Rating: 4 stars / 5
As a gigantic Alkaline Trio fan since they pretty much got me through my Junior year of high school, I thought it was really cool when Matt Skiba (Singer/Guitarist of Alkaline Trio) was tapped to fill in for Tom DeLonge, who I’ve frankly gotten really fucking sick of over the last ten years or so, for a few of the remaining dates that Blink had already booked, but didn’t want to get my hopes up for anything in the future. Well, I might as well have gotten my hopes up because the exact thing that I wanted to happen (Matt permanently replacing in for Tom) happened. The culmination of the brilliant and incredibly unpredictable collision that is Alkaline Trio fusing with blink, of course, being the new line-up blink-182’s new album California.
Skiba fits beautifully into blink’s well established yet ever evolving pop-punk sensibilities. He brings some of the great things about his presence in Alkaline Trio (energetic, often power chord driven guitar with simple yet perfectly fitting riffs intertwined; a haunting yet powerful voice; and those background “whoa-ooooh-oh” bits that no one else can seem to do quite as well) while leaving behind some quintessentially Alkaline Trio components that just wouldn’t fit with blink’s style (rampant existentialism bordering on suicidality; Alk3’s trademark and beautiful macabre sound and themes). Not only does Skiba fit right into blink, his voice beautifully and seamlessly playing off Mark Hoppus’, but his presence seems to give a shot the arm to the band as whole. Following a skeleton of the old blink-182 that released 2011’s lackluster Neighborhoods which contained some genuinely interesting tracks like the lead single “Up All Night” but which largely failed to impress; after 2012’s EP “Dogs Eating Dogs” where it become abundantly clear that Hoppus was the only one putting much effort into lyricism and even singing; California is an incontestable group effort – even when it lacks in lyrical sophistication, the pure energy and excitement of the group as a whole keeps you not only interested but jamming right along, not missing a beat.
It’s a type of album that we really haven’t seen from blink since their classic Take Off Your Pants and Jacket. And I say that will all due respect to 2003’s self-titled, which was a fantastic album in its own right, but lacks the energy and overall fun that this album carries through it that was emblematic of Pants and Jacket. Consider for a minute “She’s Out of Her Mind,” perhaps one of the more shticky songs on the album lyrically, and while the case I could make for not skipping it is that it’s a pretty fun song, my actual case is that this song is one of the best examples on the album of drummer Travis Barker going, if you’ll excuse the pun, fucking out of his mind on the drum kit. It’s phenomenal to listen to. The first time I heard it I was in my car, which doesn’t exactly have great speakers, but the way I have the EQ set up, it tends to emphasize the drums in a track and let me tell you listening to Travis Barker just release himself from any sense of holding back on the drum kit is as close to a religious experience as a nonreligious person can get. He does it all through the album in different ways, and actually the best example is likely the opening track “Cynical” where I’m pretty sure his spirit leaves earth for a moment to control his body like a puppet, but for me “She’s Out of Her Mind” was when I stopped myself and thought “is this guy fucking human?”
And that’s how it feels for everyone throughout the album. Not so much that you’re questioning their humanity, but just that you get the feeling that they completely let go of anything that had been holding them back (including Skiba, because let’s face it, the last few Alk3 albums have been good but not exactly up to their standard – you’d have to go back to Crimson [11 years ago] lyrically and thematically and Agony & Irony [8 years ago] energy, music, and style-wise to find them close to their peak in my opinion). As I alluded to earlier, one of the best things about the album is how Skiba and Hoppus play off each other vocally. Now, if you couldn’t tell by the intro paragraph, I’m an Alkaline Trio fan first and then a blink-182 fan. And, again, as I said, Tom DeLonge had been progressively pissing me off just by is flakiness and very, very apparent lack of effort he was putting into songs when they did release them. I imagine, however, and can totally understand how for someone who is a blink fan first, replacing DeLonge, even if you viewed it as understandable or even necessary, would be a terrifying prospect. DeLonge’s voice is such a distinctive factor of blink’s music, that there must have been a lot of hesitance and anxiety in that process, especially with someone as vocally and stylistically different from DeLonge as Skiba is.
Let me tell you, though, while I can’t promise that every single blink fan is going to love this new dynamic, for me, when I listen to this album, not only is it as blink as blink has been in quite some time, but (and don’t come after me for heresy for this) in my opinion the dynamic between Mark and Matt, even just vocally, is a lot more fun, more seamless, and just straight up more pleasing to the ear than that vocal dynamic was between Mark and Tom. And actually, I feel very similarly comparing their dynamic to Matt Skiba and Dan Adriano. Honestly, the reason why is very similar. Matt and Mark blend together in songs seamlessly and harmonize on choruses in a way that gives them a chilling power and energy. There aren’t “Matt songs” and “Mark songs,” there’s just songs. That’s one of the coolest differences with this iteration of blink. To be sure, there were times when Mark and Tom traded vocal hooks (“I Miss You” and “Feeling This” both come to mind instantly), just like there were songs where Matt and Dan traded lines (a bit more rare like in “Back to Hell”), but the vast majority of each band’s catalog was comprised of one singer taking the helm for an entire song that they likely wrote the lyrics to. In California however, every single song features both singers, and they they don’t just switch off in the same way every time – they do what fits with the song, everything from harmonizing to singing background lines in the chorus to trading lines in some part of the song to trading verses. It’s an approach that’s as exciting because of how unique it is to each singer as it is because of how well it works and how much strength it gives the album.
