No, Seriously, Blink-182 Is Teaching Rock Bands to Age Gracefully

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Mark Hoppus, Travis Barker and Matt Skiba of Blink-182 visits SiriusXM Townhall at SiriusXM Studio on June 28, 2016 in New York City.  

It’s a great time to be a 40-year-old teen.

For the first time in nine weeks, the No. 1 album in America isn’t Drake’s Views -- it’s the new album from Blink-182, a band that once wrote unironically about attending frat parties while its members were in their late twenties. Mark Hoppus, Travis Barker and new guitarist Matt Skiba -- who replaced the deposed Tom DeLonge -- are outpacing almost all the commercial competition in rock music with a new album that’s flipped an awkward, occasionally embarrassing redemption narrative into the third-highest debut this year for its genre

California sold 172,000 copies in its debut week, which wrapped July 7. That’s their biggest sales week since 2003, even more than they saw for their last comeback album, 2011’s Neighborhoods. An established artist topping their sales from five years ago is striking enough in today’s marketplace, but not only that, Blink's new album outpaces a project that came with a capital-n Narrative -- Neighborhoods dropped on the heels of a hiatus, multiple offshoot projects and Barker nearly losing his life in a plane crash. That last LP from Blink’s “classic” lineup (sorry, Scott Raynor) was met with obligatory hype (it moved 152,000 units its first week) yet failed to find traction, and Blink’s most straight-laced stab at being a Serious Rock Band soon faded from the discussion. 

So what flipped the switch? The most obvious answer is Skiba, 20-year veteran of Chicago’s Alkaline Trio. You can hear it on the opening track, “Cynical,” a two-minute burner where Skiba joins Hoppus howl for howl; “What’s the point go saying sorry?” he groans with much the same sneer he used to speak about his liver on the first few suds-soaked Alkaline Trio records. In the early 2000s, the Trio pushed to the periphery of the mainstream with a succession of goth-punk albums for Vagrant Records. But their moment never really came; 2007’s Agony & Irony -- their only major label release -- never made Alkaline Trio a household name like Blink, and they’ve taken the back-to-punk approach with Epitaph Records ever since. At age 40 and with a new band, Skiba is finally living that precious breakthrough moment. 

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Hoppus is the deserved focal point across most of California, but Skiba’s no slouch. The tit-for-tat vocal tradeoff took Alkaline Trio years to master; “Radio,” “Private Eye,” “Jaked on Green Beers” -- all the early era classics are straight up Matt or Dan songs. Around the time Trio started shooting for the charts, they’d learn to use their mutual tug of war to drive an entire song, something Blink had going for it almost from day one. On California’s tightest pop songs -- “Left Alone,” “Sober,” “She’s Out of Her Mind” -- the Skiba/Hoppus braintrust plows ahead in full force. But on the latter, don’t think longing for a girl “with Bauhaus stuck in her head” comes solely from adding a Noted Goth Guy to the band. Blink-182 had the Cure’s Robert Smith guest on their self-titled 2003 album, something Good Mourning-era Alkaline Trio (or really, any era of Alkaline Trio) would have killed for.

Smith’s brooding performance on “All of This” was actually a rare moment for Blink-182. It was essentially the only notable collaboration on a Blink-182 album until California, which finds the band employing high-profile co-writers for the fist time in its career. Pop-punk whisperer John Feldmann (All Time Low, 5 Seconds of Summer) produced and co-wrote the entire album, replacing their deceased regular producer, Jerry Finn. Elsewhere, the band got writing help from Fall Out Boy vocalist Patrick Stump, ex-Evanescence keyboardist David Hodges and Boys Like Girls frontman/Taylor Swift and Jason Derulo collaborator Martin Johnson. With this dream team in Blink’s ears, the verses flow into the pre-choruses just so and the segments of each chorus snap together like pieces of Ikea furniture; they’re sometimes predictable, but they’re almost always functional. 

The same principle guides the lyrics. Writing from the viewpoint of someone two decades younger is a common theme across California (there’s a song here called “Teenage Satellites,” in case you were wondering) and there are times it wears thin. Take the music video for lead single “Bored to Death”; despondent high schooler fantasizes of falling in love with the girl at a rock show, only to awaken in class find out it was all dream. But we’ve seen how the Mature Blink-182 fared on Neighborhoods, so there’s no doubt that doubling down on the brand Blink built itself on can pay dividends. And then there are moments when the band parlays recent, real life drama into lyrical poignancy. On the late album highlight “San Diego,” Hoppus runs away from the ghosts of his hometown, including DeLonge. 

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So a new incarnation of Blink-182 has dug in, and it appears it’s got legs. Lineup change and lengthy layoff be damned, “Bored to Death” was an instant hit on rock radio. It’s been No. 1 at Alternative Songs the past two weeks (the first time in 12 years they’ve topped the tally) and it’s endeared itself to the heavier end of the format, breaking the top 10 at Mainstream Rock Songs (“What’s My Age Again?” at 19 was the previous high). The touring front is covered, with arena and amphitheater shows scheduled across North America through early October.

Call it Blink-183 if you must, but the Mark, Matt and Travis show has asserted itself, even if DeLonge occasionally hints he could rejoin and the specter of a “classic lineup” always lurks in the shadows. Consider the money Guns N’ Roses’ core three got to reunite and -- if a Blink-182/Guns N’ Roses comparison is too much to bear -- consider how much LCD Soundsystem got to reunite this summer, and how ludicrous that figure would have seemed a few years ago. It’s a good thing Blink-182 spent the past year and a half thriving amidst an air of intrigue -- they might have to get used to it for a long time.