Blink-182 without Tom DeLonge: It’s a tempting proposition. When considering DeLonge’s role in Blink, your mind instantly goes to 2004 smash “I Miss You,” when a perfectly nice mid-tempo love song about nightmare angels and Halloween on Christmas is positively wrecking-balled by his eardrum-piercing introduction on the second verse: “WHERE ARE YEWWWWWWWW?!?!?” With DeLonge’s all-consuming megalomania reaching new heights through press stories of his recording-studio demands and efforts to take the band in gasp-worthy new directions — and yeah, the whole UFOs thing — it’s easy to conflate his presence in the trio with all of their most obnoxious instincts, and envision a much more digestible outfit built solely around the gonzo energy of drummer Travis Barker and McGrathian affability of co-frontman Mark Hoppus.
If anything is to be learned from California, the group’s seventh album and first with Alkaline Trio yowler Matt Skiba in place of DeLonge, it’s that we might have taken Blink’s co-founder for granted. Perhaps this should’ve been more obvious from the underwhelming returns of 2006’s When Your Heart Stops Beating, an album recorded by Hoppus and Barker sans third-wheel as part of the +44 supergroup, which now stands as the most obvious precedent for this new album: fine, fun, and overall kinda meh. Turns out, as in just about every great songwriting partnership in music history — Lennon and McCartney, 3000 and Boi, Buckner and Garcia (probably) — the oft-insufferable ambition of one is just as important as the shrugging humanity of the other, and the push/pull tension between the two is the most essential ingredient in the group’s success. Without that, it’s much easier for Blink-182 to be likable, but almost impossible for them to be great.
To their credit, some of the advance tracks came pretty close. “Bored to Death” is the album’s first single and most successful song, with a compressed drum intro and dolorous three-note repeating riff that hits you like a tornado of Classic Blink Memories, and a chorus (“Life is too short to last long”) that reads empty but feels profound. “Rabbit Hole” is one of California’s few songs so light on its feet you can actually imagine a trio of naked late-’90s dudes running down the street to it, and its anxieties (“Dear head / Shut up”) are quippy and low-stakes enough that they don’t feel weighed down by 20 years of band history, like much of the album. And speaking of naked dudes, the 16 seconds of sunny harmonies and homoerotic absurdism that is “Built This Pool” might be the LP’s finest moment, not to mention the most efficient rock song since Napalm Death’s “You Suffer (But Why?)” from nearly 20 years ago.
But the main problem with California isn’t that the songs are bad — it’s just that there are too many (16 for some reason), and not enough ideas to fill them. One chorus on the album’s first side prominently mentions Bauhaus, one on the second references the Cure. A song called “Kings of the Weekend” is followed by a song with the lyric, “Then you hit me like a Friday night.” Separate tracks are titled “Los Angeles,” “San Diego,” and (natch) “California,” without the thematic specificity or musical diversity that would justify such a trilogy’s existence. Not helping matters is that DeLonge seems to have taken all of the band’s riffs with him; even the “Bored to Death” lick is essentially ripped off from the band’s 2000 hit, “Adam’s Song,” and then further recycled on “San Diego” 11 tracks later. The unexciting presence of Skiba fails to break up the monotony, as his voice fails to contrast enough to Hoppus’ to serve any purpose but adding further layering. Barker’s famously frenetic stick-work attempts to cut through, but he largely comes off as a child of divorce trying desperately to capture his parents’ attention.
It feels unfair to be too harsh to California, because it’s not clear what the better path to success would’ve been for Blink-182. They could’ve followed their followers’ lead and hooked up with a Jake Sinclair-type to reinvent themselves as 21st-century turbo-poppers, but the band sounds too old for that s**t, and based on the “Centuries”-like groaning bombast of the “Los Angeles” chorus, it might not’ve been advisable anyway. They could’ve made like their longtime heroes the Descendents (with their excellent upcoming LP, Hypercaffium Spazzinate) and made an album as speedy and snotty as their early work, only with middle-aged lyrics about fearing for their kids and being unable to eat fast food. But even the Descendents need a decade-long nap between albums to get up that kind of energy. Ultimately, fortysomething Blink may be cursed by their early success and their genre of choice: For pop-punk bands, life is just too short to last long.