Anniversary Records: Blink-182’s Blink-182
by Trevor Johnson
Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now.
“Sixteen: I want to be different…”
Ten years ago this week Blink-182 released their eponymous fifth album. For a band that was at the time still considered one of the most popular in the world, the stakes were as high as they had ever experienced. What followed might not be considered by the masses as a career defining work but its every bit as successful and innovative as anything in their cannon. A decade from it’s release, we have perspective.
In the Fall of 2000 I was thirteen and my parents blessed me with one of the greatest gifts a teenager of that era could ever receive: Broadband Internet. I’m sure the story that follows is familiar to anyone of similar age: I started downloading music. First Napster, then Morpheus, then Kazaa and SoulSeek and so on. I had just started the 8th grade and the biggest thing in my life was Blink-182. It had started in the 5th grade when I bought Dude Ranch after hearing “Dammit” on a local alternative station. This was its own little miracle, considering hearing anything that didn’t sound like Pearl Jam on said station seemed lunar-eclipse-rare.
It would only be a small overstatement to say I dedicated my young life to Blink-182. I spent the better part of that school year listening to their second and third albums, as well as the live album that emerged later that year, more or less nonstop while trying (and usually failing) to learn every song they had ever written on my cheap Stratocaster copy. I plastered the walls of my parent’s basement with laserjet printed images of Blink playing live. I probably owe them hundreds for ink cartridges that I ran through like ticker-tape. I bought every poster I could find. I dressed like them, most days donning shin-length Dickie’s brand shorts, a band t-shirt and soccer socks pulled up to my knees. I can say with complete honesty that I had fewer than five true friends who were willing to talk to me in the hallways (looking back it might have been the socks) and I did not care. I loved pop punk and Blink-182, way more than I cared about almost any kid in my school. I was constantly made fun of by classmates in Limp Bizkit t-shirts and it didn’t faze me. For the first time in life, I shot back, knowing full well these kids played peewee football and could kick my 90lb. ass with ease. It didn’t matter. I had found something for the first time that actually felt like it was for me. I think back now a bit embarrassed by the look, especially the bleached hair. But more than anything, I’m proud of the individual I wanted to be. A kid that would probably represent the norm in a punk hub like Southern California was a sore thumb in my Southwestern Massachusetts hometown.
I’m sure plenty of this hubris came from the new window into other people’s lives provided by the Internet. Had I been going through this stage two years prior I might have felt entirely alone in the world. The Internet connected me to more bands that I loved, bands that I would never have found on music television or terrestrial radio. I found bands like New Found Glory, Saves the Day, Jimmy Eat World, Alkaline Trio and Weezer (I omit The Get Up Kids because I had been introduced to them a few years prior. While listening to Dude Ranch in a friend’s room, his older brother by about six or seven years walked by and ridiculed us. A passionate fan of Boston Hardcore, he snapped “If you’re going to listen to wimpy shit, at least make it good,” and literally threw a copy of Four Minute Mile at us. The rest is a story for another day but we were both, from there on, fans of The Get Up Kids”.)
In the Spring of 2001 Blink released Take Off Your Pants and Jacket which was to that point the most anticipated day of my young life. I forced my mother to drive me to the record store to buy a copy. I could have just as easily downloaded the album, but with the artwork and the tangible experience, I didn’t want anyone to be privy to anything I couldn’t experience. It wasn’t that TOYPOAJ was disappointing, more that it was so clearly a lateral move from the untouchable Enema of the State (not to mention the endearing, trailblazing sound of Dude Ranch – for me, that is) that even someone in the most passionate 1% of their fan base couldn’t fully embrace it the way I had their previous two albums. This was the beginning of growing up and away from Blink-182. Temporarily.
I started High School and the music I loved became all the more vital to my survival as fear, uncertainty and discomfort became a part of everyday life. Saves the Day had just released Stay What You Are and to this day it remains quite possibly the most meaningful and beloved album of my entire life. It hit me at the perfect time. But all the music I listened to started to evolve. It was no longer just the pogo-ing, palm mute of pop punk. Sure, Blink-182 influenced my tastes, but bands like Thursday, At the Drive-In and Taking Back Sunday moved in. When you’re only 15, a year’s time is vastly inflated. By the spring of 2002, Blink-182 was a footnote; one album that was less than life affirming and my tastes and attention had flown by at record speed.
