California, by blink-182

96-california

Released July 1, 2016

42 min, 36 sec

In the beginning of 2015, Tom DeLonge decided that he’d had enough of the blink-182 reunion, and in a very public spat with bandmates Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker, quit the band for the second time in almost exactly ten years. Rather than fold under the guise of an “indefinite hiatus,” however, Hoppus and Barker stood their ground, content to allow DeLonge to take his ball and head back home to Angels & Airwaves. They berated him and questioned his work ethic in interviews, and brought on Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio to help them fulfill performance commitments. Hoppus and Barker must have seen something in the union, as Skiba was then brought on full-time, to complete the record that DeLonge refused to sing a note for. The end result – after a reboot with a new producer that resulted in the scrapping of that previous album – is California, the first blink-182 album in five years.

Replacing a band’s lead singer – even in a band with two that share vocal duties equally – is no small task. Ask Stone Temple Pilots, who fired Scott Weiland, watched replacement Chester Bennington walk away after being unable to handle fronting two major bands at the same time, and are now scrambling to figure out what to do now that Weiland is dead. Ask Journey, who sat in lead vocalist hell for over a decade until discovering current singer Arnel Pineda on YouTube, of all places. Ask Black Sabbath, who’s had as many vocalists as they’ve had instrumentalists. A band either enjoys a renaissance or dies a slow, embarrassing death when someone new comes in to take over vocals.

blink faced a particularly difficult struggle, already having hit the age where their best songs and most successful record are moving from radio-dominating pop-punk to classic rock of the rapidly aging 1990s. It can be embarrassing to watch a 40-year-old Hoppus sing about how nobody likes him when he’s 23, or belt out ridiculous joke songs that he’d likely written as a teenager, at such prestigious music events as BlizzCon and E3. Not to mention the morning show circuit.

But this isn’t something new to them, as they faced these same problems during their initial reunion in 2009, four years after DeLonge indulged in his most bizarre obsessions and musical inclinations, appearing to permanently mature as a musician with Angels & Airwaves. Hoppus and Barker were left to pick up the pieces, putting out an interesting but relatively uninspired record as +44, promptly abandoned and left to die the moment DeLonge came knocking. This time, +44 remains in the basement – Craig Fairbaugh and Shane Gallagher put down their phones in disappointment when they saw the news, probably.

So, California. If Neighborhoods was an appropriate title for that record’s music-by-committee sound that arose from DeLonge, Hoppus, and Barker all recording separately, then California appropriately represents Hoppus taking the wheel and steering the album himself. The album has it all – loud pop anthems, reflections on the band’s home state, and, of course, two unnecessary joke tracks, because this is Mark Hoppus and this is what Mark Hoppus does. At least they’re funny.

California was recorded as a unit, at a blistering pace, with a brand new producer in John Feldmann, filling the void left by the deceased Jerry Finn, who had produced the band for years before their initial breakup. (blink produced Neighborhoods and Dogs Eating Dogs themselves.) When Feldmann came on board, the band had already produced an album’s worth of tracks. When going over the music, however, they decided that it would be better to simply start from scratch with Feldmann, which resulted in the entirety of California being recorded in the space of three months, from January to March 2016. Neighborhoods, by comparison, took nearly two years to finish.

What Feldmann brought in his production is a more cohesive sound than Neighborhoods, while also encouraging the band to move past their comfort zone, expanding more into quieter, acoustic tracks in the vein of “Boxing Day” from 2013, without reveling in the strangely dark, negative sound of blink-182. Instead, the band embraces a bombastic, anthemic sound in songs like “No Future” and “Bored to Death,” songs of teenage rebellion that still work, sort of – as much as songs of that nature can work coming from middle-aged men. Other tracks reflect the band’s age – songs like “Rabbit Hole” and “San Diego” are world-weary and reflective, with the former’s refrain of “I won’t fall down that fucking rabbit hole” emphasizing the band’s – or, more accurately, Hoppus’s – desire to not fall by the wayside, refusing to succumb to the call of becoming a nostalgia act.

“San Diego,” as a side note, is rather clearly a song about DeLonge, though not nearly as bitter and petty as “No, It Isn’t” was from +44’s We Don’t Need to Whisper in 2006, when the wounds of DeLonge’s first departure were fresh. Instead, it reads as settling the issue – Hoppus is saying “you’re gone, and we don’t want to go back to you, and that’s fine. Have a nice life.”

But California certainly invokes nostalgia, both in its subject matter and its sound. blink-182 still sounds like the perennial pop-punk giant that it was in the 90s and early 2000s, and though their sound has expanded since then, the core, dated as it may be, remains the same. Hoppus still writes from the perspective of his teenage self, and the band tries its hardest to play to an audience twenty years their junior. Their music is aimed at people going to Warped Tour, whether they’re teenagers or people who went to the Warped Tour when blink was headlining over a decade ago.

I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with that. You’re not going to hear political songs from blink-182, or songs about the struggles of parenthood, or the middle class. blink-182 isn’t a band for the working man, even as they continue to look more and more like that class of people. But it still puts them in an uncomfortable position, as the band is, more than ever before, a vehicle for Hoppus to continue to live out his teenage fantasies.

Because this is no longer the Mark, Tom, and Travis Show – now that DeLonge is out of the way, it’s the Mark Show all the way. Barker has always been content to stay in the back and drum his ass off while DeLonge and Hoppus handle the songwriting, and he continues to do so for California. Matt Skiba, then, conveys a sense of just being along for the ride. He certainly contributed to songwriting, but all of the songs are credited to the trio as a unit, with select co-writers for certain tracks. What Skiba brings to the table, besides a stronger command of the guitar than DeLonge’s twinkly, wandering play style after the reunion, is a voice that’s closer in register to Hoppus’s, but with a far sharper edge – similar to DeLonge’s and almost as distinctive, but much lower in pitch. His voice is very well-suited to pop punk, as well as harder punk, which Alkaline Trio engages in. Skiba thus provides a nice change of pace – and, so far, he seems much more interested in staying on pitch and following the flow of the band’s music than DeLonge was after the reunion. Skiba is a net plus, eliminating the band’s previous divisiveness while providing a steady hand and steady voice. It’s not a shake-up or reinvention – it’s getting the band back in the right lane, a steady hand on the wheel, keeping them on the highway instead of taking an exit into new, unfamiliar territory.

That’s probably the best way to describe California – familiar and relatively unchallenging, but comforting in that familiarity. This isn’t a +44 record masquerading as a blink album, which was a real concern of mine when DeLonge left the band in 2015. Instead, it’s unfiltered Hoppus, one of two pop-punk masterminds that helped propel blink-182 to unforseen heights in the 1990s and continues to hit those same veins in 2016. And as it turns out, unfiltered Mark Hoppus sounds a lot like blink-182.

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