how do we fix this if we never had vision?

on blink-182's 2003 album, for which i wish many happy returns

read Miranda’s first-listen to this record, which was written in response to this newsletter. we’re back at it, folks.

blink-182 were on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf when bassist Mark Hoppus told a naval admiral about his ideas on how to locate Saddam Hussein. This concert was held in August 2003, three months before the suburban heroes would release their fifth studio album. Since then, blink-182 members have touted their supposed genius in wild and divergent ways. Guitarist/vocalist Tom DeLonge famously imploded the band twice, but did so the second time so he could prove aliens exist. His piss-poor replacement, Matt Skiba, stopped licking boots long enough to supposedly hex Fyre Festival. Drummer Travis Barker penned his first memoir with Rolling Stone’s Gavin Edwards, full of wisdom like this: “I am who I am by choice. Society rejects me because I'm different; I reject society because they're all the same.” Mark Hoppus blocked me on Twitter in May 2019. I don’t know what he’s up to.

In 2003, blink-182 were one of the biggest bands in the world. After 1999’s Enema of the State placed the boys on the same stages as the pop superstars they parodied, 2001’s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket debuted at #1. It became a pop-punk fixture in both a pre- and post-9/11 America, with the band retooling their message of suburban self-destruction for a healing nation. (Case in point: the video for “Stay Together for the Kids” began production on September 10, 2001. The original treatment featured a wrecking ball destroying a house, an easy metaphor for divorce. The final video found the walls collapsing under the weight of hurtful words.)

The songwriting team of Tom DeLonge and Mark Hoppus seemed inimitable and unbreakable, a testament to their decades-long friendship and on-stage camaraderie. Delonge and Hoppus were introduced in 1992 by Mark’s sister Anne. (Anne would later write the band’s first and only authorized biography, Tales from Beneath Your Mom, for MTV.) Mark wanted to impress Tom so badly that he climbed a lamp post and jumped off, breaking both his ankles. Twenty years later, Mark was climbing and falling flat on his face in front of his bandmate. Some things never change.

Hot off the heels of TOYPAJ, blink-182 were slated to tour Europe in fall 2001. These dates were cancelled when DeLonge suffered a herniated disk in his back. While recovering, Tom wrote songs on acoustic guitar to pass the time. blink’s manager got wind of the demos and encouraged him to enter the studio. Alongside longtime producer Jerry Finn, Barker, and David Kennedy, Tom formed Box Car Racer. The project’s self-titled record was released in May 2002.

Box Car Racer is a lost blink-182 record in personnel and personality. It’s an angry and muddy affair. DeLonge offers up the first of his umpteen album-length concepts: a boy finding love and corruption at the end of the world. The album ends when this boy jumps off a building. That song is called “Elevator,” and it features Mark Hoppus.

This is important. Stay with me here.

Remember the label Mightier than Sword? It’s okay if you don’t. They released some records by Such Gold, were courting the Hotelier before their name change and ascendancy to emo royalty, and somehow scored the licenses to press blink-182’s MCA catalog on vinyl for the first time. One of the releases in question was Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, which would also include the album’s bonus tracks on exclusive 7” records. Long story short: Mightier than Sword took the money and ran. In 2016, Hoppus responded in an exclusive foreword when TOYPAJ finally came to wax.

Hoppus alludes to TOYPAJ being the first record that cracked the veneer of the DeLonge/Hoppus partnership. Hoppus had stars in his eyes after the whirlwind success of Enema and wanted to replicate it on a wider scale. Always the innovator, Tom wanted to travel down a darker path indebted to post-hardcore. As he wrote,

for the first time, the three of us worked in opposition to one another. we weren't starting from the same point or working toward the same goal. sometimes the differences became contentious. sometimes we reached an easy balance. there was a tension in the process, a creative tension that eventually took blink-182 from a pop punk band, and grew it into something different, something better.

