What made Blink fun back when we were kids was the fact that they never tried too hard to be something they weren't. For every song that tackled teen suicide, there were ten packed with dick jokes and sexual double entendres, a silly fun time for mainstreamers and jocks to rock out to without the self-consciousness of bro-ing up the joint at a rock show where people with discerning taste wouldn't take kindly to the stench of their embryonic Jersey Shore precursors. Their videos and magazine covers were consistently and hilariously juvenile, and when it came time to scratch that jackass itch, Tom DeLonge, Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker were ready to blast off with a blizzard of goofball antics and bubbly celebrations of absurdity.
On their return album Neighborhoods, that sense of youthful goofball zest is gone. In the eight years since their last album, Blink-182 split in a publicly acrimonious fallout, subsequent follow-up projects failed to gain any meaningful traction, and drummer Barker was seriously injured in a plane crash that killed four. Generally, the kings of slobby pop-rock appeared to have been forced to grow out of themselves in an age of hypercomplexity.
Yet here they are, back like before, only… not. The ambition is evident, but Neighborhoods is a polished yet uneven collection of big box pop-rox, stained by DeLonge's insistence on making nearly every goddamn song about his urgent struggle to emote. Depression, addiction, loss and the leading emotion of the album – pouting, desperate heartache – are inescapable cliches locked within high school lyricism and romantic urgency, stuck in a place Blink fans left behind when freshman year came to a close.
There are telltale and welcome signs of growth, as the frills of electronica on tracks like "Up All Night" all back to Hoppus and Barker's +44. In contrast, however, the remnants from DeLonge's Angels & Airwaves leave the man in a dark fog of self-seriousness, the goofball smirk of old replaced with a "let's cuddle" pout. "Hearts All Gone (Interlude)" would've been a great song if fully realized on its own, and at two minutes it's the shortest track on the record, sadly, but the frantic pace of the actual full track is another animal altogether. Yet it reveals another telling truth: relief washes in at the sound of Hoppus' vocals taking lead, as a riff not far from the DNA of Foo Fighters' "Rope" rides the breakneck beat.
Mark's feature on lead, while largely limited to a buoyant monotone, means we're insulated from Tom's embarrassingly melodramatic efforts to climb inside the mascara case of desperately twee infatuation addicts. For that we're thankful, as the dynamic shifts to an entirely listenable format without the whining, and the result is the best track on Neighborhoods. The energized "MH 4.18.2011" has a fresh flavor as well, with Hoppus' pleading "Hold on, the worst is yet to come" chorus coming to life over jangling guitars and a galloping beat.
Barker's fills and boundless beat creativity brings an imbalance to the equation of Neighborhoods, a little too much knuckle to the Lisa-Loeb-as-a-man frontside that Tom provides. He can't be faulted for the V-8 lean, as a scaling down to match the wheezing heart would mean sacrificing a majority of the punch-flavor that's left in this trio of revived and reformed troublemakers. It's Travis we hear as the album opens, and it's on his beating rhythms that the songs are built. And while the breathless and starry-eyed romance of "Ghost On The Dance Floor" is a powerful anthem of love's fleeting glory to a 14 year old who's never choked on the hot asphalt of true heartbreak, it's Barker's beats that keep us locked in, a metronomic parameter considerately boxing us in. His flurries in the breakdown are tremendous, and before the chorus comes back we find ourselves rooting for the song to end strongly. It does.
Truly, DeLonge's sensitive-drama affect is ruinous, a formulaic weakness that robs all promise from a track like "Snake Charmer". He breaks free momentarily with the hand-clapping "This Is Home," guitar and vocals in a matching melody that grabs the attention, a likely radio favorite. But on the aforementioned "Up All Night," his vocals are an overwrought rough mess, particularly in the pre-chorus. The music wants to break free, reaching Green Day-level pop sensibility at times, but the end result is the sound of three guys – actually one in particular – chasing the vapors of youth and the neon-cellophane packaging its sold to us in.
The formula breaks too late for the album's full wave to have any meaningful effect, with Hoppus leading "Fighting The Gravity" into an interstellar melancholy that would've been a promising attention-lock in the album's first five tracks. But DeLonge returns to the mic for album closer "Even If She Falls," ending the proceedings like a commercial for his & hers matching pink Valentine's Day suppositories.
The old fans will enjoy a little nostalgia. The new listeners will note the token effort and move on. The rest of us may enjoy a taste of "Heart's All Gone" as it passes by the radio dial, but aren't going to be swayed by Neighborhoods, an unconvincing bridge between then and now. If DeLonge puts down the Twilight books, scratches that romantic itch and focuses on rocking, there can still be a future for Blink. Until then…
CraveOnline Rating: 5 out of 10