Every great band has one. A record that splits a once unified fanbase into two or more directions, creating a word cloud of conflicting opinions that typically leave the band as torn and confused as their fanbase. Whether it is the result of a wild change in artistic direction, a perceived lack of progression, a controversial change of lineup, a production choice, an unpopular collaboration, or any number of factors within or outside of the artist’s control, it all amounts to the same thing; a divisive record.
How an artist responds to this has been the make or break point of many careers, many artists push forward and reach new heights, surviving long enough to see their divisive record become heralded in retrospect. Other artists backpedal into more familiar sounds and hope that the audience will accept them back, to varying levels of success. Other artists don’t survive long enough to find out. Whatever the fallout for the artist, the records remain, untouched, in all of their perceived imperfection.
‘In Defence Of’, a new editorial series by Music Feeds, gives these divisive albums a second chance at making a good first impression. Join us as we give some of music’s most infamous divisive albums a fighting chance, by revisiting and reappraising them, far, far away from the hot takes and cultural context of their creation.
In Defence Of…
Released: November 18, 2003
Setting the Scene
blink-182’s Self-titled album was released in November 2003, and would be the last album the band would produce before going on hiatus in early 2005. In 2002, guitarist/vocalist Tom DeLonge and drummer Travis Barker founded side project Box Car Racer, along with David Kennedy who would later go on to join DeLonge’s Angels and Airwaves, and Anthony Celestino. This side-project is interesting, as it featured only two members of the 3-piece band.
In a 2015 Reddit AMA, when asked how the side project made him feel, blink-182’s bassist and vocalist Mark Hoppus responded saying: “weird, betrayed, jealous. Probably more than I should have”. During 2004, tensions within the band would build, ultimately leading to their hiatus in February the following year.
The band worked with producer Jerry Finn for Self-titled, as they had done for both 2001’s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket and 1999’s Enema of the State. They even rented a house to record in, and brought in a videographer to film much of the process (videos of which can still be found scattered about YouTube).
A little admin before we get started: there’s a bit of a dispute about the name of this album. Some say it’s Untitled, some blink-182, some Self-titled. For the sake of consistency, I’ll be referring to the album as Self-titled. Self-titled was the band’s sixth album – if you count their 1993 album Buddha – and it was the first album that saw them step back from their purely punk rock/pop-punk roots. As one can imagine, this departure divided fans a little. Songs about parties and college escapades were replaced with tracks that seemed to focus less on situation and more on emotion. Self-titled explored feelings of desperation, confusion, and loyalty. Topics covered on the album include space travel isolation (‘Asthenia’), domestic violence (‘Go’), and long ballads about loneliness (‘I’m Lost Without You’).
The overall musical tone was darker and heavier, too. There was a lot of experimentation for the band (as can be seen in the filmed studio footage), with its members trying different effects and recording methods, such as standing further away from the mic and yelling the words for parts of ‘Feeling This’. The album included a spoken word interlude, the layered, drum-centric ‘The Fallen Interlude’, and they even brought on The Cure’s Robert Smith to lend his haunting vocals to ‘All Of This’.
As mentioned, this album divided fans and critics. I think it’s pretty safe to say that it wasn’t what people would have been expecting from a new blink-182 record, at the time – although those who kept up with Box Car Racer might have gotten an inkling into the band’s potential new sound. If you frequent music forums, you may see people expressing their disdain for blink’s post-TOYPAJ sound (or post Dude Ranch sound, depending on the poster). Those who enjoy punk music and got into blink during the nineties could (understandably) find the newer music less their style.
While some critics praised the album for being a mature step in the band’s sound, others were less impressed. Steven Thompson of The A.V. Club wrote that the album “[does] meander in spots, and its most achingly sincere love songs become cloying”. Jenny Eliscu of Rolling Stone wrote “… their lyrics are still unsophisticated and lovelorn,” going on to say, “but even the poppiest tunes prove artful. Maturity suits these guys”. AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine gave the album four stars, calling it “an unexpected and welcome maturation from a band that just an album ago seemed permanently stuck in juvenilia”. Much like fans, critics seemed divided on the band’s new sound. While some believed it was something to be applauded, others seemed less than impressed.
Nevertheless, Self-titled picked up recognition, being listed at number 30 on Rolling Stones’ Highest Rated Albums of 2003. A decade after its release, Chris Lee of The LA Times wrote that the album was an “underrated masterpiece”. Writing for MTV News in 2013, James Montgomery mentioned that the album had become “a bit of a touchstone – a defining moment not just for the band, but for the genre of punk in all its permutations”.
The band members themselves have also commented on their love of the album, with Barker writing in his memoir Can I Say “it’s the blink album that Mark, Tom, and I are most proud of”.
In defence of Self-titled
I just want to preface this by saying this album was a pretty pivotal record for me as a teenager, and as such this review won’t be without bias – although what review ever truly is? As an angst-ridden teen, this album was one of my most-played. To say I know the words off by heart feels an understatement.
The album begins with ‘Feeling This’, a track that makes good use of the two singers’ differing vocal tones. This song gives listeners an introduction to the experimentation that’s to come on the record, opening with flanged drums, and ending with a layered vocal outro that features the two singing the chorus in unison before building another layer of differing lyrics over the top. Rather than sounding disjointed, this layering of words brings with it a comforting feeling, like this album is going somewhere and it wants to show you. ‘Obvious’ is a song that sounds completely dark and grungy, with hints of the guitar effects that would later become familiar to fans of Angels and Airwaves. This track brings the drums to the forefront, with Barker’s knack of filling a space with enjoyable drum fills especially evident.
