review: on ‘Nine,’ blink-182 swore they’d be better than the last time
As we speak, blink-182 are on the road playing their 1999 TRL breakthrough Enema of the State in full for its 20th anniversary, and they're filling arenas across the country with these songs that can all rightfully be considered classics. It might not have been obvious when these glossed-up, juvenile pop punk jokesters hit it big that they'd have this kind of staying power, but they ended up outlasting the large majority of their peers and the popularity of pop punk in general. Their only real competition at the moment is that Green Day and Weezer recently announced that they'd be going on some kind of pop punk Monsters of Rock tour (called the Hella Mega Tour) in summer 2020 with Fall Out Boy, but the whole "The world is super hip-hop- and Instagram-[oriented], and I think this is counterprogramming to all of that"-ness of the Hella Mega Tour makes it feel so instantly outdated. blink-182 have taken the opposite approach, and joined forces with Lil Wayne instead of a bunch of other pop punk dinosaurs for the Enema of the State tour. Apparently Wayne's inclusion at some of the stops hasn't gone as well as planned, but the pairing makes a lot of sense. Travis Barker is rap's favorite rock drummer, Lil Wayne has dabbled in rock, and most importantly of all, it's an accurate depiction of the average millennial-aged music fan's iTunes library in 2019. Most rock fans listen to rap and vice versa; fighting that or taking some kind of pride in "actually playing instruments" isn't just offensively rockist, it's boring. And, especially in a time where hip hop is much more popular than rock, hip hop cred can go a long way. Like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" before them, songs like "What's My Age Again" and "All the Small Things" have become favorites during hip hop-centric DJ sets, and that's something that only started happening in recent years. Enema of the State isn't a relic -- we're only just starting to see its full impact on culture.
And as blink-182 were gearing up for the Enema of the State tour, they were also working on a much less nostalgic project, their new album Nine. It's the followup to 2016's career low California -- their first album with Alkaline Trio's Matt Skiba replacing the much-missed original co-frontman Tom Delonge -- but even if blink's last album wasn't so hot, Nine still feels like it's an album that has the potential to matter in 2019. I don't think anyone is expecting a return to the heights of the band's 1999-2003 prime, but blink-182 seem like they're in a place where they can still add to their legacy, even if California was a misstep.
California remains an album that blink-182 never needed to make. Enema of the State and its similar followup Take Off Your Pants and Jacket were nearly perfect for what they were -- polished, simple, ultra-catchy pop punk -- but when blink-182 proved themselves as higher-brow artists on 2003's darker and far more experimental untitled album, they cemented their legacy as an act who could grow with their fans, who could master pop music and then transcend it. blink-182 making their untitled album was a shift like The Beatles making Sgt. Pepper's or Beyonce making Lemonade; there's just something about insanely popular tween-friendly pop artists making "difficult" records that music nerds can't stop going nuts for, and it almost always seems to result in longevity. As crucial as the untitled record was, though, it also led to the band's initial demise. Tom Delonge fulfilled his U2 dreams with Angels & Airwaves while Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker kept rocking with +44, and eventually the guys made up, regrouped, and made 2011's Neighborhoods, an uneven but charming album that mostly picked up where the untitled record left off and continued to prove that blink-182 were capable of much more than most of their pop punk peers. That's why it was so confusing that they made California, a back-to-Enema of the State album that they -- and Matt Skiba -- were already too good for. Both Mark and Travis dumbed down their styles and tried to rewrite the type of music they'd already written half a lifetime ago, and it sounded like Matt Skiba was still trying to figure out how exactly he fit into blink-182. Three years and lots of touring later, it seems like The Mark, Matt, and Travis show have come a lot closer to figuring out what this iteration of the band is, rather than trying to relive a past version. And with Nine, which is a massive improvement upon California, they've done some course correcting and gotten closer to the path that blink-182 were on after the untitled record and Neighborhoods.
As Mark promised in recent interviews, Nine is a darker and more aggressive record than California, and has more of an anything-goes spirit. It suffers for some of the same reasons that California did, and it has a couple real clunkers on there, but it finds the band once again looking towards the future, rather than trying to recreate the past, and that’s always when they write their most interesting material.
Travis, who’s hands down the best mainstream rock drummer of the past 20 years, often seemed like he was holding back on California, but on Nine it sounds like he’s having fun again. He goes apeshit on nearly every song, and some of the album’s best moments are driven by him, like when he flirts with elements of breakbeat and trip-hop on "Run Away" and “Black Rain,” or when “No Heart To Speak Of” ends with some minimal eerie piano and a drum solo that really earns its place in the song. Matt sounds like he’s finally figured out how to have his own voice in blink-182, especially on the post-punk leaning “Darkside,” on the very Alkaline Trio-sounding “Black Rain,” and with his post-hardcore roar on “No Heart To Speak Of.” And Mark also sounds more comfortable and more natural on this one. There’s a nostalgic warmth to his voice, and it contrasts well with his ability to tap back into the slightly darker side of his songwriting. The production is still a little too clean for comfort, but the band — especially Mark and Travis — mostly sound more human than they did on the robotic California. There are even a few moments, like the second half of “Ransom” and all 50 seconds of “Generational Divide,” where blink-182 actually sound like a punk band again. "We swore we'd be better than the last time - are we better, are we better now?," they ask while playing a mile a minute on "Generational Divide." And though Mark has said the song is about family and life, it's hard not to hear it doubling as commentary on the band itself.