You can hear the tug-of-war on both TOYPAJ and Box Car Racer. The former was a record Frankensteined together by label intervention and these warring ideas. TOYPAJ is sequenced identically to Enema of the State, with the “slow single” in the seventh slot. That said, plenty of the fuzzier moments, like the buzzsaw guitar of album highlight “Every Time I Look for You,” inform the DNA of Box Car Racer and advance DeLonge’s vision. But Box Car Racer wasn’t immune to blink’s snot-nosed charm, as DeLonge yelps “I got no dick!” on “My First Punk Song.” It’s not a perfect level up.

blink-182 took an entire year to write and record their fifth LP. They rented a house, smoked weed in the garage, and procrastinated their way to greatness. The MTV Album Launch TV special from 2003 explains that the band was still tinkering with the final master hours before it was due to the pressing plant. When blink took studio time off to play those August shows overseas, the album wasn’t close to being finished. The Cure’s Robert Smith hadn’t shown up on the spidery “All of This,” and the iconic “get ready for action!” sample from the 1990 B-movie Captain America wasn’t yet opening the album. (“Feeling This” actually made it onto the soundtrack of Madden 2004 in demo form, sporting its original title “Action.”)

blink-182 (Geffen claims it’s self-titled, Hoppus and press releases from 2004 tours claim it’s untitled) was released on November 18, 2003 in the midst of the Iraq War. Tom DeLonge would later tell President Bush to suck his dick in 2007 while on stage with Angels & Airwaves. Anyone expecting a pop-punk band world famous for writing songs about blow jobs and butt stuff to pen political pronouncements was a fool, but DeLonge seemed intent on tying blink-182’s new anxious form to the world stage when it was released. (Tom would double down on this in 2006 with his war-obsessed project We Don’t Need to Whisper.)

It was so weird because we'd all be glued to the TV, watching these bombs explode over another country…so I'd see all this and wonder where [my brother] was at, and then we'd have to go into the next room and sing or finish writing lyrics. I think it affected our moods throughout the day.

Don’t get it twisted: blink-182 is not the political punk record they claim it is. It might have been a paradigm shift for the band to score a four-star review from Rolling Stone years after they graced the cover, but the songs are still sex-crazed and overblown. “Feeling This” combines the lustful and romantic sides of sex into one song, with a dystopian underwear-fest of a music video. “I Miss You” cribs its iconic lines from The Nightmare Before Christmas, with its standup bass part and looped percussion driving the melodrama. If these were the only songs pointing to the album’s iconic legacy, they’d show a band so bored by their past efforts that they had to dip into goth, emo, and post-punk to find new inspiration. (One album that the band credits as inspiration here is the genre-agnostic record from Bad Astronaut, Houston: We Have a Drinking Problem.)

There are plenty of surprises here, though, like the dual drum solos closing out “I’m Lost Without You,” a six-minute monster of a track that predicted the sad-sack poetics of Hoppus and DeLonge’s future projects. The one-two punch of “Asthenia” and “Always” shows off the band’s love for new wave, “The Fallen Interlude” flirts with instrumental trip-hop, and “Stockholm Syndrome” gains an interlude where actress Joanne Whalley reads a letter written by Hoppus’ grandfather while fighting in World War II.

blink-182 is ultimately a concept album about a decaying relationship, which seems more fitting as the years go on. It’s the last record the trio recorded with longtime producer Jerry Finn before his death and it’s the last full release the band recorded in the same room. (2011’s Neighborhoods was fraught with fragmented sessions over email and in separate studios.) It’s the last record to credit keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning, Jr., who first appeared on blink’s first “serious” single “Adam’s Song.” Truly, it’s the last record with blink-182 at the height of their powers, and no Spotify-sponsored live stream can convince me otherwise.

However, blink-182 is a record whose influence pervades the groups that formed and flourished during blink’s four-year hiatus. The jacket photos for this album shows DeLonge in an “emo” haircut years before Pete Wentz and Gerard Way made it a misfit fashion statement. It’s an album without two-second silences or track gaps, making a strong case for listening to the album all the way through. It proved that pop-punk bands could evolve and reconfigure their own DNA, a mission statement that continued with Green Day’s rock-opera duology, Paramore’s shape-shifting iterations, and the messy pop genius of Fall Out Boy. That’s why it’s disappointing blink-182 is back to writing songs with titles like “Brohemian Rhapsody” while pushing fifty. You’re supposed to mature as you grow up, not shrug your shoulders at it. Dammit.

blink-182 is my favorite record of all time. I take something new with it each time I listen to it, like how the vocal effects on “Violence” create this perfect chamber of darkness, or how the guitar snarl at the end of “Easy Target” curls perfectly into “All of This.” It’s the last perfect document from my favorite band, and we’ll never get that back.

At least we got it once.