THE DAY I TURNED 11, my dad picked me up after school and drove me to the mall. Earlier that morning, I’d gotten about $50 worth of music store gift cards from various family and friends, and I was itching to use them on a few new CDs to bolster my burgeoning taste in music. Those middle school years are ripe with earnest discovery, when stumbling upon a certain song or album or artist still has the potential to literally change your life. But I was already well aware of the only band whose records I wanted to buy that day: Blink-182.
It was 2001, and pop punk was reaching the pinnacle of its commercial success, serving as a halfway house for socially-wayward preteens between boy bands and the harder stuff: punk, hardcore, post-hardcore, and, of course, the much-maligned emo. Nestled firmly atop the pop punk food chain was Blink-182, who by that point had sold close to 10 million albums worldwide and was routinely selling out arenas across the globe.
I’d always been a good kid—I stayed out of trouble, did my homework, and spent most of my time collecting comic books and playing video games. In Blink, I found the perfect role models to drum me out of my strait-laced suburban malaise: three snot-nosed Californians who ran around naked and smashed instruments and swore profusely, playing music that was catchy enough for me to sing along to, but subversive enough that it felt wrong. When they performed live, the band seemed larger than life. Mark Hoppus and Tom Delonge’s on-stage antics and brilliant rapport gave them buoyant poise, while Travis Barker’s quiet badassery spoke for itself. But the key to Blink’s appeal was that despite their rock star renown, they always seemed like dudes you’d find hanging out behind the high school gym, smoking a bowl and laughing hysterically at dick jokes. They were cool because they weren’t cool, and their combination of crunching riffs, juvenile vulgarity and sincere idealism spoke volumes to me as an impressionable seventh grader.
I like to say that there’s a Blink-182 song for every seminal moment of my youth, and it’s kind of true: “Apple Shampoo” carried me through my first true heartbreak; “Reckless Abandon” soundtracked my introduction to hard liquor; “When You Fucked Grandpa” simply made me laugh on a few of those tough early days of high school. Blink wrote songs about being young and stupid, left wide open—they examined adolescent insecurities with a veracity that even the most jaded teens could relate to. A lot of bands sing about getting rejected by girls, but very few can faithfully communicate the feeling of being looked at like you’re crazy for believing in aliens.
Even when I eventually dumped pop punk in the 10th grade in favor of pretentious indie rock and whiny emo bands, I refused to become embarrassed by Blink-182. I simply understood how important they’d been to me; turning my back on Blink would be forgetting where I came from. When I listen to those records now, it amazes me not only how many of my own memories are tied to every song, but also how well they capture the frenetic energy and volatility of youth. Question the trio’s musicality if you must, but it’s impossible to deny the sheer feeling they were able to weave into each of their three-minute, three-chord romps.
On the drive home from the mall that fateful day in late September 2001, I remember grinning cheekily as I clutched my new copies of Enema of the State and Take Off Your Pants and Jacket. Cautiously covering the “PARENTAL ADVISORY” labels with my palm so that my dad wouldn’t see them, I felt certain that this was the start of something big; the beginning of a lifelong connection. I couldn’t have been more right.
EXACTLY TEN YEARS LATER, Blink-182 has released a new album, Neighborhoods, on my 21st birthday. It’s almost too perfect—as I take these final creeping steps into adulthood, the band that virtually wrote the opening chapter of my own personal bildungsroman is still right here next to me, urging me forward.
So how does it sound? To be perfectly honest, Neighborhoods is not the band’s best work. This is Blink’s first album in eight years; their first since Hoppus, Delonge, and Barker reunited in 2009 after a messy break-up a few years prior. Understandably, after so much time apart, the album struggles to find a cohesive tone. It meanders sonically, uncertain of whether it wishes to experiment or reminisce, making lackadaisical attempts at each. A jagged guitar riff might evoke a track from their prime, but when Hoppus croons about raising kids “in a world that changes life to a bitter game,” it’s evident that this isn’t exactly the same band that wrote an entire song about violating a dog. Like it or not, they’ve evolved—even if they aren’t quite sure exactly what they want to be.
In that sense, Blink has once again crafted the perfect record for the current stage of my life. Since July, a couple months after I graduated from college, I’ve somehow found myself living in a small rural town, hundreds of miles from my friends and family, working my very first full-time job. I suddenly have an apartment to keep clean, bills to pay, errands to run, relationships to maintain. And I have no idea what the hell I’m doing.
I strutted into college headstrong and confident, brimming with enthusiasm, ideas, and a clear plan for the future. Four years later, I tumbled out just as baffled as I’d been in the seventh grade, overwhelmed by the limitless possibilities that lay before me, anxious about my chances of truly satisfying my ambitions. The way my life’s been unfolding as of late is exciting, to be sure, but I’d be lying if I said I never felt doubt about the path I’m following. I’m still trying to find my footing, and it’s comforting, to say the least, listening to Mark, Tom and Travis attempt to do the same.
It would be completely unfair of me to compare Neighborhoods with Blink’s earlier triumphs. All three members of the band are now fathers on the wrong side of 30—their priorities and senses of self have shifted, as have mine. In some ways, too, it is less of an album and more of an adjustment period, a chance to rekindle creative partnerships and explore new directions. There are more than a few stumbles and cringe-worthy moments along the way—the Delonge-led “Love Is Dangerous,” for one, sounds like a brutal self-parody of the guitarist’s work with the consistently corny Angels and Airwaves—but even the awkward songs at least sound honest to me. And at this stage of my young life, I’m learning that honesty is often the most precious thing of all.
Neighborhoods, ultimately, is about change. It’s the sound of a band regaining its equilibrium, its rhythm, and its connection with one another. It’s the sound of three men coming to terms with responsibility, with maturity, with their ever-shifting place in the world.
It’s the sound of growing up.
Previous installments of “Falling Up”: