Album Review: Blink 182 — California
Unlike their immediate predecessors Green Day, Blink 182 never had any explicit link with the original wave of punk bands. Where as Billie Joe Armstrong and company were Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols and Clash enthusiasts who mimicked the sound of their heroes, before finding their own voice on the diamond-selling Dookie, Blink were simply a fourth generation So-Cal punk band who took full advantage of being at the right place at the right time.
That’s not to downplay Blink 182’s music during their initial run. They deliberately played to their limitations, spiking their toilet humour and huge hooks with the occasional heartfelt ballad in order to become one of the biggest rock bands of the late 90’s. As boy and girl pop dominated the charts in those heady pre-Y2K days, Blink polished their sound to a buff radio sheen, and operated as the juvenile riposte to Britney and NSYNC, even when the core of their sound actually sat much closer to those pop juggernauts then any fan of the band would care to admit.
Once the band went on “indefinite hiatus” in early 2005, murmurs of disharmony and false starts have thwarted all and any attempts to bring the group back together. Guitarist and co-lead vocalist Tom DeLonge formed the delay-ridden, pretentious U2-esque folly of Angels & Airwaves; while Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker carried on down the same path, with the Blink sound-alike +44. When the group finally did re-unite for the stalled Neighborhoods, it was troubled and short-lived — with Hoppus and Barker publicly airing their frustrations with DeLonge and his lack of commitment to the group.
All this is ancient history of course, but it heavily informs the record that is California, released in mid 2016. Hoppus and Barker choose to push on with the Blink 182 name, hiring Alkaline Trio guitarist/vocalist Matt Skiba to replace the hole left by DeLonge.
It’s hard not to feel for musicians let down by the antics of an individual band mate (see the entire history of the Stone Temple Pilots) but that doesn’t excuse the disappointment of California. There’s certainly no lack of effort here, Hoppus takes a clear control of the band (sounding unfortunately more and more like Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind with each passing year) and works them hard — trying to recreate the bashing drums, arpeggio riffs, call and response vocals, and energy of early Blink. While the effort is admirable, the results are fairly pedestrian, as the group churn out soundalikes of their early hits, complete with a polished, brittle digital production circa 1999.
This lack of progress might not be a problem if the songs stuck, but Hoppus seems so determined to be taken seriously that he chooses to eschew any hooks, and even relegates the jokes to their own brief snippets rather than being a part of the core songs.
There are moments that work, the catchy Sober (complete with nah nah nah backing vocals) and the rollicking burst of noise The Only Thing That Matters — but all in all, over 16 songs and 42 (it feels much longer) minutes, California is exhausting, and proves that sometimes trying to get the band back together isn’t such a great idea after all.