Blink-182 Show Little Signs of Slowing or Growing With ‘Nine’
Blink-182’s appeal has always involved a self-aware, jokey, adolescent posturing — a designedly infantile romanticization of youth. Their first major hit, “Dammit” from 1997’s “Dude Ranch,” was full of venting about mundane everyday issues, delivered in a way that seemed to poke fun at the trivialness of our concerns, but also validate the frustration that comes from them. The lyrics culminated in the line, “Well, I guess this is growing up,” and it worked just right. This sentiment was broadly relatable, the presentation was lighthearted and humorous, and it was all a bit of fun. But they probably would have been well advised to leave it at that. They went on to rehash the formula with 1999’s “What’s My Age Again,” which introduced them to a far wider audience, making them a mainstream act, and catapulting them to full rockstar status. For the recently initiated, the whole shtick was still fresh. However, twenty years later, Blink-182 recycling this same theme on their latest album, “Nine,” is ridiculous.
“First Time” brings the album to an energetic, propulsive start, and comes across like a quintessential Blink-182 song, with all the band’s trademark tricks at play. Ironically, the lyrics are about how the first time is always the most impactful, and the song serves as the very demonstration of that idea, as this sound would have been easier to appreciate twenty years ago. The band even recycles bits from the tune of “All the Small Things” at certain points, as if that song even had a melody particularly worthy of preserving. From the onset, the band sets low expectations, and the following song, single “Happy Days” follows suit.
Lead singer Mark Hoppus begins, “Hey kid,” and goes on to console a kid going through a rough time. He sings like a child who has just learned to distinguish one note from another, and proudly joins clipped syllables together to construct a melody. Granted, this is “pop punk.” Punk is largely a celebration of amateurism, and a distaste for professionalism or convention. Pop, broadly, favors unaffected simplicity. But this is something different altogether. Hoppus is singing like a challenged child, and there’s no discernable irony or contextual justification for it. There’s no punk snarl or edge. There’s no pop glossy sheen. It’s just confoundingly poor singing. At least the lyrics are consistent, with gems like “All of this frustration inside of my brain.” That’s usually where we’d expect frustration to be.
“Heaven” is a weightier song. Drummer Travis Barker proposed the idea after a 2018 mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, barely two miles from his home, in which twelve people were killed. Something is seriously wrong with our country, and you have to hand it to Blink for addressing the matter, although this song is a peculiar way to address it — effervescent boy band singing with a beefed-up, rockin’ chorus. Hoppus sings, “Angel wings at the bus stop,” and declares, “Heaven doesn’t want me now.” One would hope not, as he’s just a tween — in spirit at least. “Darkside” is about “a girl dressed in black from another world.” Again, an intriguing enough subject amounts to very little. Hoppus chooses to rattle off a series of lines using “don’t” instead of “doesn’t,” for example, “She don’t know my name.” This would all be well and fine if he were affecting a bluesy voice, dabbling in country, in R&B or hip-hop, or even some Led Zeppelin-esque stuff. But here, why? It just sounds awkward. The chorus line, “I’m going to the dark side with you” has so much twisted promise, but not in Hoppus’ voice. Perhaps the song could be used for a Hot Topic commercial, or something.
A song titled “Darkside” brings to mind that Blink 182 once covered the Cure’s “A Letter to Elise” for MTV’s 2004’s “Icon” tribute to the band — and their rendition was phenomenal. The way they pulled it off was something of a Eureka moment. There are actually echoes of the Cure all over Blink 182’s music, as absurd as that might sound at first. You can hear it in the next song, “Blame it on my youth,” too, in the major key, but bittersweet guitar melodies, but sped up, and with very, very different vocals. It’s a song in which the elements fall into place about right, except that the jarring chorus comes too soon, and strikes like an unwelcome imposition. The titular subject has more weight than one might expect, as Hoppus was born with some issues, for instance being severely bow-legged, and having to walk with braces to fix his posture. Still, it’s hard to empathize with lines like “I was raised on the Ritalin,” when Hoppus has basically made a career out of it.
Out of the blue comes “Generational Divide,” a proper punk song — at least for Cali punk — a quick, aggressive, energetic outburst. Where this came from, we can only speculate, but it’s surely a pleasant surprise. Hoppus has revealed that the song was inspired by an argument with his son, which makes one wonder. Perhaps the son grew up faster than the father? “Run Away” is an expertly written millennial radio pop song, with a pop punk chorus thrown in arbitrarily. As in many of the songs, Barker is the saving grace, keeping things engaging with his creative drumming, in this case some vaguely drum and bass stylings, fast shuffles, and plenty of fills. “Black Rain” is an absolute standout, entirely out of place, and inexplicable. The vocals are perhaps another nod to The Cure, sounding as if staring at the sky and brooding. Then it erupts suddenly into thrashy, speedy punk, but with poppy harmonies, then slowing down to the opening chorus, but with Barker keeping time in his adventurous methods. It might just be the most exciting thing Blink 182 has done in ages.
“Really I Wish I Hated You” explores the fertile topic of wishing it were possible to get over someone. The chorus line is presented in a way that is suspiciously similar to that of Kate Nash’s song “Hate You” from last year’s “Yesterday Was Forever,” even though the subject matter is decidedly different. This song also serves as an example of exactly how poppy Blink-182 is. The phrasing and structure actually recall the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen — and not her edgier stuff with Rostam Batmanglij. We’re talking more on the lines of “Call Me Maybe,” if you just replaced the giddy, girly, pop chorus with a buffoonish, bro, pop punk one. “Pin the Grenade” might be the most relatable song of the set, with lines like “If you’re going to kill me, baby, please just do it slow.” After all, that seems like what the band is doing at this point — seemingly endless subjection to the same, beyond tired displays. To be fair though, there’s plenty to enjoy along the way. In this particular song, the bass riff, paired with Barker’s frenetic drumming, and the vocal harmonies all make for a classic sound.
There’s more Cure flavor on “No Heart to Speak of.” There’s a bit with crisp hip-hop-style handclaps, effective because it’s so brief, just a quick tease before a dramatic, bellowing chorus. If only it weren’t so rushed, it could be a much more satisfying song — but there’s ADD and all, and Hoppus himself has told us to blame it on his youth. “Ransom” begins with what sounds like Auto-tune or something similar, with the fourth line of each verse electronically treated, and then a sudden, especially “punk” chorus, played with fury. The song is a highlight, as it’s a different take on an accessible hybrid style. The fact that the next song is titled “On Some Emo Shit” might be the absolute crowning glory of this entire album, as it reminds us that this is a band with a sense of humor, and that’s why they’ve managed to remain so lovable in spite of a catalogue that is patchy at the very best. It’s altogether an enjoyable song too, although the following “Hungover You” is the most disposable type of filler. Finally, “Remember to Forget Me” ends on a soft note, but functions to amplify all the aforementioned, inexplicability of this band. The repeating lyrics are “Hey mom, I’m on my own / Scared to death and far from home.”
Avid fans of Blink-182 will likely enjoy the album, as it offers more of the same. Of course, the band no longer features founding member Tom DeLonge, whose voice was an integral component of the band. But his substitute, Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba, can be credited largely for the few variations that give “Nine” a flavor of its own. As silly as they may seem at times, they’ve never been phony. They’ve specialized in a decidedly farcical strain of music since the beginning. They, luckily, stumbled upon staggering success, and have unabashedly capitalized on their popularity. It’s beyond time they expanded their repertoire, and at least this album shows a few attempts at this. Ultimately, however, it’s basically the same band doing the same thing.
“Nine” is available Sept. 20 on Apple Music.