Eyes Wide Rut: Unedited Thoughts on What to Make of Tom Delonge’s First Solo LP

DelongeGuitar

This post appears stripped of its intended form here.

  1. On Monday, Tom Delonge shared To the Stars… Demos, Odds and Ends, his first release since being publically Eduardo Saverin-ed from Blink-182 by the band’s other two members, Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker, back in January. It’s an 8-song collection made up primarily of tracks Delonge had been holding on to for the band’s planned seventh album. As an LP, To the Stars… proves to be largely incoherent and forgettable, the kind of post-breakup release that there is a whole lot of groan-inducing precedent for (think mid-eighties Roger Waters or whatever Billy Corgan might have planned for 2016). But I’m not so sure we should be worried about discussing To the Stars… as an LP, because, as of Wednesday night, it’s barely one; I’m much more interested in discussing it as an indicator of what Blink-182 means to pop music in 2015 and as the first official artifact of Tom Delonge’s cultural legacy. If you’ll allow me, I’d like to pull at these two ideas a little. I put all these thoughts in the form of a list to at very least give them the physical appearance of coherence.
  2. The more I listen to To the Stars…, the more the 8 demos start to sound like they belong to different albums, as if each was once a kind of proposed direction.
  3. If you start thinking about them in this way, it’s pretty easy to see the kind of records that would have formed around them. The LP “Circle-Jerk-Pit” imagines is a kind of East Coast hardcore-influenced rebirth record that might’ve made Ian MacKaye reach for the bottle while “New World” would have been fleshed out as a record that pulled closed the emo curtain framing 2003’s Blink-182 and might’ve been half-decent. These are pitches more than anything else. That none of them are fully fleshed out or overly promising is far less important to our discussion than their basic state of existence.
  4. Brief side note: There’s also a song on To the Stars… called, “The Invisible Parade”, that sounds like something Tom must’ve pitched in every single Blink writing session only to be told something along the lines of, “We can definitely use that on the next one, or for the deluxe edition.”
  5. The existence of these songs tells us two things. First, it tells us that Blink-182 had very little idea of what they wanted their future iteration to sound like, and, second, it tells us that Blink-182 also had very little idea of what it was about their past iterations that made them so successful.
  6. If we look at this broadly enough, there are really only three iterations of Blink-182. There is the insanely popular version of the band that existed from the beginning of time until February of 2005, when Tom’s lack of interest and refusal to keep a steady touring pace caused their first indefinite hiatus. Then there’s the group that got together in 2009 to do a reunion tour and record an EP and whatever Neighborhoods is supposed to be. And finally there’s the current iteration, which is made up of Mark, Travis, and whatever pop-punk heavy has a spare 45 minutes to learn Tom’s guitar and vocal parts.
  7. Of these three, only one iteration is worth exploring at length: the band’s first. This is the iteration that recorded “Dammit” and followed it up Enema of the State, that took big studio polish and scrubbed at the inherently dubious genre of pop-punk until all that was left was they hyphen. It’s also the iteration that Luke Winkie, writing for LA Weekly in 2012, referred to as “one of the most important bands of all time” with a straight face. I’m not convinced that this opinion will make it too far into the 21st century un-amended, but let’s ignore that for now and assume that Winkie is correct, because he just might be.
  8. If you’re having a hard time assuming Winkie is correct, then allow the rest of these notes to, at the very least, work under the assumption that Blink-182 is one of the most important pop acts of the past 20 years. This is inarguably true; any guitar-heavy anthem that’s come out since 1999 is in some way an echo of the Blink formula. Hell, the cymbal-crashes on Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You’ve Been Gone” even sound like they were ripped straight from a Take of Your Pants and Jacket demo. You can’t talk about how pop music has shifted over the past 20 years without talking about Blink-182 just like you can’t discuss how the movie industry has changed without mentioning The Rock. Both have developed their own gravitational pull.
  9. More to this point, the best way to listen to Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” is to imagine it as the first chapter in a narrative that ends with “What’s My Age Again?”.
