Blink 182’s most recent album, California, begins with a starkly honest set of lines:
There’s a cynical feeling saying I should give up / You’ve said everything you’ll ever say
The lines resonated with me. A songwriter with power pop leanings myself, I sometimes worry about the easily observable tendency in artists to produce less material as they get older. While I don’t feel anywhere near that point just yet, I’m a long-term thinker, and constantly work to avoid the day I run out of ideas however far in the future it may be. I want my craft to last into my old age, and I don’t want it to get stupid along the way.
The muses of pop-punk are ephemeral, however. As with all forms of pop, melody is king. Particularly with power pop, lively energy and a certain angst are a part of the sound. Of course, we all eventually start running short of lively energy as we get older, and that angst has a tendency to fade as well, at least towards the subjects that are usually sung about: romantic relationships, rejection of authority, and youthful stupidity.
Needless to say, I eagerly listened on to hear what Mark Hoppus, a man who rose to fame writing songs about making prank calls, pubescent sexual tension, and grandfathers shitting their pants, would have to say about continuing to perform with Blink 182 into his 40s. With 2003’s self titled album (which I love), and 2012’s Neighborhoods (which grows on me more and more), I was led to expect some musical growth. The opening lines were promising for the lyrical content to follow. There is definitely an untapped wealth of inspiration in the tension created when you outgrow your craft, and punk pop music, at least the way Hoppus defined it, requires such youthful point of view to maintain.
Instead, California turned out to be an absolute regression. Rather than nod to where he has been, using his wisdom and experience to comment on his former self, he tries simply to become his former self. “Teenage Satellites,” a forgettable mid album track, tells a story of completely cliched young-and-wild love that feels forced. The single, “She’s Out of Her Mind,” heavily recalls “The Rock Show” even as its music video remakes the iconic streaking scenes of “What’s My Age Again?” The song romanticizes its subject’s instability like only a horny 17-year-old can, except these guys are 45.
There are a few less regressive songs on the album. “Rabbit Hole” is about self perpetuating misery, but still, it smacks of pubescent mopey-ness. There’s also a streak of Golden State worship in the album’s lyrics, most of which feels out of place on an album otherwise populated with the imaginings of man-children seeking their youth through music. “California” has a few flirtations with honest nostalgia about a past spent in the title state, but it spends so much time on cliches of Californian life that it sounds like it was sponsored by the board of tourism.
One mustn’t forget the joke songs, either. As Hoppus belts in one song, “I wanna see some naked dudes / that’s why I built this pool.” Just like in their heyday, Blink has provided a few 30-second splashes of sophomoric entertainment, like the icing on a cake of sadness. Clearly for Hoppus et. al, the solution to running out of ideas is to take all your old ideas and do them again, regardless of how goofy it looks on you now.
Green Day, another of my childhood favorites, put out an album recently as well. They aged a bit better than Blink 182 throughout the 2000’s, releasing American Idiot, which turned their signature punk pop into a more progressive stadium rock sound, ordaining their youthful songs of rebellion with lofty concepts. Billy Joe Armstrong still sang about young love, but he began to create characters, and while the band went through less extreme stylistic changes than Blink, they still seemed to mature better. They used their political anger to fuel change in subject matter and maturity.
I maintain that American Idiot is one of the more important albums from the George W. Bush era. It was a rare evolution from what is usually a very stagnant genre. Post American Idiot, they released several duds, as they failed to grow more. 21st Century Breakdown played like an album of American Idiot b-sides. Uno, Dos, Tre! sought a return to a more traditional album, stripped of all higher concepts, but came out incredibly boring. And now we have Revolution Radio, another album heavily derived from their American Idiot developments.
Lyrically, Armstrong is still writing ironic, politically angsty sounding lyrics. He has a few entertaining and memorable quips like “I found my soul / beneath the sofa cushions.” They don’t always land, and often leave the listener puzzling at their meaning. Other tracks, like “Bouncing Off the Walls” are pretty generic songs of rebellion not really worth remembering.
As with all post 2000 Green Day albums, you kind of get lost in the steady stream of distorted eight notes and power chords. Tre Cool uses only his kick drum, hi hat, and snare for everything with extremely rare exceptions, and songs are punctuated with chants of “hey ho” that sound sampled at this point. In the middle, the temptation gets strong to switch the record despite a few new arranging tricks, such as the verses of the album’s opener, “Somewhere Now,” which contrast 60’s esque ringing guitar arpeggios with stomping stadium rock choruses. The hooks are certainly more ornate and interesting than those on California, but at the end of the day, it’s another f*cking Green Day album. They may have risen to a musical precipice beyond Blink, but they’ve been there for 13 years, with only very minor changes beyond that.
At this point, I haven’t seen proof of a power pop artist continuing thoughtfully through their career, innovating, but still staying true to the basic tenants of their genre. It’s possible that the kind of excitement you get from a well crafted punk pop tune just isn’t meant to be made by those who aren’t in the budding years of their lives. It’s a truth that is particularly painful because for so many creative types, myself included, it serves as a gateway for a glimpse of back-in-the-day. It’s only natural to want to generate that feeling for others, and it requires care and vision to attempt after certain benchmarks of your life are passed.