FIRST LISTEN: "California" by Blink-182

Blink-182 CaliforniaYou should never expect Blink-182 to make the same album twice. The band has been in a volatile state since 1997, when Travis Barker replaced Scott Rayner on drums. Line-up changes and personal conflicts have always deeply affected their music. 1999’s Enema of the State was an attempt to break out of a traditional punk mold that brought them massive success. Take off Your Pants and Jacket saw the band fighting against their label’s expectation of a crossover pop hit. 2003’s untitled album saw the band move into more somber territory after a decade of largely optimistic material. And then came the break-up, the reunion and “Neighborhoods,” an album so difficult to record it (apparently) barely even made it to the public.

The departure (or removal) of Tom Delonge has made California a highly anticipated album for the trio. Even though critics (and many fans) panned the leading singles the LP has been a constant topic of discussion in alt-rock circles for weeks.

And now it’s leaked.

I have listened to California, in its entirety, once. And if there were ever a record I would write a first impression review of it’s this one.

I’ve never expected a back-to-their-roots punk record from Hoppus and company. No matter how many times he says something like “This record is going to sound a lot like classic Blink” in interviews, I just don’t believe him. Hoppus has always been interested in the pop zeitgeist. His music has always incorporated flavors of the top 40 hits of the time. He’s even produced tracks for acts including Owl City and McBusted. He seems to be a man of the perpetual now. And nowhere is that more apparent than on California.

Every song here seems to be competing with the others for a “Song of the Summer” award. The hooks are catchy, the melodies simple and hypnotic and the sonic palate is extremely bright. Even the sad songs on this record are drenched in sugar-y synths and overdubbed melodic choruses.

And after about an hour in the proverbial pop-punk sun, I honestly just feel burnt and dehydrated. At 16 tracks on the standard edition, this album is the biggest in the Blink catalog and it suffers for it. Many of these tracks should have been B-sides. “Sober” is supremely underwhelming. “Los Angeles” is so derivative it should probably be a Good Charlotte single. And “Teenage Satellites” is pretty much summed up by its title.

There are some impressive tracks here (if you’re already a Blink fan). “Cynical” feels like a perfect response to the band’s past year of turmoil. “No Future” and “Kings of the Weekend” are a fun return to the TOYPAJ days. “Rabbit Hole” could fit well on any of Mark Hoppus’ projects from the past decade. And “San Diego” will feel very familiar to fans of Neighborhoods.

The problem is these songs are surrounded by some serious missteps. The sampled hand claps on “Sober” and the “an-an-an-anti-social” syllable repetition on “She’s out of her Mind” feel like they were lifted from the latest Panic! At The Disco record. The verses on most of these songs are pointless, but it reaches a new low on “Los Angeles”. And I seriously cannot believe this band released the song “California”. I don’t even know how to process this pile of Owl City synthesizer loops and sad suburban similes.

Matt Skiba is often relegated to backing vocals which is a shame, because every time he gets a verse or chorus to himself he shines. I understand that this was probably a conscious choice given all of the drama with Tom Delonge. I love his wailing voice and think it fits well with Blink’s format. I’m hopeful for his future with the band and genuinely excited to see him sing live.

Here’s the thing. Nothing on this album surprised me. Nothing got me to share a track on social media the minute I heard it. Nothing really seemed like a new invention.

Nevertheless, this is Blink-182’s comeback record. They’re catching up on the years of pop tropes they missed while they were busy bitching at each other. Mark Hoppus is trying to write a song that teenagers will listen to on their skateboards. Matt Skiba is learning his place in a band whose fans still aren’t sure about him. And Travis Barker is still slamming the shit out of his drums.

It’s hard to tell what this new lineup will do for the legacy of a band that’s now approaching 30 years of making songs for 15 year-olds. I just hope that they stay together long enough to give the kids something new next time.