Blink-182 have never exactly been considered a serious band. This is a group that once sang “I wanna fuck a dog in the ass”, after all – but it’s a label they honestly do deserve. On California, Blink’s first full-length since 2011’s Neighbourhoods and their first without founding member and vocalist Tom Delonge, the Californian trio (now including Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio on vocal and guitar duties) continue (for the most part) their ascending curve into “serious” music.
Since ‘Adam’s Song’ on Enema of the State, Blink have always shown potential for highly intelligent pop songwriting, possessing a knack for catchy hooks, anthemic choruses and massiveness of sound. These muscles were flexed to great effect on 2003’s Blink 182 and Neighbourhoods, and California seems like a logical progression from these two records. Musically, it’s very tight – drummer Travis Barker’s work is fantastic as per, and emotional riffs are out in full force in tracks like ‘San Diego’ and ‘No Future’. Bassist-cum-vocalist Mark Hoppus’ lyrics aren’t exactly engaging, but that’s never been Blink’s tour de force. California deals with themes of suburban discontent, anxiety and adult relationships, but seems to dwell too much on teenage ruminations (“I’m in deep with this girl but she’s out of her mind”) – something a band of 40-year-olds should be moving past.
Where things really start to fall short is in the old Blink clichés – although “na-na-nas” are minimal, skit tracks ‘Built This Pool’ and ‘Brohemian Rhapsody’ seem trite. “There’s something about you that I can’t quite put my finger in” isn’t much of a joke in the first place, and sticks out like a sore thumb on California.
Let’s move on to the topic of the elephant in the room. In fact, there’s a couple to be found in this album – both in Matt Skiba’s addition to Blink-182’s lineup and in the muddy pawprints of producer John Feldmann (well-known alt-pop hitmaker and Goldfinger frontman). The former is largely beneficial; Skiba’s vocals are a great addition to Blink’s sound, shaking things up from the Delonge yelps we’re used to (“yead”s aren’t exactly missed beyond a base nostalgic level). It’s a nice deviation in an album that otherwise seems to take a step backwards, something largely traceable to our other elephant.
Blink have proved they can work well with a polished sound in the past, with Blink-182 and Neighbourhoods both being solid and exciting releases – playing up to the trio’s natural talent for pop songwriting and twisting in a wider sonic palette than albums past. Unfortunately, John Feldmann’s distinctive polished sound pushes California too far into stale pop territory. Traces of innovation past can still be found (title track synthesisers, opening riff in ‘Home Is Such A Lonely Place’), but elsewhere it seems like California is simply trying too hard. Case in point; whilst ‘Bored To Death’ is a likeable single (one of the tightest tracks on the album, even), it’s a direct attempt at writing a self-titled era song – complete with flanged drums introducing the song in the vein of ‘Feeling This’. California is dangerously close to being the “cardboard cutout, old and faded” in ‘Rabbit Hole’.
All in all, there’s nothing unexpected here. And that’s not such a bad thing – California makes sense as a shuffle along from Neighbourhoods, another notch in the band’s studded belt of a career. Where it falls short is against its peers – the genre’s moved onto far more interesting places, and Blink-182 seem tired standing next to them.By Jowan Mead