This is all why in October of 2003 Blink-182 seemed like the underdog. Other bands that had made a name in pop punk, bands like Green Day, New Found Glory and Brand New, had evolved and honed a sound that pulled from subgenres and the fringes of punk and hardcore. It wasn’t that anyone had lost respect or appreciation for Blink, but more that the odds were against them if they couldn’t evolve and drop the (often funny) immaturity for a far more serious effort. Albums like Read Music, Speak Spanish and The Ugly Organ had turned punk and emo and indie into gorgeous, honest configurations. Bands like Thursday and Thrice had expanded on hardcore and earned impressive fan bases doing so. It’s not that all of this change was preferred or in my opinion, successful; growth can still be a bad thing. It’s more that the world of music Blink had influenced so strongly had taken off and it was hard to see where, if at all, they fit into it any longer. A song like “First Date” seemed so out of place in the moment that it was hard for me to believe it was less than three years old.
And all it took was the first twenty-odd seconds of “Feeling This” to make me feel like an idiot for ever doubting them.
“Feeling This” gives you this early taste of the song without ever really showing it’s hand. We’re quickly in the chorus and we’ve already had memorable lines from both Mark and Tom. One of the most impressive aspects of this album is how Blink can remove one of the three primary instruments and take the song to a new level. The first two choruses don’t have guitar. The first dissolves into a bass-less drum roll and ascending octave chords that wind up into the second verse; you’re climbing up the roller coaster’s first drop. Then it’s just guitar and Tom singing. You see where I’m going with this? The first minute is a ping-pong match. It’s also establishing tools they’ll employ over and over again. Meanwhile, are they actually singing about sex? Neither has mentioned a mom… or a dad yet. This is a trick, right?
It wasn’t. In the MTV special that documented the nearly year-long process of recording this album, Travis states early on that the intention was to approach this album as if it were the band’s debut. While a great way to scale some of the above-mentioned hurdles, this isn’t exactly a mindset you can ask your entire fan base to adopt, especially when you’re one of the most popular bands in the world. And yet it was all very easy to tell from the start: gone was the immaturity, the childish humor. We should have seen it coming as soon as the album title became public. No sex or poop jokes. A clean slate.
Everything was different, not just as far as Blink’s music went, but as pop music went. “Stockholm Syndrome” is nearly a post-hardcore song, the type of rock Dave Grohl seems to have been trying to write for the past five years. “Violence” is one of the catchiest choruses on the album. It has a bit of a harder, post-rock motif but it still fits with the band. The verses are a shaker, some finger snaps, a toneless bassline and Tom singing. That’s it. Their ability to flip a switch and dive into what is almost a different song, part by part, leaves you reeling like a street fight. It all works together, that is the feat. The album doesn’t always work if you break it into choruses and verses and bridges and all else. It’s the way they form their whole and in turn, a logical, though unexpected, progression through their own sound and the landscape they belonged to at the time.
Blink-182 is heavier. It’s their version of post-punk, or post-hugefully-successful-pop-punk. It’s driving and heavy; dirtily distorted at times while also finding some of the most pristine and beautiful moments in the band’s catalog. Tom shouts more than ever before. Travis’ drums range from muffled and subtle to crashing, industrial waves. Parts suck you in when all you’re hearing is drum and vocal. There is little that feels pop-punk about this album. If Take Off Your Pants and Jacket was a lateral step from Enema of the State, this was about five miles in every direction. And at the same time, it was still Blink-182. It wasn’t unfamiliar. It was just the change we needed them to make, it was them wanting more from themselves. They wanted to catch everyone off guard. They didn’t seem to care what the Blink-182 name was built on. They wanted to find gold beneath that bedrock.
Maybe the years gone by had colored my opinion of Travis Barker as an overly flashy drummer with a strong tendency to overplay. One time through Blink-182 as a refresher and I was ashamed of said mindset. Barker is such a workman, so solid and thorough. He just also happens to be transcendent. He has multiple solos throughout the album’s duration; only they don’t feel like exhibitions from a drummer displeased with his seat in the back. They’re just…parts. They just improve every song and never feel like you’re sitting through “his turn” at a jam band’s show. He takes a very percussive acoustic guitar riff on “All of This” and melds his drumbeat to create, essentially, one instrument from the two. Travis was always the quiet one, and how couldn’t he be? But his talent shouldn’t be confused with indulgence on this record. He knows just when to be basic and supplemental and later, when to craft rhythms that were pretty much unparalleled in their creativity and versatility (see “I Miss You” and then literally any other song on the album).
“GO” is Mark Hoppus’ best moment, perhaps in his whole career. First, this is probably the fastest, most “punk” song Blink-182 had written since “Pathetic”, the opener on Dude Ranch. It’s a three verse, three chorus plus bridge song that doesn’t even clock in at two minutes. The rest of Mark’s vocals, when he isn’t just singing the song’s title in his low register, come off thin, as if over the years he has gotten a bit refined, a bit soft. Say what you want about Billie Joe Armstrong but his voice has lost little of the edge that made it great on Dookie. On “GO”, Mark manages the grit and strength that the song demands.
