Be honest – since returning in 2009, have blink-182 ever really been all that good? No one can doubt the pedigree of their late ‘90s and early 2000s work, but in pretty much everything they’ve released in the last decade, it’s felt like the work of a band for whom the passion has completely been drained. Neighborhoods has probably fared the best over time given how, beyond a few bland production and writing choices that did a serious number on its overall enjoyability, it wasn’t horrible, but California hasn’t exactly aged well in most areas with its sanitised Jon Feldmann production designed to push it in line with most of pop-rock’s other safe hitmakers in 2016. And while many are quick to point the finger at Matt Skiba as the source of these issues, it’s hard to see any merit behind that whatsoever given where his previous musical alignment lies. If anything, it’s been Mark Hoppus whose gravitated the most towards these tones given his further involvements with alt-pop in Simple Creatures, and now that he’s been thrust in the position of singular band leader since co-pilot Tom DeLonge’s departure in 2015, it’s easy to extrapolate that to work out how much creative control is his. It becomes even more telling when the Simple Creatures material was originally conceived for this album, and with Feldmann back at the production desk and a bevy of singles displaying blink’s worst possible impulses in sliding towards alt-pop profitability, the initial impression of Nine as a whole might just be the most concerning of the band’s entire career.
But in a twist of fate that no one could have reasonably expected, Nine ends up being actually rather with a handful of moments that show how the idea of bringing modern production to the core blink-182 sound can wind up as something other than a house fire. That’s not to over-praise it, because a couple of real, notable shortcomings hold things back by a rather considerable amount, but after every indication of this being the album that fully sees blink succumbing to the pop-rock machine, they’ve pulled a fast one and came out the other side with their heads held higher than expected.
And the surprises largely keep coming as well, because of those bigger faults, something that isn’t all that much of a factor is the production. It’s definitely slicker than the vast majority of what the band have put their name to previously, and the touches of modern gloss and affectations are bound to put off some of the more vehement critics of this sort of thing, but in general, Nine is far from the worst that the transition to poppier climes has ever sounded. That largely feels like a result of proper balancing and modulation being brought into effect; even in tracks that rely more heavily on synthetic tones, there’s still room within them for the band themselves to deliver the sort of monstrously huge, mid-paced hooks that late-period blink have frequently been so good at. The likes of Run Away and Pin The Grenade both show how well this can work and how the contrast can make for that moment of explosiveness to hit even harder, but there’s actually a good amount of Nine that uses its size to its advantage, coupled with a foundational core of real instruments that feel more in tune with the big, slick arena-rock that the band are going for here. For contrast, while a song like Blame It On My Youth does approach the same sort of thing, it’s never able to pick up the scale necessary to lift it off the ground, and thus it’s one of the moments where blink do fall victim to overwrought production that they often do so well to avoid here. It’s not ideal that they’re here but at least they’re easy to spot, mostly in the shortest cuts Generational Divide and Ransom that feel throwaway to the point where it’s hard to know why they’re even here (the former citing itself as a punk throwback but drenching Skiba’s vocals in horrendous filters, while the latter is just a complete mess even after the AutoTune abuse with its leaden tempo change), and they don’t detract too much what generally feels like a solidly balanced job overall.
However, there has been something of a paradigm shift within the lineup, even from California, and it’s here where the first big issue arises when the skill level of each member can feel so at odds. Travis Barker is still as brilliant of a drummer as he ever was, showing a dexterity in switching between more standard percussion and programmed beats like on On Some Emo Shit, but it’s clear that between the two vocalists, Skiba has leapfrogged over Hoppus by a considerable amount. There’s an expressiveness in his vocals that really brings out the best in more equable songs like these, and when he goes get the lead billing like on Black Rain and especially No Heart To Speak Of, there’s a far more tangible sense of emotion that goes a much further distance. But like California, this is a primarily Hoppus-centric album, and while he’s not a bad vocalist by any means, his far narrower range and flatter tone doesn’t leave a lot of room for him to experiment within these songs. When he’s portraying sour, burned-out dejection like on I Really Wish I Hated You, he’s easily at his best, but placed on a song like Darkside that not only wants to be more energetic but where he’s also bouncing off Skiba’s contributions, he’s distinctly outclassed, and weighing the album in his favour doesn’t feel like the most lucrative decision when looking at the bigger picture.
That just leaves the lyrics, and it’s all too easy to attribute the same issue to them. This is apparently an album focused on Hoppus’ own depression, and while blink have made enough serious songs in the past to prove that they’re more than capable of doing that here, Nine feels more like a collection of generalised heartbreak songs that don’t give much of a personal impression to the extent that they should. I Really Wish I Hated You is the most obvious example of this as a post-breakup wallow that feels clingy and juvenile (though not in the way that blink have had success with in the past), but while a track like Hungover You does try to feed itself back into the original mould with its references to alcoholism and self-medication, the breakup remains as the nucleus, and that can be difficult to avoid when it’s presented so blatantly. Even tracks like Happy Days and Blame It On My Youth feel a lot more generalised than they should for their address of that depression, opting to run in tandem with the bigger populist vibe that the rest of the album has rather than endeavour to dig deeper and get more out of it. And thus, when Heaven or No Heart To Speak Of do get a bit more poignant and adventurous in their lyricism and imagery, they’re highlights, sure, but to a degree where they’re so far ahead of a lot of these songs that it feels underwhelming that more wasn’t done to rectify that. Great depth has never been blink’s strongest suit, but putting in that effort in spurts like this just feels like a missed opportunity overall.
And yet, even with all of that, Nine still manages to scrape by a good album, buoyed by an excess of bombast that really puts in the work and a handful of good songs that capture the more mature and modern vibe they’re looking to explore. There’s a lot to rectify, that much is clear, and even trimming down the tracklist to something a bit leaner and tighter could be an improvement, but the fact that it’s nowhere near the wash that pretty much everyone was expecting is something to find solace in. Of course, it’s nowhere near blink’s best, and with this direction looking like a solidified one, it’s hard to predict what more they can actually pull from and how well it can be done, but this is a decent effort all the same. It’s good to have albums like this that can still surprise, even if they’re not outright fantastic, and for a band like blink-182 who seemed to have hit the skids a while ago and struggled to regain balance, something like Nine is good to have around.
For fans of: Angels & Airwaves, All Time Low, Simple Creatures
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Nine’ by blink-182 is out now on Columbia Records.