Not Fade Away: Blink-182’s ‘Untitled’ Grows Up
In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on Blink-182’s 2003 untitled/self-titled album.
By Jon Blistein
Pop-punk had a lot of mortal enemies – jocks, parents, teachers, the guy that got the girl instead of you – but adulthood was always its Moriarty. It’s a genre of stunted adolescent feelings, desperately seeking validation for insecurities and broken hearts while, at its gnarliest, hiding behind a facade of farts. Essentially, pop-punk offers a compelling snapshot of the overwhelming uncertainty over mind and body that mushrooms when your hormones go nuclear on everything you thought you knew about your own operating system. Three chords can restore some semblance of order, and Blink-182 were the patron saints of petulance and penis jokes, running butt naked from Warped Tour favorites to Top 40 hitmakers in 1999 with the release of Enema of the State. During their crossover success in the late ’90s and early ’00s, Blink were too easily pegged as sellouts or obnoxious man-boy brats, but their steadfast grasp on adolescence was neither a crutch, nor an easy way to cash in on the demographic. It was a very real thing the band grappled with, so much so that Mark Hoppus felt the need to shrug, “Well, I guess this is growing up” on 1997’s “Dammit.”
The general narrative suggests that Blink-182 didn’t “mature” until 2003, when they released their self-titled effort, a heavier record removed from straight-up pop-punk by lyrical content that, at times, is downright crushing. Throughout the last week or so, Blink have been celebrating the record’s 10th anniversary (on Nov. 18) by playing the appropriately-dubbed Untitled album in its entirety at a string of sold-out L.A. shows. The move itself is par for the nostalgia-driven course these days; though admittedly, Blink’s self-titled wasn’t nearly as successful – numbers or reputation-wise – as its predecessors, Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, Enema of the State and Dude Ranch. Rather, Blink-182 was the band’s most concise break from the pop-punk formula and a catalyst for the wave of pierced-hearts-stuck-to-sleeves-with-tears-and-guyliner “emo”outfits that rose to popularity in its wake (sans the potty humor, of course), including but not limited to Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance and Panic! At the Disco. For plenty, the record is a ridiculous travesty, evidence of the band further compromising to the powers that be (if you didn’t already think that in 1999 – or 1997, for that matter, when they co-signed with MCA), or those who couldn’t handle all the feels. Or, it was an unquestionable masterpiece — a smart, succinctly executed evolution of band who’d grown up but hardly slowed down.
“It was very forward for us, it was such an adventurous recording,” guitarist/singer Tom DeLonge tells Radio.com. “That really felt good because we’d turned the corner from a pop-punk band to a conceptual and progressive, um–” a pause, then with a laugh – “punk band. It felt much cooler to go in that direction. I also remember playing it live, I felt that the band was communicating from the stage a lot differently, a lot more in a rock band kind of fashion.”
Only two years separate Untitled from its predecessor Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, but in that time DeLonge had explored his love of post-hardcore with the Box Car Racer side project and brought a heavier, more experimental bent to the Blink table when they reconvened. For the first time, too, DeLonge, Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker ditched their time- and cost-effective method of demoing cuts then hitting the studio to record one instrument at a time, and instead gave themselves an unlimited amount of time in the studio together to compose song-by-song. Longtime producer Jerry Finn returned as well, acting more as a songwriting guide than a recording guru. If a cool rhythm or texture or hook emerged out of the ether, DeLonge says, they all jumped down the rabbit hole.
Lyrically, both DeLonge and Hoppus delved into the darker side of Blink-182 – “People would never expect there was one, but most fans know that there is,” DeLonge notes – and toyed with the notion of a concept record. Amidst the aftermath of September 11 and the beginnings of the Iraq War, Hoppus had found his grandfather’s letters from the first line of World War II and had actress Joanne Whalley read them, fittingly, between “Violence” and “Stockholm Syndrome.” DeLonge also recalls how the one-two shot of “Easy Target” and the Robert Smith-featuring “All of This” came from a painfully beautiful story Finn told about being invited over to the house of a girl he like-liked in junior high, only to have her and her friend drench him with a hose.
“I think in a lot of places the overall concept was us driving the artists in ourselves,” DeLonge says. “It was really anything can go, whether digging into ancestry or taking stories from friends and painting the canvas with their experience. For us it was trying to pull in any ingredient that was in close proximity and create a cohesive picture. It was an exploration of the artist inside of the band.”
So perhaps this is growing up. Pop-punk has always favored intense, and at times an even damning amounts of introspection, the kind that makes you berate yourself for not being good enough, while simultaneously passing the blame for your misery onto your bully, your parents, the girl or guy who doesn’t want you, etc. As you get older, you develop a sense of self-responsibility and thicker skin, as well as an ability to better empathize and connect with those around you. Blink-182 marks a kind of culmination of that journey – an album that found its creators looking outwards in an attempt to find something deeper within themselves. Which is, in a sense, why we often listen to music in the first place.
“Most people when they get out of high school, get into college and start families, start new jobs, music becomes less and less important,” DeLonge says of Blink’s evolution alongside those of their fans. “What we’re trying to do is present something that counter-baits that audience enough to where when they get to that point, they stay with us. And that’s how a band has a legacy and can last as long as we have, 22 years now – take risks like that.”