In a rare occurrence of turning an old cliché into a new one with virtually no alteration, Blink-182 took the sound and stance of bratty suburban SoCal punk pop, which had been around almost as long as the band members had been alive, and — aided by the prior commercial success of Green Day — made it the platinum-certified blueprint for countless others. Fast, rude, catchy, simple, stupid and enormously entertaining, the trio’s music unapologetically descends from the Dickies, Descendents, All and a load of other bands like them (all of whom owe the Dictators, Ramones and Black Flag big-time), vindicating decades of faith by fans of the genre.
None of which is meant to diminish the credit due to singer/bassist Mark Hoppus, guitarist/singer Tom DeLonge and drummers Scott Raynor (through Dude Ranch) and Travis Barker. Hoppus’ whiny adolescent voice and DeLonge’s warp-speed lead guitar figures give the band its iconic sound, while their songwriting’s puerile obsessions with scatology, masturbation and foiled romance fine-tune their overpowering appeal to horny teenaged boys. (Of course, like Chuck Berry 40 years earlier, the lyrics sound personal and convincing even though their creators are substantially older and wiser than their subjects.)
Many of the songs on Cheshire Cat first appeared on Buddha (Flyswatter is a self-released cassette that predated the band name change, occasioned by an Irish group). It’s a competent beginning, racing punk as harmless fun about girls (“Does My Breath Smell,” “Wasting Time,” “Romeo and Rebecca”), loneliness (“Carousel,” “Peggy Sue”) and the like, well-mannered enough to preface “Who the fuck do you think you are” with “At the risk of sounding rude …” Sonically, it’s a little too slack and unfocused to properly rattle high school corridors; the self-indulgence that would become a Blink trademark doesn’t always benefit the effort. San Diego uber-scenester O (leader of fluf and much more), who produced, gets a rave thank you in the credits, which helps to put the project in context.
Smartly produced by Drive Like Jehu drummer Mark Trombino, Dude Ranch sharpens every aspect of the Blink attack and is a really good record. The playing is hermetically sealed tight, the melodies are plainly effective — matched to occasionally inventive chord progressions (“Pathetic” and “Dick Lips,” for instance, begin a half-step down and move up into the song) — and the words, when they’re not simply vulgar, address the sensitive emotional issues and self-criticisms that define emo. (In fact, there’s a song called “Emo,” which offers encouragement to a friend in a bad relationship). The quarrelsome breakup song “Waggy” had already appeared on the 1996 fundraising compilation Music for Our Mother Ocean, where it stood out amid a host of far-better-known bands due to a hyper three-note guitar solo. Overall, the enthusiasm and energy, which arrives in splashes of revivifying electricity, give the album an exhilarating power.
Without any overt change in approach, Enema of the State made Blink stars — in spite of the crass vulgarity of the porno-star cover, title and many of the lyrics (like the whiny putdown “Dysentery Gary”). Jerry Finn’s production brings extra robust power to the sound, but it’s really the band’s arrangements, which wisely spread out the increasingly soundalike songs a little stylistically (without crossing any audible formula lines), that make everything just that much more distinct and memorable. (A few spots of guest piano, played by Roger Manning, don’t hurt.) Perhaps Barker’s arrival fits in with that; his playing has subtlety and intricacy that make it less immediately noticeable than Raynor’s. Perhaps remembered better for their videos than for their own merits, “What’s My Age Again” (“nobody likes you when you’re 23”) and singsongy “All the Small Things” are great pop singles with singalong hooks and infectious energy to spare.
The Mark, Tom, and Travis Show, the triumphant look-at-us-we-made-it live album recorded at two consecutive California shows in November 1999, starts with “Dumpweed,” the should-have-been single from Enema of the State, and then rips through 19 more, punctuated by inane crowd-pandering announcements, poop jokes, and other assorted bits of embarrassing stupidity (some delivered as song fragments) that make the band sound like the debauched clown hosts of a kiddie TV show.
Take Off Your Pants and Jacket has a hysterical 42-second Christmas song (“Happy Holidays, You Bastard”) a similar but unfunny bonus track about Mother’s Day (“What Went Wrong”) sandwiching a bunch of perfectly respectable additions to the Blink canon (most respectably “Shut Up” and “The Rock Show”), but there’s nothing exciting, fun or compelling about the album. The packaging is remote and forced. There’s no obvious explanation for what went wrong (a loss of conviction about pretending to be puerile retards for an audience of, well, puerile retards as they near 30, perhaps?), but few of the melodies stick, the humor’s gone out and there’s something flat, lifeless and generic about the whole thing. It’s hard to fault the band for sounding like themselves when that was their obvious strength to start with, but this is one carbon copy too many.
It’s never a mark of vibrant creativity when a group can’t think of (or agree on) a title for its sixth album (likewise, for rockers once devoted to irreverence and crudity, three booklet pages of individual thank yous to wives, offspring, god and the like is a very bad sign). Although Blink-182 is colorfully packaged to image-call the goofy band of yore, the contents reveal a serious case of belated maturity and, with it, a change of conceptual direction (fun? What fun?), guest stars (including Robert Smith of the Cure), mildly grandiose ambitions and (although not obvious at the time) a doomed trajectory. Not every attempt at musical progress works: the addition of spoken-word samples and “The Fallen Interlude” are movement in useless directions, and an increase in keyboards and strings is a clumsy and obvious way to outgrow the limits of guitar rock. The glum “I Miss You” and “I’m Lost Without You” demonstrate how bad heartfelt sincerity suits this band. But there’s an upside to the downside: the album does accumulate strength from its despair. With a familiar sound but much more serious lyrics, “Always” states the romantic case most strongly, “Here’s Your Letter” rocks convincingly, “Go” summons up painful memories of a broken home and the Smith-sung (and co-written) triangle “All of This” adds a surprising new element, but those songs are stranded in an album that either sounds too much like its rollicking predecessors to feel different enough or wallows in sappy balladeering sentimentality that doesn’t work at all. Ultimately, Blink-182 feels like a transition, a confused evolutionary stage which could have ushered the band into a new existence with clearly articulated new goals. But enough was enough: in February 2005, the trio went on an indefinite “hiatus” which was universally taken as a breakup.