interpreted as “a glorified backup singer.” In other words, most songs on untitled were Tom-heavy, the ratio being 7:3. Blink had, in this point in their career, become a band where Tom was unofficially the only lead vocalist or, a co-vocalist who just happened to sing more songs than the other.
This dynamic would continue in later albums, but only after Tom left blink-182, before returning a few years later in 2011.
I want to have the same last dream again…
Blink-182’s status after Tom’s first exit was referred to as an “indefinite hiatus.” During this time, Tom continued his pursuit of “more” (what he would later define as “art”) through Angels & Airwaves (stylized as AvA) while Mark and Travis formed the group, +44. In +44, Mark and Travis expressed their negativity over blink-182’s breakup by creating an equally, if not, darker album than untitled with When Your Heart Stops Beating (2006). Meanwhile, Tom adopted a more positive, cathartic attitude in AvA, citing U2 as a huge influence, this being, in regards to sound and overall inspiration, a huge shift when compared to the Fugazi-influenced Box Car Racer. (This change is even more interesting because Tom has referred to AvA as a continuation of Box Car Racer.) AvA’s highly optimistic tone would continue throughout the band’s many releases, peaking with the release of their double-album LOVE (2010-11), stylized as L)VE.
Both these side projects, +44 and AvA, would soon shape the sound of blink-182’s two subsequent releases after Tom’s return in 2008. Unfortunately, the catalysts to blink-182’s reunion were the death of longtime Blink-182 producer and friend Jerry Finn and a near-fatal plane crash involving Travis. A reconnection between estranged friends, soon led to friendship, which then blossomed to the end of the indefinite hiatus, a reunion tour and even more albums, the first being Neighborhoods (2011).
The title Neighborhoods is very telling in regards to what the album sounds like. The band’s explanation sums it up quite nicely, stating that the album was a lot like a grouping of little neighborhoods, one neighborhood being Tom’s arena and stadium rock influences, the other, Travis’ affinity for hip hop and Mark’s interest in “weird indie rock.”
Much like how blink-182 was influenced by Box Car Racer before, the sound of blink-182’s highly anticipated comeback was going to be shaped by each member’s experiences during the indefinite hiatus. To be more precise, Tom infused Neighborhoods with what he’d experimented with in AvA. These included, but weren’t limited to, a less aggressive guitar tone that leaned more towards a collection of light downstrokes and various sound effects (described by fans as “spacey”), which were usually incorporated during intros through the utilization of specific musical tools. As a side note, when you look at untitled‘s “Asthenia” as well as the song “Not Now” from the post-indefinite-hiatus, pre-Neighborhoods release Greatest Hits (2005), you can hear Tom beginning to explore this particular technique of using long intros and experimenting with spacey sounds.
The end result of this particular “neighborizing”-blending technique was the creation of an eclectic collection of songs. Through them, blink-182 had become a musical platform for the trio’s distinctly different styles. Mark also, once again, adopted the role of glorified backup singer, but this time, taking even a few more steps back, with Mark-heavy tracks becoming even more of a rarity, the ratio being 5:2 or, if you include the deluxe edition, 7:3.
When blink-182 later released the five-track EP, Dogs Eating Dogs (2012), they continued down the path Neighborhoods started. Each member utilized blink-182 as a platform on which to showcase their various tastes with Tom’s long intros (“When I Was Young” and “Disaster”) complete with spacey effects, Mark’s +44-style of singing in the verses of “Dogs Eating Dogs” and Travis’ affinity for rap through Yelawolf’s contribution during the bridge of “Pretty Little Girl.”
As far as the roles of each member in blink-182, I felt as though Mark had now essentially become the official backup singer. While there had been a few Mark-heavy songs on the previous release, Neighborhoods, including “Heart’s All Gone” and “MH 4.18.2011” (and “Fighting The Gravity,” if you count the deluxe edition), there were no songs on Dogs Eating Dogs where Mark took the lead. On the title track, Mark employed his aggressive, dark vocal style from +44 during the verses, and on “Boxing Day,” he sang the chorus.
Ghosts on the dance floor.
During this supposed time of harmony and brotherhood, tensions were still at an all-time high. In what ended up being the cumulative result of a total lack of communication, Tom ostensibly exited the band a second time (Tom claims he never left blink-182 while a whole slew of e-mails released by Mark and Travis allegedly claim otherwise).
