It would be a betrayal to review blink-182’s California in light of Tom DeLonge leaving to be replaced by Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba, and his absence alone. Instead, it is much better to review California for the curious mixture of parts that it is – for its merits alone. If one thing has been settled for certain after DeLonge’s departure, it is that blink are still capable of commanding interest: California went straight to number one upon release last week – and DeLonge has been suspiciously silent in the meantime.
But in contrast to the last time this split happened, when Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker poured their souls into dark introspection and vitriol with short-lived band +44 in 2006, California is surprisingly upbeat, much more in the vein of their earlier releases than of their last two LPs or Dogs Eating Dogs. This is a refreshing change – a re-energised Blink still sound fun and bristling with charisma, as always due in no small part to Barker’s precise freneticism. While the songwriting here does sometimes fail to escape from the shadow of past hits (the chorus melody on ‘She’s Out of Her Mind’ falls far too close to that of ‘Rock Show’), it is at least refreshing to hear blink sounding markedly different to that to which we’re accustomed – even if in doing so they have retreated to the succour of their past.
But that in itself is no bad thing. If there is any overriding issue here, it is the production. Whereas the beloved and departed Jerry Finn left Blink’s breakthrough albums with a happy sheen, there was still enough of a hint of punk scuzz beneath the gleam to satisfy their skate punk roots. Not so here, where every song feels squarely angled for radio through the calculated lens of Josh Feldmann’s production – this doesn’t harm the band or the record, but for many this will be an unwelcome side-effect of blink’s emphasis on making themselves a force once more.
In reality, all they need to make them a force is the hooks they have on show during the 42 minutes of pacey punk where California proudly flexes its muscles and embraces its own racket. ‘Los Angeles’ in particular is massive, perhaps the biggest chorus they’ve released since their self-titled 2003 LP. Indeed, California is at is strongest when it parades its sheer size on tracks such as ‘No Future’, ‘Left Alone’ and ‘Rabbit Hole’. While it would be nice to have some more breaks in the adrenaline like the mournful halfway point of ‘Home is Such a Lonely Place’, the LP’s abundance of energy is endearing, especially after in the wake of the emotional beating that they have taken over the last year.
Unlike +44’s darkness, Hoppus’ songwriting deals with that loss of a friend far more obliquely than one would have thought, instead returning to classic Blink material such as gender relations and broken homes. However, it is unavoidable to pick on such themes still being present: ‘Cynical’ begins the album with the lyric, “There’s a cynical feeling saying I should give up / You said everything you’ll ever say / There’s a moment of panic when I hear the phone ring / Anxiety’s calling in my head / Is it back again? Are you back again?” while San Diego is perhaps the most obvious tear-jerker on the track list, evoking “abandoned houses with the lights on” and lamenting that they “can’t go back to San Diego”, where Hoppus and DeLonge first met. However, to the benefit of this new feel-good zip that the band channel, blink consider the darkness through a multi-coloured lens, and while the result isn’t as satisfying a ‘fuck you’ album as +44’s When Your Heart Stops Beating, it shouldn’t have to be: this is, despite all the odds, a resplendent return for blink-182.
On ‘She’s Out of Her Mind’, Hoppus and Skiba howl “We all need something to live for.” With California and Matt Skiba, blink-182 might just have found it.