Love it or hate it, Blink-182 was always best when it was writing pop songs. Sure, data may claim that it’s the punkest band ever, but it was always putting emphasis on the first part of the pop-punk equation. After Tom DeLonge was kicked out—or left to work on alien-related projects for the government—Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba stepped in, proving to be an apt replacement for the band’s stargazing founding member. Though Skiba’s never produced a hit as big as Blink-182 bassist Mark Hoppus has, the pair make logical sense together. Yet, sadly, neither one appears to have been in control of California’s musical direction.
While much was made of DeLonge’s departure, the most noticeable change to Blink-182 happened behind the scenes. Though he started his career in the ska-punk act Goldfinger, John Feldmann found a second life writing hits for the likes of 5 Seconds Of Summer and All Time Low. As both the producer and a co-writer of California, Feldmann becomes the unseen member of Blink-182, who somehow holds the most sway.
From the very beginning of the album, Feldmann’s presence is felt. On opener “Cynical,” Hoppus’ voice is found layered and Auto-Tuned, sticking out like a sore thumb in the track’s otherwise no-nonsense, pop-punk construction. Despite its glossy sheen, “Cynical” hints at how strong a collaboration between Hoppus and Skiba could be, as their vocal interplay feels effortless and inspired. That formula pays dividends throughout California, especially when the band elects to look to its past for new inspirations. “Bored To Death” feels linked to Blink-182’s 2003 self-titled effort, and “She’s Out Of Her Mind” opens with a bouncy groove that could have called Enema Of The State home, while “Rabbit Hole” is the kind of highly processed sugar rush that the band has always been best at providing.
The rest of California, though, does away with Blink’s signature sounds, replacing them with songs that could just as easily pass for any other band in Feldmann’s stable. Which is an approach that could work, if only the songs weren’t so muddled. “Los Angeles” sounds like someone told the band the song would be retroactively placed on The Crow soundtrack, with dated goth touches and an excess of glitchy, processed drums. Similarly, “Sober” sees Feldmann inserting every wild production choice he can: effects-laden drums, gang vocal inserts, superfluous piano, and the rock-music equivalent of a bass drop. It also appears that Feldmann’s idea of writing hooks for Blink-182 boils down to squeezing in a “whoa-oh” or “na-na-na” whenever there’s empty space.
It’s sad that the album’s two joke songs—“Built This Pool” and “Brohemian Rhapsody”—are short on laughs but full of squandered potential. The latter is a classic Blink composition, marred only by its single throwaway line, “There’s something about you / That I can’t quite put my finger in.” While these “jokes” fall flat, California still features unintentional humor. “San Diego” sees Skiba recycling the riff from “Bored To Death” and hoping no one will notice, while unleashing this clunker of a line at the top of every chorus: “I don’t want to fall asleep / Because what if I dream / Of going back to San Diego?” On the halfway-decent “The Only Thing That Matters,” Skiba drops another hackneyed lyric about owning Marilyn Manson paintings, in case anyone was curious about how Marilyn Manson’s art career was going in 2016.
California is the sound of Blink-182 desperately trying to remain relevant by outsourcing its creativity. While it’s a gambit that could work—as Feldmann is more than capable of making hit songs happen—Blink-182 never needed much help in that department anyway. The result is another homogenous addition to Feldmann’s growing résumé. But this time he unintentionally removed the soul of pop-punk’s clown princes in the process.