Rather than shutting down blink-182 (again) and bringing back +44 for a comeback release, Mark and Travis decided to keep the legacy of blink-182 alive by continuing on without Tom. Whoever Tom’s replacement was going to be was going to have some big shoes to fill. While keeping in mind the obvious fact that losing a founding member can make or break a band, Tom’s “latest” role in blink-182 made his absence all the more damaging. If Mark and Tom had shared the same amount of vocal duties as they had pre-untitled, Tom’s absence would’ve been, while still damaging, less so. It would’ve been that a founding member and co-lead singer had left rather than a founding member and lead singer.
By deciding to continue on with Tom, the most crucial thing blink-182 had to do now was define who they were as a band. During this critical time, Mark and Travis felt the best person who fit the bill was Matt Skiba, known primarily as the guitarist and vocalist of Alkaline Trio.
Blink-182’s future was a major source of debate for fans and critics alike. It wasn’t just a simple “yes” or “no,” in regards to whether or not blink-182 should be continuing without Tom. There were those who believed that, while Mark and Travis had the right to make the same music, they shouldn’t, however, be called blink-182. These people reasoned that Mark and Travis should somehow alter the name of the band by either changing it entirely or modifying it slightly. One of these suggestions included “blink-182 with Skiba,” mirroring what the band Sublime had done when Rome Ramirez replaced the original singer, Bradley Nowell, by renaming Sublime to Sublime with Rome.
Who could blame them these people? Tom wasn’t just a founding member, but practically the main singer. In fact, one of blink-182’s defining styles was the stunning contrast between the highly accented, nasally whining of Tom and the straightforward, bright, baritone drones of Mark. Yes, Tom’s voice was unique on its own, but when paired with Mark’s vocal style, the end result was nothing short of stunning. Their divagations complemented each other wonderfully.
But Tom offered more than just a unique singing voice. Tom brought a very distinctive style of guitar playing to the table, one that very much became a staple to the band’s identity. While Tom’s licks were nowhere near the level of sheer awesomeness and skill employed by Eric Clapton or the deep, intricate soul of Jimi Hendrix’s highly unique technique, they were, however, a collection of catchy riffs that were all almost ingeniously deceptive in their simplicity, yet different enough to be more than just one “skill notch” above one of punk rock’s defining qualities, the stereotypical three-chord progression, one that blink-182 abused to no end.
But even when limited to just three (or more) chords, Tom still found a way to make the progression of these chords unique in their own right (Cheshire Cat‘s “Touchdown Boy” immediately comes to mind). He also had a knack of playing aggressive muted chords by essentially jabbing the strings of his guitar through rapid, almost violent successive down-strokes.
This gaping hole loomed over the band as some seemingly insuperable obstacle to overcome, casting an especially massive shadow over Matt Skiba. But Matt did something many people (including me) didn’t expect. Matt barely mimicked Tom on California (if you can say he even did at all). The only time Matt sounded remotely like Tom, accent-wise, was during the chorus of “She’s Out Of Her Mind” when he sings “We all need something to live for.” And it’s only the way Matt pronounces one word, more directly, how he emphasizes the elonged “ee” in “need.” Accent aside, the way Matt yells during his contribution of “Cynical” (most notably when his voice cracks from the strain as he cries out “Not sorry, not sorry, not sorry, I’m not sorry!”) sounds as though Matt is making a conscious nod to the yelling technique Tom first utilized in untitled, like during the first half of the bridge of “Feeling This,” where he belts out the chorus, the back-and-forths in the verses of “Stockholm Syndrome” and the accented “go”s in “Go.”
Basically, Matt sings like Matt. Matt sounds like Matt. However, what’s so special is that while he sings and sounds like Matt, you can’t hear Alkaline Trio at all in any of his contributions on California. This is especially meaningful when you take into account Matt’s many side projects where some similarities shine through. It’s also impressive when you take how both Mark and Tom seemed incapable of keeping +44 or AvA out of blink-182. So, when Matt said in an interview that he wanted to respect Tom’s legacy, I believe this was how he did it.
