You hear that? That’s the sound of rock radio programmers and bleached-blonde Vans Warped Tour attendees around the world breathing a collective sigh of relief. So Cal’s most successful punk band ever is back, and they’d like people to know that they don’t intend to rest on their laurels when it comes to their ninth studio album. (Jesus, has it really been nearly 20 years since “Come Out and Play” burst out of nowhere to become the first independently-released single to top the Billboard Modern Rock chart?) Let’s be frank, though: I’m sure we all learned at some point in school that trying your damnedest doesn’t necessarily correlate to turning out the best damned work you’ve ever done. Good effort, kid, but does the final result warrant the grade you’re aiming for?
That’s a polite way of saying Days Go By isn’t better than Smash, that multi-million-selling 1994 breakthrough that comfortably remains the Offspring’s most accomplished moment. Even so, there are high expectations being generated for this new CD. The party line from the Offspring is that the four-year gap between Days Go By and their last LP, 2008’s Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace, was the result of diligent tweaking and polishing of the material intended to ensure that their new offering would be all killer, no filler. It sounds like a flimsy spin spiel—but then you pop in the disc and are greeted by the bounding charge of guitars and drums given arena-sized weight courtesy of Metallica producer Bob Rock, and all that talk does seem to evidence genuine merit after all.
It’s a shame then that Days Go By doesn’t fulfill its promise, especially since the first handful of cuts leave a good impression. Though the Offspring’s songs are no longer predominately propelled by the blistering quasi-thrash riffs of yore (they make an appearance near the end on “Dividing by Zero”, but that’s it), the band compensates by performing their rockers with a steady, linear determination that makes such songs feel resolute and unconquerable. The album opener “The Future Is Now” is a potential rock radio smash in the waiting, and easily outclasses the LP’s actual lead single for the American market. That’s not to say that that single, the album’s title track, is weak. In actuality, “Days Go By” is a solid piece of inspirational hard rock that’s remarkably reminiscent of the Cult circa Love down to its Billy Duffy-aping guitar leads, but avoids the outright pastiche that always infests Offspring records due to singer Dexter Holland’s psychedelic phrasings.
Then Days Go By throws away all the goodwill it has built up so far by entering downright dire territory in its middle stretch. That segment of the album brings the cringeworthy “Cruising California (Bumping in My Trunk)”, the LP’s requisite joke single (and its lead a-side outside of the US). Here, the band pillages the sound of contemporary Top 40 dance-pop to create their own sunny summer pop anthem, authentically flavored with rapped verses, blown-out bass, and annoyingly dopey hooks including a whistling synth line and a mugging Holland’s calls to “Turn up the beat yeah!” Yeah, these smart-ass genre exercises are an Offspring trademark, and I’m sure defenders will argue that putting out a single as legitimately dumb-sounding as anything Katy Perry or LMFAO releases makes it all the more humorous. Whatever, this song is downright diabolical, a showcase of the Offspring at their most grating. The subsequent number “All I Have Left Is You” (the Offspring doing a U2 impression without being blatant about it) is a brief respite from the utterly horrendous, but then we return to familiar territory with “OC Guns”, an unholy combination of obnoxious white boy Spanish rapping, half-baked reggae riddims, and loudly mixed record scratching. Two minutes into my first listen, I couldn’t stand anymore. And then my face fell as I realized I had two more minutes left to go.
Two (incredibly) horrible songs aren’t enough to discount the entire album, no. Yet it’s unfortunate that Days Go By doesn’t provide any delirious highs to counter its abysmal lows. As I said earlier, there’s a feeling of unfulfilled promise with this record. Much of the album is commendably competent, with a few patches of blandness (“All I Have Left Is You”, the Orange County pop rock-by-numbers of “I Wanna Secret Family (With You)”) interspersed. But nothing on Days Go By is in the weight class of past Offspring classics “Come Out and Play”, “Self-Esteem”, or “Gone Away”. Instead, its best tracks simply follow on from quasi-comeback Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace and maintain that level, as if this is the most we can expect from the band in 2012. If the group did indeed approach this recording with the gusto it claims, that may very well be the case. It’d be a shame if that was so—that if after nearly 20 years of hits, the Offspring have reached the stage that threatens all veteran acts, where the public is supposed to be content if they manage to put out an album where they don’t embarrass themselves.
Oh wait, they did. God, “Cruising California” is terrible.