In 2015, blink-182 was in a tumultuous state. Partly abated by the general consensus that rock music had taken a backseat to rap over the decade, blink-182 was losing its mainstream appeal. While the trilogy of Enema of the State, Take of Your Pants and Jacket and Blink-182 sold almost 40 million units worldwide, their most recent release — 2011’s Neighborhoods — sold 350,000 units in the four and a half years following its initial release.
And by 2015, Neighborhoods was the only full-length album the band had put out since Blink-182 (the untitled album) in 2003.
In a 2015 press release, bassist/vocalist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker said: “We were all set to play this festival and record a new album and (guitarist/vocalist) Tom (DeLonge) kept putting it off without reason.”
Then, in response to Hoppus and Barker’s joint-statement, DeLonge gave a detailed account of his side of the story via his Facebook page, essentially saying that Hoppus and Barker had not been reasonable given the time commitment required from his other artistic pursuits. He said, “Our relationship got poisoned yesterday. Never planned on quitting, just find it hard as hell to commit.”
Yeah – so the future of the band was pretty dire. The band needed a reliever to come in and right the ship.
Then, out of the bullpen, came none other than Goldfinger’s lead man – John Feldmann.
As a producer, Feldmann was previously known for working with bands on the poppier side of the spectrum — All Time Low, The Cab, Five Seconds of Summer. Feldmann’s background was deeply embedded in the ska-punk scene of the mid-to-late ’90s. He offered a familiar face for blink, with a relationship that can be traced back to the late 90’s, when Travis Barker’s former band, The Aquabats, toured with Goldfinger.
Feldmann, along with Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba (who ultimately replaced DeLonge in 2015) gave the band a new sound. That new sound, according to Feldmann, is unabashedly rooted in the punk groups of his youth. When asked about the whoa’s and na’s in California during an AMA on Reddit, Feldmann said, “I grew up on the Ramones and Pennywise and 80s and 90s punk rock… I never really thought about it it’s just part of my influence so when the guys would write a part it felt natural and I never over thought it.” Feldmann’s heart was undoubtedly in the right place with his efforts, but it is fair to say that this approach did not necessarily land as intended.
When talking about the making of single “Bored to Death” in an interview with Fuse, Feldmann said, “Let’s do everything I can think of that reminds me of classic Blink.” And this sentiment was consistent throughout the album. Later in the same interview, Feldmann said, “My agenda was to have an album that was palatable for a generation of ADD kids.” And this would make sense, as one could argue songs on California had the vocals much higher in the mix, and as a whole had less developed guitar parts. None of us were in the studio with the band during the making of the album, but comments like those can be discouraging for proponents of blink-182 pushing its creative limits. As great as blink-182 is at making songs, since this was their first album without Tom DeLonge, I think what they needed was a producer who functioned as the fourth member of the band as opposed to a fan trying to recreate the glory of day’s past.
But, that is not to say this formula cannot still work as a means to achieve commercial success.
Blink-182 has often utilized na’s in their chart-topping songs, none more famous than “All the Small Things,” and it is a songwriting trope that they – up until California – have gotten away with in the past. As with many of the albums Feldmann has produced, that lyrical strategy offers more “sing-songy” tunes for the casual fan. But, it can also leave the more veteran fans begging for more, akin to a favorite condiment being left out of a burger. For what blink-182 is without catchy lead guitar riffs in the post-chorus is akin to In n’ Out double doubles without the thousand island dressing – very good, but not unique.
But, following the release of the first single off California in “Bored to Death,” many fans were critical of the new sound. And in my estimation, there were a couple common complaints that proved to be especially common:
• “The vocals are too auto-tuned.”
• “The guitars are mixed way too clean.”
• “The way the vocals are mixed, I can’t tell the difference between Hoppus and Skiba.”
All valid concerns, and they would prove to be foreshadowing remarks for the album to come.
In my estimation, the album was not great or terrible, but safe. Many songs were in the same key, the all-familiar 4/4 time structure, with eerily similar opening guitar strumming patterns — “San Diego,” “Bored to Death” and “She’s Out of Her Mind.” The lyrics were nothing to write home about, as they often resorted to questionable jumblings of words such as:
She’s an angel,yeah
I’m a dandelion, you’re a four-leaf clover
But let me call you when I’m sober
Neither of these choruses ring of contemplative deep thought, and that’s not what we’ve come to expect or should expect out of blink-182, let alone any pop punk act. But Hoppus has proved that he can be an exceptional songwriter when he wants to be, with or without DeLonge at his side, most notably with the side-project +44. Perhaps in the years immediately following blink-182’s initial hiatus, +44’s When Your Heart Stops Beating was Hoppus was at his lyrical best, as he was able to tap into that headspace of anger and resentment so readily.
It may be hard to utilize something that simply isn’t there anymore.
But California was not all unforgettable, where “San Diego” provided a look into Hoppus’ lyrical potential at his most vulnerable, discussing the pain associated with the city he and DeLonge grew up in.
Despite the skepticism from the fanbase, the album sold, and it sold very well. California went gold in its first five months, selling 172,000 in the first week, on its way to briefly knocking Drake off Billboard’s #1. The album sold half-a-million copies the first five months, a feat that Neighborhoods had failed to do in more than 10x the amount of time.
According to Billboard, “Blink-182’s gap between No. 1s is the longest for a rock act since AC/DC waited 26 years and 10 months between For Those About to Rock We Salute You in 1982 and Black Ice in 2008.”
Don’t mix it up – excellent sales don’t make for compelling songwriting, but it does open the door for further opportunities to safely experiment without fear of dropping off the map once again. 2017’s California (part 2/deluxe edition) was the beginning of the experimentation, and there’s reason to expect more.
Feldmann – and more specifically California (Part 1) – was necessary to launch blink-182 back into a commercially viable position, to put out an album with as much diversity of song structure and lyrical content as the untitled release.
Now, if they go and make a California Part 3, then we officially have the right to riot.