On California, Matt also plays guitar like how Matt plays guitar. This is probably one of the most defining elements of blink-182’s latest release with Matt and, in turn, the new identity of the band … at least, at this particular juncture in their career. Rather than trying to conjure up unique riffs or, at least, creating ones similar to Tom’s, we find Matt almost completely, save for a few moments in songs — like in the intro of “She’s Out Of Her Mind” and “Home Is Such A Lonely Place,” the post-chorus, bridge and outro of “Kings of the Weekend” and the intro and second verse of “No Future” — falling back on the three-chord punk progression. (If you listen to the album with good headphones, you’ll notice some extra guitar flairs here and there, but they’re so faint that, due to how obviously quiet they are, just emphasizes my point on the type of sound they were hoping to achieve on the record.) And when it comes to these power chords, rather than blast them out repeatedly by using Tom’s relentless downstroking style, Matt keeps the strumming simple, just like how he’s done in Alkaline Trio, yet, again, still differently.
Just by taking all of the above into consideration, you could call California a throwback record (as many have done). There are also some glaringly obvious comparisons like the inclusion of two joke songs, “Built This Pool” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which, I should point out, are quite tame. There are also points on the record where the band makes direct references to past lyrics, like the infectious “Na na na’s” first popularized in the hit song “All The Small Things,” which pop up in more than one song. Then there’s the line “I’m never coming home” in “Los Angeles,” a variant of a lyric Mark’s used in past songs like Take Off‘s “Shut Up” and Neighborhoods‘ “Natives.” And don’t forget the repetitive “over and over and overs” in “Bored To Death” that feel like the “forever and evers” in Take Off‘s “First Date” and the “forever and afters” in untitled‘s “Violence.”
Then there are songs like “She’s Out Of Her Mind,” which just feels like it could fit right in to Take Off without having to make direct references to past songs. The same can be said of “The Only Thing That Matters,” the rawness of which could very well be compared to the style in Dude Ranch. Meanwhile, other songs like “Teenage Satellites” echo subject matters that the band used to sing about, teenage life and adolescent pranks. With lyrics like “I’m kind of nervous of the consequence/As we climb over the neighbor’s fence,” culminating to a point in the chorus where Matt compares himself and his girl to teenage satellites, makes the comparison to earlier years quite literal.
There are some who claim that this technique, where bands try to sing about the same things they once sang about back in the day, almost always feels hollow or disingenuous. But other than these exceptions shared above, there’s nothing about California that feels this way. So how could California not be interpreted as hollow or disingenuous? Take the following into account.
As you may recall, even during blink-182 inception, the band, though arguably more punk than they have ever been in terms of rawness and unabashed aggressive energy, could never be pigeonholed into a specific genre. Tom’s riffs were much too unique to allow blink-182 to fit snugly within the likes of other punk bands, not to mention the fact that their lyrics didn’t quite match up with the rebellious cry against society, at least, beyond teenage angst.
But in California, we not only have a completely new guitar style that follows in the footsteps of punk rock, but lyrics that pay homage to the bands of that genre. In fact, during “Kings of the Weekend,”blink-182 doesn’t even try to be subtle in their “shout out” when Mark sings “Thank god for punk rock bands.” Then there are other songs, like in “No Future,” where their specific tribute to punk can only be identified through the track’s title (and when Matt shouts the words “no future” in the song). The title “No Future” directly references many early punk bands who’ve included the words “no future” in their lyrics, such as the Sex Pistols in their song “God Save the Queen.” (And this isn’t even including the fact that one of the potential names for California was No Future.)
So here you have a band that’s playing in a style that predates even themselves (one that has erroneously been compared to their earlier work), making subtle references to that same predating style (almost like a secret code) and going out of their way to actually thanking god for that predated style. So, does that make California a punk rock tribute record? Partly, yes. But as a whole, no. You still have to take into account that there are those few times when Blink-182 celebrates their past on the record. When you compare all of this with how Mark and Matt split the vocal duties on California, you’ll start to realize that it’s much more than just a punk rock tribute and a blink-182 tribute release.
