“What’s my age again?” the pop-punk band Blink-182 once famously asked. Now, judging from the trio’s new album, “Neighborhoods” – its first in eight years -- the answer seems to be: Middle-aged.
Not that the guys look or sound old, in their late 30s, or that they seem musically pooped after the long layoff. But lyrically, they’ve put away childish things in favor of studied maturity, if not midlife malaise. “Everyone raises kids in a world that changes life to a bitter game,” they sing in “Up All Night,” the first single. “Everyone lives to tell the tale of how we did alone.” What happened to the potty jokes?
Actually, the band had shed that juvenilia by the time it recorded its last CD, “Blink-182,” in 2003. But memories of the all-consuming jokiness of 1999’s 5-million-selling “Enema of the State” die hard.
It’s well and good that the running masturbation motif is in the rear-view mirror, but the threesome have a tougher time writing compelling, sober songs about adult relationships than they did about their extended pubescence.
Though no one slacked off during the hiatus – guitarist Tom DeLonge had his side project, Angels & Airwaves; bassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker had theirs, +44 – it’s incumbent upon a multi-platinum group coming back after nearly a decade’s absence to return with at least one unforgettable tune. Supposedly they rushed to meet a July deadline to get "Neighborhoods" out this fall. Maybe they needed to wait nine years to come up with a single.
That’s not to say the new effort completely lacks the old fire. There’s passion aplenty in the playing, especially when Barker's let loose on a barnburner like “Heart’s All Gone,” which features the most furious drumming since Elvis Costello’s “Lipstick Vogue.” Rumors that they'd abandoned the old pop-punk sound were exaggerated: It’s still here, alongside the moodier sonics the band started striving for before splitting up in the mid-2000s.
Sometimes, though, old and new elements tangle in the same song, which lends certain numbers a piecemeal quality. Take “Up All Night,” which surely confused a few listeners as a lead radio track. It starts off sounding like the spooky soundtrack for a Halloween party, then kicks into a pure metal guitar riff, then settles into the kind of sing-songy pop melody the group was always known for… before the cycle of disjointed ingredients repeats.
Since they’ve shed their former irreverence like an unwanted skin, we’re left with vaguely angst-ridden sentiments like “It’s like the universe has left me without a place to go” and “I went to a wishing well and sank to the ocean floor” – indeterminately bummed lyrics that put a slight damper on even the more promisingly energized power-trio workouts.
As much as you want to congratulate Blink-182 for growing up -- because in 1999, who would’ve seen it coming? -- maybe it wouldn’t hurt for them to grow down just a little.