Sentimental Education

Illustration by Dienstelle 75Photo: Chelsea Lauren/WireImage/Getty Images (Hoppus); Rex Features via AP Images (Delonge); Robb D. Cohen/Retna Ltd./Corbis (Barker)

It’s hard to overestimate quite how fondly a certain age group remembers Blink-182. The band’s breakthrough album, Enema of the State, was released in the summer of 1999; by the following summer, it had sold over 4 million copies. After you figure in singles, videos, CD-R burns, copies on repeat in friends’ cars and finished basements, this was apparently enough to create blanket immersion among America’s twenty-some million teenagers. The summer of 1999 was also the summer of American Pie, a movie in which the band had a cameo, and whose sensibility is a near-exact match for Enema of the State: green grass, sun, swimming pools, teen boys obsessed with and mildly terrified by sex, jokes about having sex with things that are not other humans, and a healthy side of toilet-oriented gags. This was middle-class teenage life as one great shiny kindergarten, only with alcohol, online pornography, and secondary sexual characteristics. Is it any wonder some people might look back with grins and embarrassment on that summer as a simpler, happier, more hilarious time? Or carry rosy memories of Blink-182 in roughly the same way people once carried rosy memories of the Tastee Freez and the drive-in theater?

The band was, after all, the standard-issue suburban pop-punk for people who are in their late twenties now—just as Green Day had been for people currently in their mid-thirties. Green Day had more sneering, sarcasm, and discontent, and eventually convinced themselves they had important thoughts on society. Blink-182 had puppyish enthusiasm, hearts on sleeves, bestiality jokes, much whining about girls, and hooks that sounded like someone doing cannonballs in a backyard pool in August. Strange as it seems, this is why the latter crew—now freshly united and primed to release a new album called Neighborhoods—has aged better.

Age was always their great theme; rarely was anything written, either by or about them, that wasn’t at least partly about maturity. More specifically: their lack of it, their attitude toward their lack of it, or their eventual wide-eyed exploration of it. Enema of the State began by tackling the following string of topics: a callow complaint about girls not always doing exactly what you wish they would, followed, ironically, by a complaint about getting dumped, then a song about aliens, then a song about a girlfriend leaving for college. Then: their hit single “What’s My Age Again?,” an anthem for the kinds of young men who get told to grow up multiple times a day. The speaker in that one chooses TV over sex, a topic that doesn’t much appear in Blink-182 songs except as a punch line.

Juvenile humor, deft hooks sung in that high whine that makes anyone sound like a goony adolescent—these are big favorites among suburban kids, but they’re not everything. The band’s great selling point wasn’t the scatological side of juvenilia; it was their tremendous sentimentality. And who’s more sentimental than adolescents? Blink-182 were generous enough to cater to that emotion without hauling out acoustic guitars and string sections to underline their sincerity. By the time they followed up Enema of the State with Take Off Your Pants and Jacket (any polysyllabic word in a Blink title was likely a dirty pun), they’d stopped being much-maligned man-children and were merely writing songs for the aid and comfort of those following in their footsteps—openly empathizing with teenagers in voices too nasal to sound like they were pandering. Between songs about first dates and fighting parents, all the boyish jokes could seem like a pressure valve, the equivalent of two stunted guys who just hugged a few moments too long and now need to punch each other to relax.

But every Eden requires a Fall. Eventually all three band members became fathers and made a “mature” album, and then the group split for a long hiatus. Over the years that followed, thanks in part to Judd Apatow, a significant chunk of the public became vocally irked by ubiquitous stunted man-children, comedies that indulged teenage boys, and immaturities we were somehow meant to find sympathetic and hilarious. The big teen-beloved rock bands called their albums things like The Black Parade and took themselves extremely seriously. The big teen-beloved TV shows featured high-school students who wore suits and kept dinner reservations. The American Pie franchise, for those keeping track, became an iffy, straight-to-DVD affair.

So you might not expect to feel parts of the music industry practically vibrating with high hopes for Neighborhoods. But keep in mind that there’s yet another form of nostalgia at work here: This is the return of a powerful brand, a big-time fixture from the final days of the music industry’s having blocks to bust, when rock bands could make fun of boy bands on MTV’s Total Request Live and sell millions upon millions of records. Plus: Neighborhoods is actually pretty decent. It’s one of those albums on which a group reunites as professionals and equals, each having gone off and collected his own interests via side projects, and then negotiates a sound that brings it all to bear: no-­nonsense modern rock, serious but unpretentious, ambitious but full of the same easy hooks as ever. (The most grandiose thing about the album is the uncharacteristically sober polysyllabic word of the title.) The question, now, is something else: How many of the kids who grew up with this band feel like spending time with them again as adults? How many feel like going out for drinks with a fondly remembered class clown from their hometown, especially if he’s grown up?

Teenage fondnesses die hard, and the music industry rarely does poorly betting on nostalgia, so my guess is: plenty. Besides, if some of Blink-182’s fans find that the magic’s gone, well, at least now they know how to do stuff like paying bills and dating, right?

September 27. $12.99.

Sentimental Education