Move on, let her go, move on…
For the first time since 2001, almost every song on California is evenly split. You’ll have one half of a song being completely sung by Mark and then, suddenly, the second being completely spearheaded by Matt, as in the opening track, “Cynical.” Then there’ll be songs where Mark and Matt split vocal duties within the course of one song, going back and forth between singing the verses and the chorus, like in “Bored to Death.” Then there are songs where Mark sings the verses and Matt the chorus, as in “San Diego” and “Los Angeles.” Plus, in each of these examples, there are usually bridges or pre-choruses that are given to the singer who has had less singing time on a particular track, just in the spirit of evening it out.
The way each and every song has been meticulously split between Matt and Mark (except a few like “Rabbit Hole,” a Mark-heavy track, and “Teenage Satellites,” one that could be referred to as “Matt’s song”) shows that there was no effort whatsoever to try and hide the fact that the band wanted to keep the vocals as equal as possible. Take another example: the album opens with Mark singing over complete silence (there are no guitars, no drums, no Matt vocals, no nothing, just Mark) while he strums a few chords on his bass (another rarity). This effect feels as though Mark is singing a duet with himself, and it’s glorious. It’s almost as though the blink-182 camp is saying, “We’re opening the new album with a Mark song! See? Mark isn’t just a backup singer! See? And, yes, this is somewhat of a bass solo! Mark is playing bass chords, and they’re the center of attention! See?” But the song doesn’t just end there. Almost right at the halfway point of that very same song, the song shifts in tone entirely, altering to a Matt-heavy part, as Matt belts out “What’s the point of saying sorry now?/Lost my voice while fighting my way out.” This is yet another way of blink-182 being as conspicuous as possible in their decision to make blink-182 a 50/50 record. They’re not just telling the world that this album is like how it used to be when blink-182 featured two vocalists who shared the same amount of vocal duties. They’re shouting it from the mountains.
With such an obvious attempt to go right at the heart of what once defined blink-182, mentioning “punk rock” directly, making subtle hits to past punk legends, singing from the point of view of a teenager, using simplistic guitar riffs, all creates a sense of catharsis. This isn’t a band just trying to sound like how they used to. It’s a band who lost a founding member and is trying to heal the wounds by figuring out who they are, where they came from and who they can become. This analysis makes sense especially when you take the title of the album into consideration, California, where there are songs discussing the band’s relationship with the state. They look into their past during the song “San Diego,” which is the city blink-182 formed in, and the present, with “Los Angeles,” where everyone in the band lives.
What does this mean? No matter how you look at it, whether or not you preferred blink-182 with Tom, losing someone as pivotal as he was could have permanently damaged the band. By creating California the way they did, blink-182 took some of their own advice from songs they wrote about breakups. California feels very much like how one might deal with a messy breakup. Before you can properly move on with your life, you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror. You have to remember who you are now, who you were during the relationship and who you were before you got in the relationship. This process involves coming to terms with a few things, like being able to admit that the she-devil (or he-devil) wasn’t always to blame and that everything wasn’t bad. There were at least a few good times, and it’s okay to treasure those moments. It’s both healthy and the most effective way you can truly move forward with your life. This is because, at the heart of it, you have to be fine with what makes you, you, and that includes the you who fell in love. In the end, you are in control of yourself. Only once you have been able to do all this and be truly happy, can you wipe the tears from your eyes, stand up and brush the dust from your pants, before moving on with your life. It’s a therapeutic album. And you can feel that the band is starting to heal and move on by creating a modern rock-type song “Sober” and the experimental “Los Angeles.”
It’s no coincidence that the song about blink-182 past relationship with the state of California, “San Diego,” is specifically about Tom. In it, Mark tries to come to terms with losing a dear friend by expressing his feelings in a way that people have been able to relate to for years, a blink-182 song about heartbreak at the end of a relationship, the most profound lyric being “Late at night I call your name/Abandoned love songs smashed across the hardwood floors/I read the sadness on your face.” Every time I hear Mark sing these words, I can’t help picturing a certain scenario in my head, where, within a mass of broken records on those hardwood floors, there are images of Siamese Cats, overly suggestive nurses and bulls. And when I look closer, there lies a newer-looking, non-jeweled case on the floor, one that features a picture of a zombie/skeleton-like creature driving a car, lost in brooding anger, while a woman in the passenger seat reaches out to him, almost imploringly, as a silent tear falls down her face.
Written by Steven Wyman-Blackburn
Updated Jan 7.2021
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