I have developed a deeply unhealthy relationship with this album, and I have reached the point where I love it almost as much as I hate it. To begin with, I’m still not crazy about the idea of a Blink-182 without Tom DeLonge because, for better or worse, I truly believe that the name “Blink-182” is the name of the collaboration between Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge. It was one thing to replace Scott Raynor early in the band’s career as he didn’t write songs or sing, but ultimately I believe that any band that doesn’t have the dual frontmen of Hoppus and DeLonge should be called something other than Blink-182. (You could literally just call it Blink-183.) That being said, while I don’t believe this new band with only one original member should bear the moniker of “Blink-182,” it’s hard to deny that Matt Skiba is a far better singer, songwriter, and compliment to Mark Hoppus than DeLonge ever was. As much as I loved Neighborhoods, the final album from the band to feature DeLonge, testimony from Hoppus and Barker about that album paints the picture of a Tom DeLonge who couldn’t care less about the outcome of the album. Skiba, on the other hand, seems to bring the best out of his band mates, as evidenced by the fact that, when all of the tracks recorded for the California sessions were finally released for the album’s deluxe edition, it essentially amounted to two albums worth of high-quality material.
For, Nine, the ninth official album from a band called Blink-182 and the second outing of The Mark, Matt, and Travis show, producer John Feldmann takes the term “overproduction” to a whole new level, with an abundant overuse of auto tune and drum loops. I got to interview Feldmann a few years ago, which was in part a childhood dream come true as he had been frontman for the ska-punk band Goldfinger, but I was astonished at how unironically proud he was to be the producer of such so-called “punk” bands as All-Time Low and 5 Seconds of Summer that are more or less glorified boy bands with guitars. But as much as Feldmann’s ridiculous overproduction can get on my nerves at times, it seems to not be a hard dealbreaker for me. Because, if you’re willing to look past the overly slick production, it’s pretty obvious that Mark Hoppus, Matt Skiba, and Travis Barker aren’t superficial artists like 5 Seconds of Summer who are little more than their surface image. As much as Blink-182 were accused of ruining punk in the late-90’s and 2000’s, that was a strong claim that was far from true. Travis Barker is almost universally recognized as one of the greatest drummers of all time, except by one Punknews reader who insists on responding to everything we publish about Barker by accusing him of “overplaying,” whatever that means. Mark Hoppus was pretty clearly always the stronger songwriter between himself and DeLonge up until about the time of Neighborhoods where DeLonge finally caught up with him. And Skiba, of course, has been the co-frontman of Alkaline Trio since the 90’s, a pop-punk band whose darkly poetic and ironic lyrics have earned the praise of even pop-punk’s most ardent critics. In essence, were Blink-183 to rely on a more sensible production style, they’d still be a highly talented band, which is not something you can say about most of the artists that Feldmann produces.
The drum effects on this album seem especially superfluous given who the band has at drums. Remember that Travis Barker ended up in side project The Transplants because Tim Armstrong had originally planned to use a drum machine for the project, only to discover that Travis Barker was perfectly capable of playing all the drum parts that Armstrong was programming into the drum machine. And Nine shows the already legendary Barker pulling off one of his most extraordinary performances. Additionally, Matt Skiba has a lot more to do on this album vocally than he did on California where he basically sounded like Mark Hoppus’s backup singer.
The album kicks off with the “The First Time,” an interesting song revolving around the lyrical theme of firsts: first loves, first time getting high, first time flying on an airplane, and so on. It’s pretty unusual to hear Blink singing about drug use, but “The First Time” is sort of a first for that, too. The album is said to be centered around Hoppus’s struggles with depression, as witnessed by the third single, “Happy Days,” which tries to climb out of that depression to reach a better place. “Darkside,” which features Skiba on lead vocals, mirrors the lyrical themes of California’s “She’s Out of Her Mind,” but it seems to be a perfect choice for Skiba to sing a love song to a depressed goth girl given the gothic qualities of Alkaline Trio. “Blame it On My Youth,” the first single to be released off the album, was criticized for being a formulaic pop song, and it was a pretty valid criticism. Essentially the song mixes the traditional Blink style with some straight up iHeartRadio style corporate pop elements. But then we get into “Generational Divide,” one of two songs on the album, along with “Ransom,” that returns to a harder, faster punk sound as if trying to prove that, for all the pop on this album, Blink-183 is still a punk band. The song “Run Away” put me off at first, as I felt like I could have gone my whole life without hearing Hoppus and Skiba trying to rap, but their white boy pop-rapping has grown on me over time. “Pin the Grenade” is by far my favorite tune on the album, a hard rocking pop song with the chorus that has become my new personal mantra: “If you don’t love me lie to my face!”
One thing I liked about California is that, in addition to the more matured lyrics, the band also didn’t forget their more sophomoric roots of their Dude Ranch days, particularly in the songs “Built This Pool,” “Brohemian Rhapsody,” and the bonus track “Can’t Get You More Pregnant.” Nine, sadly, has none of that whatsoever and focuses instead on darkness and depression. The closest thing to a joke on the whole album is the fact that one of the songs is titled “On Some Emo Shit” which is meant to undercut the overly serious lyrics of the song. Then again, if we’re being honest, Blink-182 has been “on some emo shit” since the first track of Buddha, and don’t get me started on Matt Skiba’s emo cred.
So yes, there’s a lot I can pick out that infuriates me about this album, but at the end of the day I still want to listen to it, and isn’t that the true measure of what makes an album good or not? The album is pretty much a joyride from start to finish, moving through a number of different styles, driven by some of the best damn drumming you’ve ever heard. And everyone involved in writing these songs (yes, including Feldmann) is a talented lyricist who knows how to craft excellent pop songs. So ultimately, it’s a brilliantly fun album if you have the fortitude to look past a lot of very annoying studio effects to listen to what Blink-183 are really saying.