When I hear the opening track of ‘I Miss You’, I find myself taken back to two places in my life. The first being a weekend morning, pulling my socks and shin-guards off after a game of hockey, with Video Hits playing in the background. The second being many years later, I was 15 and listening to the track on repeat after buying it with an iTunes gift card. If you were a music-listening human in 2003, you probably know this song. It was everywhere, and has remained a staple at emo club nights across the world since. It’s catchy, and like much of the album sees Hoppus and DeLonge’s voices playing off each other in call-and-response.
‘Violence’ has an intro that slowly builds, starting with drums and a heartbeat kickdrum, then a guitar that comes in sounding like a hoard of bees, circling. The vocals of the verse are almost spoken, with the sound of light percussion keeping time behind them. The guitars of the chorus could almost be from TOYPAJ, but the rest of the song lets you know they’re not from there, there’s something different happening here. There are softly spoken words just out of reach of full comprehension in the bridge. I remember sitting with a notepad and pen, desperately trying to work out what was being said (this was in 2008, before the internet was the magic little all-knowing beast that it is today!).
The end of ‘Violence’ leads straight into a track called ‘Stockholm Syndrome Interlude’, a piece that features a repetitive haunting piano melody as actress Joanne Whalley recites letters that Hoppus’ grandfather sent home to his wife during World War 2. This softness is contrasted with the energetic burst that is ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. I remember this being one of my favourite tracks at the time. As a teenager, I had the first line from the song written to flash on-screen as my old Nokia flip phone booted up. Thinking on it now, I’m not quite sure why I picked that line. It isn’t particularly profound, particularly compared to some of the other lines of the song. Hoppus’ lyrics in the bridge are great, and he almost yells them: “You’re cold with disappointment while I’m drowning in the next room/the last contagious victim of this plague between us”. This is one of those songs that I feel like I “get” a lot more the older I get.
‘Down’ is another song that is reminiscent of older blink, to me, at least. It’s forlorn, it’s pretty, it’s just a nice track to listen to when you want a soundtrack for wallowing in your own pity. ‘The Fallen Interlude’ clearly demonstrates blink’s experimentation on the record. It centres around Barker’s drum beat, and features Sick Jacken from Psycho Realm, along with vocals by Ron “Menno” Froese.
At first, ‘Go’ seems like a straight up-and-down blink song, but listening to the lyrics it’s clear it’s about the struggles of a family experiencing domestic violence. The chorus features the word “go” yelled on repeat, and the track is the shortest on the album (not including the ‘Stockholm Syndrome Interlude’), sitting at just 1:54 long. The next track, ‘Asthenia’, opens with the sound of NASA’s Apollo 9 transmissions. The song is told from the perspective of an astronaut in space, wondering if he should return home. I’ve always interpreted this song to be a loose reference to the way DeLonge was feeling regarding the band at the time, most obvious in the lyric: “this room is bored of rehearsal/And sick of the boundaries/I miss you so much” – but I could just be reading a little too far into things.
‘Always’ was the final single the band released for the album. It’s a love song that slowly builds into a thrashy chorus. The bass line in the second chorus is super nice and melodic, and the drums throughout the song are a whole lot of fun to air drum to. ‘Easy Target’ and ‘All Of This’ are a sort of two-piece set, both centred around a person called Holly. ‘Easy Target’ has a lot of military allusions and imagery: “All her signals are getting lost in the ether”, “Holly’s looking dry, looking for an easy target/let her slit my throat, give her ammo if she’ll use it”, “she’s got a mission and I’m collateral damage”. The chord progression of the outro slows, smoothly transitioning to the intro for ‘All Of This’. ‘All Of This’ features verses sung by Robert Smith from The Cure. The song is slower, with strings and stripped-back drums. The vocal harmonies of Hoppus and DeLonge on the second and third choruses are gorgeous.
Just when you think the album is winding down, Self-titled delivers ‘Here’s Your Letter’. This song is another energetic number, that begins with effect-laden guitars before pulling back to let Hoppus’ vocals take the lead. The drum fill at the end of the bridge is particularly excellent, so keep an ear out for that!
I’ve got to be honest, the album’s final song ‘I’m Lost Without You’ is a track I’d often skip (or listen to half of and then feel like I was happy to call it there). Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a decent song, and has even grown on me a bit over the years, but I feel like at 6:21 it’s just that tad too long. Barker’s drum solo at the end is neat though, so skip to that to finish the album if you’re finding the song is dragging a bit.
When I’m chatting with people about music and they ask me what I listen to, sometimes blink-182 comes up. At the first sign of a wrinkled nose or long pause, I’m quick to pipe up:
“Oh, I love their older stuff, like, from the 90’s”.
It’s a reflex, really, like a hand reaching out to soften the blow when you stumble. I don’t even think about it, I just do it. While this isn’t inherently untrue (Dude Ranch is easily one of my most played albums of all time), it also negates to relay just how much I enjoy Self-titled. There’s always felt a bit of a stigma about admitting that, but it’s true. I really enjoy this album. It felt like a new direction for the band, something different and worth exploring further. And while I may not be the biggest fan of all they have created since ending their hiatus, I’m glad they were brave enough to steer away from their original sound and explore something new with this album (even if it meant potentially alienating some of their older fans).
blink-182’s Self-titled is a solid record, filled with songs that each feel a little different. Not just from each other, but from anything the band had created previously… And to me, that was a good thing! I didn’t need a rehashing of TOYPAJ two years later, I was glad the band stuck to their guns and created something they were proud of (I would have loved to have seen a follow up to Self-titled in the mid-00s, though!).
Next time I get talking to someone about music, and I notice them starting to judge my love of this band, I’ll ignore the urge to focus on their earlier music in an attempt to win back ‘cool points’. Maybe instead I’ll say:
“Have you heard Self-titled? It’s actually really good.”