Review Summary: Well, I guess this is growing disappointment.
When it was announced that blink-182 guitarist, vocalist, and founder Tom DeLonge would be replaced by Matt Skiba, I was optimistic. DeLonge didn't seem to want to be in Blink anymore, and I am a huge Trio fan. In fact, I was more than optimistic – I was very excited. After all, it seemed that one of my favorite bands was going to be reinvigorated by the influence of another one of my favorite bands.
What could possibly go wrong"
Upon firing up blink-182's newest record, listeners are greeted by a soft and melodic vocal intro that feels familiar, like a nice welcome home. Cynical then transitions into a skatepunk track that is mostly successful, but when Matt Skiba's vocals join in, the song is elevated even more, and for a few moments – when you feel inclined to sing along with Skiba shouting lines like, “What's the point of saying sorry now"”, and “NOT SORRY!” - this new Blink works. Travis Barker does a great job on the track as well, peppering upbeat punk patterns with unique fills.
Unfortunately, Cynical is the best song on California. And it is the only one I would even consider to feel like a pop-punk song, if that genre is defined by a mix that is partial to the latter genre.
Since Matt Skiba first started playing shows with blink-182, people speculated on what the band would be like with him, and how he would compare to the longtime member he replaced. But it wasn't Matt Skiba people should've been concerned about - it was none other than pop rock producer (and Goldfinger frontman) John Feldmann. It seems that experience he had producing bands such as All Time Low, Fall Out Boy, and 5 Seconds of Summer is all too apparent here. California is absolutely loaded with the glossy, layered style of production associated with those bands. Far too much vocal layering, obnoxiously loud hand claps, electronic drums, many more lyrics traded for “na na nas” and “oh ohs” than ever before seen on a release in the band's catalog – it's all here. Perhaps the biggest failure of California is that it doesn't feel like a record in the genre that the band defined on albums like Dude Ranch and Enema of the State. Here, the pop comes first and the punk sometimes makes it's way into the fluffy mix of elements seemingly intended to make the songs as “catchy” as possible.
This overly poppy approach to writing dumbs down the musicianship on California considerably. Coming off of Neighborhoods, which I believe to be a great album despite its inherent disjointed nature, this album feels overly safe and even amateurish at times. I'm not sure there's one guitar part I can fondly remember on this album...Skiba doesn't write DeLonge-esque riffs, and they are sorely missed. But he usually comes up with better rhythms and chord combinations than this. Even Travis Barker underperforms, producing much less creativity than he has on past releases such as Box Car Racer, When Your Heart Stops Beating, or Blink's self-titled outing. His work on about 85% of California, if not more than that, is standard pop-punk beats that anyone could've played. The moments where he does experiment, such as the beginning of the mostly enjoyable “No Future” only really serve to highlight how predictable the majority of his playing is. To be fair, he didn't exactly have much to work with, as the songs are all composed in standard, safe ways, and so I understand why he didn't choose to play technical polyrhythms over eighth note power chords. However, this is still the first time in Blink's history where I didn't find the drumming to be consistently remarkable, and as a drummer myself, I found this to be significantly disappointing.
To continue, there are various moments on this album that are just, to put it simply, weird for blink-182. And not in an adventurous or experimental way. I can only conclude that Feldmann had some hand in many of these missteps, as even when the band was left to their own devices in 2011 for Neighborhoods, and again in 2013 for a self-produced EP, the experiments rarely yielded the lack of identity I feel on this album. When Los Angeles begins, well, I felt that I knew I was not going to enjoy the rest of the album. Blink always had some element of pop in their sound, but it's safe to say the verses here are a couple steps too far. 808s and Hoppus singing seemingly random “catchiness” greet the listener after a short intro, in what seems like a post-reunion Fall Out Boy verse. The song's chorus fares a bit better, but brief moments of respite like that on this album rarely do much more than make punk fans realize how much they're probably not getting out of it. The track also serves as an example of the unnecessary vocals that are placed all over this album (seemingly due to Feldmann's influence)...Someone sings a ridiculous sounding “la la la” and it adds absolutely nothing to the track. Another example of this can be found in the verses of “She's Out of her Mind”, where a ridiculous-sounding vocal rhythm – because she's not just antisocial, she's “ah, eh, eh, antisocial” - makes you wonder what happened to the sense of melody that propelled the band's former works to greatness. I found myself sighing at the inclusion of these kinds of vocals numerous times throughout the album, which is worth noting as this is a band who was once able to make these sing-along melodies seem natural.
Another pillar of disappointment can be found in the album's lyrics. To put it simply, they're not very good. Seeing lines like “I am a haunted house”, and “I'm a dandelion you're a four leaf clover” coming from two of the guys who were writing some of the most memorable lyrics in punk on beloved albums such as Dude Ranch and Goddamnit is not only saddening, but also just kind of baffling – as one has to wonder how these punk veterans let Feldmann influence the composition on this record as much as it feels like he did.
There is some enjoyment to be had on California, ignore the horribly gimmicky and bland looking album art, and most of the songs that it offers and some pretty decent tracks, such as “No Future”, “Rabbit Hole”, and “Cynical” are found. But any success this record finds only seems to emphasize how much of a letdown it really is. This is the new blink-182 record, the kings of pop-punk! I shouldn't have to be singling out 2 or 3 songs on it that I enjoy considering what a huge fan I am of the rest of their discography. But sadly there are a ton of songs that are either not good or simply forgettable, such as Teenage Satellites, a generic song which I would have to throw in the latter category.
California closes with a joke song, Brohemian Rhapsody, and while the other joke song on the album, Built This Pool, is one of the rare moments where the band mostly succeeds in recapturing the enjoyably immature personality of the band before they went on hiatus in 2005, this song is a perfect example of why this album just doesn't work in terms of tone or style. Punk guitarwork, upbeat drums, and the only real riff on the album all combine to make the track feel like a throwback to Dude Ranch; all this is then followed by some bizarrely placed autotune on Mark's only line in the song, ruining the joke along with the feeling. This single 30 second track represents the identity crisis that harms all of California.
In the end it appears that I didn't have much to be optimistic about, as either a Trio or a Blink fan (except perhaps, for Skiba's angry vocals on Cynical sounding better than they have since 2003, which may bode well for his other band's next record). Mark Hoppus singing about relationships doesn't feel right when it's done over this generic music and poor to mediocre songwriting, and Matt Skiba singing about being a bike messenger again, invoking the Trio's 1998 masterpiece, over a song as ear-wrenchingly poppy as Sober only adds another, more unexpected layer to the tone deaf, sometimes cringey, and simply odd nature of this album. Ultimately, seemingly mostly due to the direction of Feldmann, blink-182 is now just another modern “pop-punk” (aka pop rock) band that has a major problem: they want me to believe that they sound like blink-182, but I just don't believe them.