With the exception of “GO”, Tom owns every great song on the album. On “I Miss You” he wins by not singing about The Nightmare Before Christmas. The chorus of “Down” feels like the tidal wave Tom mentions. You believe him entirely when he says “I need you so bad.” “Always” thrives with a strong nod to 1980’s pop new wave, with synths drifting in and out and a hi-hat-centric chorus leaves his perfectly desperate delivery up front. The track is a very reluctant “I’m sorry”, as Tom is contradicting himself repeatedly. He allows, “I’ll take you back, if you’d have me”, admitting halfway through that he’s the problem, not her. He starts verse two talking on what he’ll miss, but quickly changes back to begging, not ready to let go. “Here I am. I’m trying”, the chorus concedes. It’s the admission of deep imperfection chased by desperation. “I’ve been here before a few times and I’m quite aware we’re dying.” This one can’t end like the others did. Maybe it’s a relationship Tom means, but maybe that desperation was his career. Maybe he had to be the change Blink-182 needed to keep up and satisfy themselves in the musical environment that formed while they were inactive.
“Asthenia” is the album’s best song. Mark is nowhere to be found as Tom tears through verses. The chorus guitars feel miles high and then immediately fall into chugging palm mutes, then back as they were, as he alternates vocals with himself wondering “Should I go back; should I?” It might be the poppiest Blink-182 has ever sounded, and yes, I understand the weight of that statement. It feels a bit like they re-imagined The Cure’s “Close to Me” with tons more guitar and a quickened pace from their punk roots. Apparently this song is about being an astronaut in space, which makes total sense if you’ve ever heard Of Angels and Airwaves. But one can’t wonder if it’s not actually about Tom’s desire for life after Blink-182. You can’t hear lines like “This place is void of all passion,” “I feel alone and tired,” “This room is bored of rehearsals and sick of the boundaries” and not wonder. A demo version of the song also swaps the word “go” for the word “come” (“should I come back?”) in the chorus. He had been dealing with back problems for years and reportedly faced issues with painkillers at some point (no one who remembers how Tom DeLonge wore his guitar in 1999 is surprised). Maybe issues, both personal and taste-based, were brewing between Tom and Mark before they even met to record this album. That would explain Boxcar Racer and why the three got together in January of 2003 with NO MATERIAL WRITTEN, expecting to churn out an entire finished product by the end of April. Bands don’t usually change their entire sound over the course of four months, let alone walk out with an album of it ready to market. Maybe that’s where Tom found the conflict and desperation that is all over this record. As we know, Blink made it to early 2005 before disbanding. If Tom was really wondering whether or not this was what he wanted when he wrote “Asthenia”, fans should be thankful for his decision. “Asthenia” is one of the best songs Blink-182 ever gave us, regardless of what stage of their career it came from.
So why does it matter that we’ve had ten years with this record? Do albums appreciate as they age or are we making too much of them as we grow away from a time when music just seemed to mean more? Well for starters, sixteen doesn’t seem that long ago to me, to the point where the concept of a decade will probably never again seem this confounding. But it seemed just as huge to Tom DeLong as they wrote this record, too. In the aforementioned demo of “Asthenia”, Tom used different lyrics for the second verse: “Sixteen, I want to be different. I’m holding this inside, aside from you. Eighteen this year of reason, the pictures they do what I wish they wouldn’t do.” Tom was still trying to comprehend his teenage years, anyone’s teenage years, while recording Blink-182 at 27.
The music we love never has to leave us. It’s always going to be there and it might take a bit of effort but when something really matters you can still hear it the way you did the first time it hit the mark. Blink-182 was the band that first changed my life and not only gave me my love of punk music but also a huge portion of the music that I grew to love as well. I don’t have clothes from when I was sixteen. I don’t have glasses or the same car or the same zip code. My parents look different and I run to them with my problems, rather than away because I know they will always understand, rather than fearing that no one ever could, as I did before. I’m still trying to grasp everything about aging; I don’t expect that to stop anytime soon. Yes, a decade’s time is probably the most confusing concept I can think of because I was just there, there are witnesses, I can call them right now, and yet everything is different. But I get the music that I clung to back then. I’m realizing more and more than if I still love it now, it means a whole hell of a lot more to me than I ever could have imagined when I was sixteen and it was the biggest thing in the world. I can listen to this album and know that amidst confusion, whether it’s 2003 or 2013, something works. It made sense then, it does now and it might always. Regardless of the relationship, that’s the type of thing in life that deserves an anniversary.