  10. Around the time that Luke Winkie’s article was published, the critical discourse regarding Blink-182 had begun to brighten. Right now, it’s becoming luminous. Their name is beginning to be regularly – and, most important, favorably – checked in discussions of emo-revivalism and any guitar-rock LP that clocks in at under a half hour. They’ve shed the incest joke-hawking personas that haunted their live shows – possibly because a new crop of critics is coming up at the moment who never got the chance to see Blink-182 at their most crass – and have finally, crucially, been afforded a legacy.
  11. This legacy, however, is far from complete. For one thing, Blink-182 is still discussed almost exclusively as a pop-punk band, a classification that implies the alienation of the term’s first half from its second. This has always required critics to try and have two simultaneous discussions about the band’s influence, in indie music and then in pop, when all they really needed was one. Blink-182 has been ubiquitous for long enough now that their influence has saturated everything. There’s no need to keep things separated anymore. Everyone wants to be as big as Blink-182.
  12. The pop-punk tag also ignores the fact that Hoppus and Delonge, the band’s two major founding members, had always been natural pop songwriters who simply needed to get out from under the California punk scene’s floor grease to be able to put those instincts to their proper use.
  13. This seems like a good place to mention that the cannibalizing tendencies of the 90s California punk scene have never really left Blink-182. They signed with MCA at a time when the word “sellout” still had a few drops of genuine venom left in it, and the decision to go through with the deal anyway ended up contributing to the band’s first drummer, Scott Raynor, exiting the group. He would be replaced, mid-tour, by Travis Barker.
  14. Barker, it would turn out, became fundamental to Blink-182’s leap into the stratosphere. He provided the band with all the muscles and connective tissue Tom and Mark didn’t really know they needed to keep their erratic bursts of skeletal melody standing upright. With all respect to Jerry Finn, it’s actually Barker’s work on Enema of the State that’s doing most of the transformation. He gets some big stadium moments – like the first ten seconds of “Dumpweed” when his cymbals sound like they’re hyping a heavyweight title fight or on the tenth to twelfth time he laps everybody else in the recording studio during “Don’t Leave Me” – but the best work Barker does on the record comes in its margins, when it sounds like he’s hammering the songs into place. Go back and check out his drum fills on something like “What’s My Age Again?” or “Going Away to College”, and you’ll start to hear them pre-emptively squashing pockets of radio static.
  15. There’s something so brutally restorative about the way Barker can hold the pieces of a song together, as if he’s using a sledgehammer to put together a jigsaw puzzle. He’s so good at this pop aggression thing that eventually people likeRob Aston and Corey Taylor came calling to see if he could figure them out, too. That he almost did is evidence enough that his conception of millennial pop should figure largely in Blink-182’s legacy.
  16. For more evidence of everything in the above note, see the band’s live version of “Carousel” from The Mark, Tom, and Travis Show where Barker leads off a high school talent show staple by introducing you to the charging cavalry of your adolescent shame.
  17. Without Travis Barker, Blink-182 could have become Simple Plan. They also might have been New Found Glory.
  18. Of the two major collaborators Tom Delonge lost upon exiting Blink-182, Travis Barker was the only one who still seemed essential musically. He’s the one who still might’ve been able to get something compelling, or at the very least listenable out of the distant, increasingly opaque guitarist. The chances of this were already slim, with the 8 songs on To the Stars… making it clear that Delonge has very little interest left in playing pop music, but if anyone could have found a way to help him write his You Are the Quarry, it was Barker.
  19. A better comparison might have cited Green Day’s quasi-political re-emergence behind American Idiot, but Delonge is closer to Morrissey at this point than Billie Joe Armstrong.
  20. Mark Hoppus is actually the closest analog to Billie Joe, but he is also, by far, the least interesting member of Blink-182.
  21. Another brief side note: Mark and Tom split Blink’s frontman duties, usually by song, which means their catalogue breaks down most easily into three categories: Tom Delonge songs, Mark Hoppus songs, and Tom and Mark songs.
  22. If you listened to Blink-182 in high school and identified the most with Mark Hoppus songs, you were either stuck in some kind of profound denial or having an unhealthy amount of sex. Mark Hoppus is not the member of Blink-182 that you’re supposed to identify with. He’s the unattainable one; the guy who walks into a movie scene with two girls rubbing his chest and leaves it with four. You’re supposed to wish you could be him, but you’re not supposed to understand him. He’s the guy who wrote the douchiest college boyfriend song of all time and then introduced it at shows as a “love song”. It’s probably for the best that you don’t understand him.