To be clear, I’m not saying with either of these comparisons that this one album makes all of blink’s work until now pointless, or that it exposes how terribly Mark and Tom worked together. I’m also certainly not saying that this album makes any further work from Alkaline Trio unwanted or undesired, or similarly that Matt and Dan don’t work together well. All of that is absurd. blink’s repertoire until now is almost unmatched in the genre, and I think for a long time Mark and Tom worked really fucking well together. Similarly, just because Alkaline Trio hasn’t been on the top of their game lately doesn’t mean I want Matt to quit. Regardless of the strength of the album, every release has an absolute gem on it, and Dan and Matt do work together fantastically; they’re a fundamentally different band. Do I think there are moments and songs that blink with Tom had that blink with Matt just simply can’t have? Absolutely, they’re fundamentally different musicians and singers. However I’d take the opinion that I enjoy the product of Mark and Matt working together best straight to hell with me. If you wanna get a sense of a few ways that dynamic works I recommend “Los Angeles” (also one of my favorite tracks on the album) and “The Only Thing That Matters” as well as the lead single “Bored To Death” (another favorite). Each of those should give you a different perspective on how the two work together throughout the album.
Now, so far I’ve heaped praise on the album, said this line up is a significant improvement, said essentially all three of them are at their peak in some way. So is that it? It’s a perfect album? Why did it get 4 stars out of 5 instead of 5/5 then? (Oh and for reference I give self-titled 3.5 stars – fantastic album, suffers from a bloated sense of purpose and misplaced ambition; and Pants and Jacket 5 stars – that album, among a few others, is the gold standard for the genre). Simple: because the album isn’t perfect. It’s incredibly easy to overlook some of its faults because it’s so goddam refreshing to hear something like this come out of blink-182, but it does have some faults, which I’ll address now. The biggest, most glaring for me is the lyrics. Blink and Alkaline Trio usually have incredible lyrics from my perspective, and I’m not taking points off for “fun” songs or “sarcastic” songs because doing those songs well is just as hard as doing “serious” songs well. What caught me on this album is songs like “She’s Out of Her Mind” (which I’ve mentioned) with a fairly lazy pre-chorus like “she’s a-a-a-antisocial / a-a-a-antisocial / a-a-a / she’s an angel, yeah” and a ridiculously on the nose chorus opener like “I’m in deep with this girl but she’s out of her mind.” Lyrics like that have been used and overused so much that they’ve really stopped meaning much; definitely no trace of the subtlety that many of the other songs show. Thankfully, like I said before, Travis Barker’s fucking phenomenal drumming on the song along with the fact that if you don’t think too hard about it’s a pretty fun song, save it from being a throw-away track.
However it’s not the only song that suffers from lackluster lyrics. “Kings of the Weekend” is, again, a fairly fun song, but it feels rampantly out of touch not only with the rest of the album but with where it seems the trio are in their life. It’s nostalgia for sure, and that’s not always a bad thing, but it’s gotta be handled with care. And the lyrics “It’s Friday night let’s lose our minds / In a downward spiral / Here we go / Because we got no control” hardly screams “handled with care.” To be sure there’s also plenty of instances of exceptional lyricism on the album, which may actually make it more jarring when you come to a song like “She’s Out of Her Mind” or “Kings of the Weekend” and all of a sudden it’s like Skiba and Hoppus have regressed a decade or more back to when they were just figuring out the intricacies of songwriting.
Another minor annoyance I have with the album is the reliance on what I can best describe with music/beat counting. If you’re familiar with that, skip to the next paragraph while looking at the last line of beat counting. If your not familiar with that, a ton of pop songs are in what’s called 4/4 time, meaning ever quarter note is worth a beat, and there are four beats in a measure. In a lot of punk songs, you’re playing so fast that you tend to use sixteenth notes (four sixteenth notes = one quarter note). So how most people count this out to either keep track of time for themselves, or to figure out the timing of a song is by doing something like this: say you have one measure, entirely sixteenth notes, you would count that out like (plus sign is pronounced “and”) 1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a 4 e + a. So there it’s all even. The minor annoyance I’m talking about is a rhythm that goes something like this (underscores are not played): 1_+a__+a__+a_e__. Now that’s probably not exactly the rhythm because I’m sure they use three four time every now and then or speed up the tempo to use eighth notes, but hopefully you get the point and this mini-music lesson wasn’t just completely wasted.
So first of all, my annoyance is that this is a fairly popular rhythm to use, which isn’t their fault. However, because it’s such a simple rhythm that tends to get overused, when I hear a song like “No Future” which has pretty much that exact rhythm for the guitar piece and the vocal piece overlapping as well as the “na na na” piece later, it’s really hard form me to say “this is a really cool song” when my initial reaction is “oh my fucking god why… I feel like I’ve heard this song a thousand times already” (and if you’re wondering, no, I don’t have a list of songs that use the same rhythm, deal with it). This kind of rhythm also shows up in slight variation in “Sober.” It’s not the biggest deal in the world, and I don’t think it’s automatically terrible songwriting. Certainly my issue with the lyrics that I just got done talking about is more important to me than this. However, it does represent a few spots on a very good album where I feel they could’ve done better.
Aside from those things, I think it’s an absolutely fantastic record. Like I said before, in parts where it struggles in one area, it excels in another area. And I cannot say enough about how beautifully Mark and Matt’s voices play off of each other. I strongly recommend this album to blink fans and to Alkaline Trio fans. There’s a little bit of everything for everyone here, and the best part about the flaws that it has is that they look to me like things that will be easily remedied the more time these guys spend together, playing shows and writing music. This is one of those albums that makes me just as excited for the next album as I am for the one you’re listening to. You hit the bullseye on this one, guys. Glad to see you back on top.