Review Summary: my shame is through
When friends ask me why I still like blink-182, in the year of our lord 2019 when pop-punk is as dead as Fall Out Boy's good streak, I always find myself answering with a caveat. Like, they're good at their instruments and Travis is a fuckin' machine, you know? Or, they just take me back to high school, they're the feelgood band to pick me up after Alkaline Trio and The Wonder Years wring out my emotions. Or more evasions and non-answers along those lines. blink are comfort food - no-calorie snacks that I enjoy anyway because of all that associated nostalgia, but nostalgia is all it is. Right?
But then I sit down to write about them critically, like I did when Enema of the State
turned 20 back in June, and I find myself writing about some actual damn feelings. It's "Adam's Song", it's "Stay Together for the Kids", it's +44 and "Letters to God" and "There Is". Truth is, I don't go to blink-182 for my angsty teenage catharsis like those other pop-punk bands. They're a lot more personal, and strangely bittersweet - which is why I can admit that California
was, largely, not really that good in the same breath as I can confess I listened to it every morning the week after my grandmother died, finding some kind of warmth there while I trudged to work in the freezing cold. I'm starting to wonder if my love for this band isn't one giant paradox: if I only enjoy them in the knowledge that many other bands have extended and improved on the formula they set. So what happens when blink themselves improve on the old sound, instead of just coasting on it?
Just two years after the sunny spring break of California
seemed to erase all future possibility of a darker blink, an album that can very aptly be summed up by the song title "On Some Emo Shit" takes them firmly into the winter cold. It comes as little surprise that they still have no goddamn idea how to market their sound, promising Untitled
-era experimentation in one hand and servicing "Blame It On My Youth" as a first single with the other, doing nothing but alienating most of their core fanbase. Let's be clear: Nine
is no Untitled
, no matter how badly "The First Time" with its flanged drum intro wants to prod at the edges of your nostalgia with a stick. Instead, this is the full realisation of the promise of blink-182 with Matt Skiba: the minor-key melodies and desolate lyrics of +44 brush up against a fully comfortable Skiba as lead vocalist, delivering his best vocals in fifteen years or more – all within the confines of a gleaming clean pop-punk production.
"Heaven"'s bone-rattling +44-by-way-of-"Misery" chorus plays beautifully against the earworm hook on "Darkside". Right after one of the catchiest Hoppus choruses ever on "Pin the Grenade", Skiba finally brings his full vocal prowess – 200% shaky scream, circa days of "'97” and "Radio" - to the singular best blink song since 2003, "No Heart to Speak Of". An absolutely colossal chorus makes the likes of "Heart's All Gone" seem borderline soft, while a gorgeously understated piano-and-drums outro is the only moment to fully recall the band's Untitled
peak. There are Linkin Park-esque hip-hop instrumentals ("Run Away") and songs built around stabbing post-hardcore guitars and electronics, some of which pop off like fireworks ("Black Rain") while others fall slightly flat ("Ransom"). Most satisfyingly of all, Hoppus and Skiba finally find their chemistry as co-frontmen. Not only do they trade off vocal parts inventively, their styles cross-pollinate and intermix in a fully fleshed-out collaboration; hear Hoppus nail one of most Skiba-esque choruses in "Heaven", or Matt fully embracing his pop croon on the straight cocaine pre-chorus of "Hungover You". The blink of 2003 this is not, but it has little more in common with the bulk of California
than who's playing the instruments. This is an album that critiques organised religion and a culture of school shootings from the band who gave us "Fuck a Dog" and "Built This Pool"; a record steeped in fears and anxieties (quite literally, in this case, with Hoppus' depressive episode leading him to encourage the band to build songs around the deepest fears of their collaborators); but also an album where, frustratingly, poorly chosen singles aim for radio play while most of the gold will have little impact on the wider scene, and modern pop sensibilities sometimes grate up against the heartfelt songwriting.
This is why Nine
likely won't make ripples too far outside the dedicated fanbase, who seem to view it as a restoration of faith in their once-favourite band after the departure of Tom DeLonge. A truly bizarre rollout saw the album mis-marketed completely, with good radio fodder like "Blame It On My Youth" and trashy radio fodder like "I Really Wish I Hated You" sitting completely at odds with their forlorn, lonely parent record. Of course, blink delivering one or two dumb pop jams in advance of surprisingly sad albums is basically canon at this point – see "First Date", "The Rock Show", "Feeling This" and so on – but these singles feel like remnants from an album made entirely with John Feldmann which blink scrapped earlier this year, reworking the record as we know it from a more diverse team of collaborators. Simple Creatures is evidence enough that Hoppus is determined to play around with the alt-pop electronics of the Top 40 whether it enhances his songwriting or not. The overproduction is frustrating both because his songwriting is at its best state in at least 10 years, and because for every generic pop moment there are subtle and fascinating production details to discover.
Six listens into Nine
I was still uncovering fantastic little details: that gauzey Cure-like synth that coats the last chorus of "Heaven" like crystalline honey; the way Mark and Matt swap vocal parts in the last half-minute of "Hungover You" for a genuinely dynamic ending; even "Remember to Forget Me", a closer which almost achieves greatness but feels kneecapped by some lyrical indignities and production choices, hints at a cohesive album experience when the bridge seems to reprise the chorus melody of "No Heart to Speak Of", a possibly unintentional but nonetheless stunning moment of clarity. Whether or not the average fan will look past Nine
's single choices and engage with the larger album - and if they will even find what they're looking for if they do - is far from guaranteed. But in a way, it's the story of blink-182 since the early days: look past the garish neon, the jarring pop and confused self-image, and what you find is a surprisingly somber and moving piece of work that might just stay with you.