  23. But Mark Hoppus wants you to understand Mark Hoppus. That’s what makes him passably interesting. He’s a cliché who is aware enough of his own banality that he knows he has to find ways around it.
  24. Mark Hoppus is Ben Affleck.
  25. The best thing Mark Hoppus ever did, then, is make Tom Delonge his Matt Damon. The only reason any of Mark’s songs work lyrically is because Tom is standing next to him vouching for their validity. Something like the teenage poetry of “Adam’s Song” becomes much more compelling if you can imagine that it only came about after Delonge finally convinced Mark to express his feelings about a friend’s death creatively. A similar thing could be said about the believability of the sad-sack loner Mark tries to inhabit on most of Dude Ranch, but let’s move on.
  26. Tom Delonge is the member of Blink-182 you’re supposed to identify with.
  27. You are not supposed to like that you identify with Tom Delonge.
  28. Every Tom Delonge song does one of two things. It either (1) makes a creepy guy seem legitimate or (2) makes a legitimate guy seem creepy. The majority of his songs fall in the second category, but both are crucial to understanding his appeal. He was the guy who could build an anthem around the lyric, “I need a girl that I can train”, and talk you into being mad at the girl who made him this way.
  29. You could say this kind of thing is problematic, and I wouldn’t argue, but I’d rather call it nostalgic. Every experience Delonge had while writing songs for Blink-182 was filtered through his 15-year-old self and matched up with three or four power chords. He was stunted emotionally, but in a way you could understand, even if you were only 15 yourself. It also helped that all of his songs were all delivered in a vulnerable snark that made it seem like he was trying to play everything off as a joke. You felt bad for him before you realized you were him.
  30. Tom Delonge will be the member of Blink-182 with the strongest indie legacy, and I’m sure of this because it’s already starting to happen.
  31. What To the Stars… reminds us of is that there are a whole lot of bands making better Tom Delonge music right now than Tom Delonge. There’s the (“don’t call it an”) emo revival I mentioned earlier and then there are bands like The Front Bottoms and You Blew It! who are taking Delonge’s snarky-awkward binary and multiplying it by Craig Finn. Even Modern Baseball is fronted by two Delonge-types, and it turns out they wrote the best Blink-182 song in over a decade.
  32. Just because a legacy is in place, doesn’t mean that we should move on from the guy who put it there. Especially if that guy is Tom Delonge.
  33. We should not be forgetting about Tom Delonge.
  34. Because Tom Delonge is fascinating. Every review this guy gives should be aired on national TV. He’s kind of like Kanye West only where Kanye can become incoherent while discussing something that should be accessible, Delonge regularly becomes incoherent while discussing things that are themselves inaccessible. Here’s just one gem from a recent interview he did with Paper Magazine on his research into the existence of extraterrestrial life: “I’ve literally read 200 books on the subject, and I don’t spend my time looking at UFO reports or talking to little green men. I’m way past that.”
  35. Another gem, for fans of the first gem: “You take Christianity: a guy named Jesus came and died on the cross for everybody’s sins. That’s not as big of a story as what types of intelligences are living across the universe.”
  36. He’s also promised to release 15 novels over the next four years. I can’t possibly stress enough how much you should be paying attention to whatever this body of works turns out to be. These are just a little shy of upper-level porn star numbers, and he’s applying them to the most challenging human art form.
  37. It’s also crucial to remember that Delonge was the one who was completely unafraid to go full pop on the supposedly “dark” self-titled album Blink-182 released back in 2003, and each of his contributions ended up being fascinating for their escalation of disaster. He actually had some idea of how to write straight-faced pop songs – “Asthenia” still stands as his best song about his love/all-consuming fear of space – but had no idea how to plug his lyrics into them. You’re going to want to be watching if he ever gets another shot at recording something like “Always” because whatever would end up coming out of those recording sessions could be a supernova of awkwardness.
  38. To the Stars… doesn’t have any songs like this because To the Stars… is pretty much the equivalent of burning an ex’s laundry on their front lawn.
  39. To the Stars… is also, inarguably, a warning sign, but one that should make us watch more closely, that should make us ask, “A warning for what?”
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