The anything-goes approach gives the album a nice amount of variety too. Not only does it have the aforementioned flirtations with post-punk, post-hardcore, classic punk, and breakbeat, it's got a lot of other stuff too. There's the slower-paced pop punk of "Happy Days," which is cut from a similar cloth as the less radio-friendly deep cuts of TOYPAJ; there's the downer alternative rock of "Heaven" which brings to mind the darker side of untitled, +44, and Neighborhoods; some hard-to-classify stuff like late-album standout "Pin The Grenade"; the just-sappy-enough power ballad closer "Remember To Forget Me"; and a song that's actually called "On Some Emo Shit," which, idk, almost sounds a little like The Wonder Years? The downside of the anything-goes approach is that it also allowed the band to try out some ideas that would’ve been better left on the chopping block, like the empty, Imagine Dragons-style arena rock of “Blame It On My Youth,” or the ultra glossy pop of “I Really Wish I Hated You,” which genuinely sounds like it would’ve been better suited for the new Taylor Swift album. (blink-182 collaborated with some professional pop songwriters on some of these songs, and on that one, it’s very noticeable.) Those songs don't drag down the album just because they're pop -- pop and indie blur all the time in 2019, and people were calling blink-182 overproduced 20 years ago, so that’s hardly a new criticism for them to face. But when blink-182 infiltrated TRL, they were mocking the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC in their videos and beating Top 40 songwriters at their own game. Songs like "Blame It On My Youth" and "I Really Wish I Hated You" don't challenge pop music in any way; they sound like they're trying to catch up with pop music.
Nine also has a few lyrical faux pas -- not that blink-182 were ever the most profound lyricists or anything, but I wince at hearing a lifelong professional musician in his 40s sing some high school pop punk poetry like "she’s a girl dressed in black from another world" -- though for the most part Nine's lyricism -- which often takes on current socio-political issues -- is a noticeable step above California. It’s also hard not to wonder what Nine> could have been with Tom Delonge’s involvement. I can’t be sure that Tom would have definitely made the album better -- that new Angels & Airwaves single is nothing to write home about -- but the clash of Mark and Tom’s songwriting is a huge part of what made blink-182 a cut above their peers, especially once they went in the darker direction of the untitled record. Tom’s lofty ideas challenged Mark’s more conventional songwriting, and Mark kept Tom grounded on earth. It’s why Angels & Airwaves and +44 always offered a taste of what blink-182 could’ve been in the mid/late 2000s but never fully scratched the itch. At its best, Nine comes off like the long-awaited sequel to the +44 album, and truth be told, it’s even lacking in ways that +44 never was.
Even more so than California, Nine makes it clear that the biggest thing holding The Mark, Matt and Travis Show back is not the absence of Tom Delonge, but the presence of severe overproduction and frequent reliance on robotic auto-tune, provided in part by John Feldmann and other Top 40-friendly producers. Again, blink-182 were even called "overproduced" 20 years ago, but the production of Nine and California makes Enema of the State sound like Milo Goes to College. This new, totally synthetic production style that blink-182 have been embracing lately just doesn't do them any favors at all. I don’t know if Nine has any great songs, but it's got plenty of good songs, and even the best ones are hurt by the phony-sounding production. It takes away from the band's sound which is already plenty appealing in its most natural state. All you have to do is go see blink-182 on that Enema of the State tour to know how much of a well-oiled machine they are on stage, with just three musicians and no fancy production tricks. I don’t know why they want to cover up their natural talent with production techniques that make them sound entirely unnatural.
It made a little more sense that California was so overproduced, since it seemed more like an attempt at reclaiming fame than at being artistically adventurous, but I find it strange that blink-182 would embrace such radio-friendly production on an album that they themselves are touting as darker and more aggressive. Mark has proven himself as a perfectly fine producer while working with a handful of other bands (and his most recent production gig was actually working with the Scottish indie-punk band PAWS), and he hypes other indie-punk bands like Joyce Manor and Japandroids on Twitter enough for us to know he’s still very much down with rawer sounding music. It's hard not to think that Nine would have benefitted from the kind of production that those bands tend to embrace. (Personally, I’d love to hear blink-182 get in the studio with like Will Yip or something... but I can probably keep dreaming.) California's songwriting wasn't strong enough to overshadow the unfortunate production choices, but Nine is, and that's what makes it so frustrating. It could have been the comeback record that blink-182 do still seem capable of making, but it falls short. Still, it's proof that this band won't just settle for nostalgia tours and nostalgic-sounding albums, and that they once again are pushing themselves forward. All things considered, Nine is a pretty good place for this band to be.