Blink-182 represents an important part of my adolescence. I was hardly a rebellious kid, but Blink-182, and punk music more broadly, allowed me to engage in typical high school disobedience without the consequences. Dude Ranch, for me, will always represent not any sort of musical masterpiece but a nostalgic artifact that I can listen to over and over again. Blink-182 never barked with the political venom that other mid-90s SoCal punk bands could. But the mischievous pranksters bucked the system just enough so that they could be at once disrespectful and charming.
Last week, they released the first album, California, in fifteen years that registered at all on my radar. I figuratively leapt out of my chair after learning Matt Skiba had joined the band on a seemingly permanent basis after original band member Tom Delonge left once again. The pre-released single, namely “Bored to Death,” surprised me by its lack of sheen and gestures toward unease while simultaneously sparking my nostalgia.
The first track, after gently stroking listeners’ ears, explodes into a decidedly punk riff. Skiba declares himself by wailing across the chorus of “Cynical”, leaving behind his iconically morbid imagery. And while it starts with a smack in the head, the rest of the album hardly keeps pace. Instead the band explores numerous terrains. Some tracks, “She’s out of her mind” for example, take us to seemingly familiar places, harkening back to the colorful relationships that have littered Blink-182 albums for decades. The 17-second “Built This Pool” reminds us all of the gags the band loved to play.
Others take us to places almost unthinkable in a Blink-182 universe: namely “Los Angeles,” driven by Barker’s snare cadence over a pulsing electronic bass only to give way to a straight-ahead rock chorus. Even while songs like “Rabbit Hole” blare with an up-beat edge, lyrics like, “Dear head, shut up!” suggest an uncharacteristic anxiety.
It would be easy to judge this album by what it isn’t. It isn’t a punk album — a label that has ambiguously followed the band around since the 90s. It isn’t the trio of pranksters who went streaking through Los Angeles. Nor is it the morbid Skiba who too often plotted in song his own gruesome demise. If you’re looking for a Blink-182 you once knew, look elsewhere. This is a reinvention of pop-punk. Barker, Hoppus, and Skiba have polished their best, most charming chords but have written in a thin, yet hardly veiled, sense of melancholy. The paint is chipping from their gilded facade, and rather than cover the blemishes with duct tape, safety pins, or iron-on patches, Blink-182 has decided to embrace them. You might not feel happy after this album, but no one really seems to care.