Photo: Journalist 2nd Class Denny Lester | Public Domain, Wikipedia

Blink-182’s ‘Untitled’ Showed Foresight We Could Only See in Hindsight

It’s easy to see how untitled‘s themes acted as a harbinger of the years to come for Blink-182. There’s longing and yearning; a distance that can’t be crossed.

18 November 2003

When Blink-182’s untitled album was released in 2003, some fans might’ve been prepared to be underwhelmed. While Enema of the State (1999) and Take Off Your Pants and Jacket (2001) would become classics, at the time, they seemed firmly rooted in seventh-to-ninth-grade mentality, where they’d reach boys with frosted tips in their hair and clad in Element tees like a holy grail of prepubescence.

Blink-182 had it in them to write a serious song, or at least one per album, e.g., “Adam’s Song” on Enema of the State, which displays rare male vulnerability about the topic of teen suicide. “Stay Together for the Kids”, from Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, is simple but gut-wrenching. These songs are self-contained, and the mood picks up again when they’re over.

“Feeling This” was out for a month prior to the release of untitled, and fans must have figured the rest of the album would be more of the same. It would get into the specifics of “Show me the bedroom floor / Show me the bathroom mirror.” But untitled isn’t about jokes or masturbation as fans came to expect.

The songs interweave the strengths of Tom DeLonge and Mark Hoppus’ voices and writing styles. DeLonge is angsty and whiny, while Hoppus is dark and sultry, bridging the gap of pop-punk to something a little more emo. The songwriting lore of their second single, “I Miss You”, speaks to the way they cooperate in perfect harmony on untitled: after getting the chorus down, Hoppus and DeLonge went to separate rooms to write the verses. This is how lyrics like “The shadow in the background of the morgue” in verse one coexist with the simpler “Where are you / And I’m so sorry” in verse two. Having contrasting voices and writing styles added a more nuanced texture and depth than an album with only one lead vocalist and songwriter.

The album produced four singles that were released in the span of over a year. While “First Date” sounds like a carbon copy of “Rock Show” on their previous album, these four singles are each a member of their own species. The hard ballad “Down” contains straight-faced spoken word whispers of “This can’t be the end” and “You did this,” leading into a sonically soaring chorus. On the other hand, upbeat “Always” is driven by Barker’s manic drumming crashing into cheesy romantic lyrics, complete with new wave synths.

Deeper cuts that might not grab the listener at first, like “Stockholm Syndrome” and “Here’s Your Letter”, have the potential to grow in catchiness, and the recurring themes – both instrumental and lyrical – easily make this a no-skip album. “Asthenia” reflects Tom DeLonge’s neverending preoccupation with space, featuring audio transmissions from Apollo 9 and his signature whine on the line “Where are you, Houston?” The lightning-fast baseline from “Easy Target” slows down to a laborious pace to become the background to “All of This”, where the crowned prince of darkness in the valley himself, Robert Smith, hops on for an earnest, soul-baring feature. Regardless of Blink-182’s Cure fandom status, lyrics like “Another night with her / But I’m always wanting you” became the permanent away message of an emerging subgroup of tortured Emo kids everywhere.

But perhaps the true unsung hero of untitled is Travis Barker. He truly showcases his range of talents, from the syncopated, jazzy “Violence” to the breakneck “Easy Target”. There are even moments when he showcases his hip-hop cred. In “The Fallen Interlude”, he shows off a surprising range of drumming techniques with vibey low-fi electronic music in the background, featuring Sick Jakken of Psycho Realm. Barker’s sound on this album might lead some listeners to desire an entire album of nothing but his percussion, and if they’re serious about this wish, they might want to check out his aptly titled solo endeavor from 2011, Give the Drummer Some.

untitled is the third and last Blink-182 album produced by the late Jerry Finn. Finn was known for creating “punchy” guitar riffs in his mix. The opening bars of Sum 41’s “Fat Lip” make the song easily imitable, even by a toddler. It’s inspired by Green Day’s epically catchy “When I Come Around”?, mixed by Jerry Finn. Even though Blink-182 was trying something markedly different from their earlier two albums, Finn already had a legacy of diverse credits and significant buy-in as a close friend of the band. Following his passing in 2008, Hoppus commented that he felt like Finn had been a “fourth member” of the band. Indeed, Finn’s talented ear and close relationship with Blink-182 definitely contributed to this album’s lasting legacy.

Sometimes music rings true because it’s the right thing at the right time. It captures the zeitgeist; it puts into words what everyone is thinking. There are times when attempting to do this can become heavy-handed: Twenty-One Pilots’ 2020 hit “Level of Concern” comes to mind. That said, the anxiety surrounding the Iraq War in 2003 lives and breathes in the shadows of untitled. The fourth track, “Violence”, describes interactions with a paramour as “She kills with no life to spare,” while “victims” lay at her feet. The rampage is not just contained to one track; it’s an extended metaphor that pops up throughout.

“I dread the moment when you finally come to kill me,” sings Hoppus on “Stockholm Syndrome”. Even the ups and downs of having a middle school crush are told brutally. On “Easy Target”, Hoppus croons: “Holly’s looking dry, looking for an easy target / Let her slit my throat, give her ammo, and she’ll use it.” (In the liner notes, DeLonge explains that this song is about Jerry Finn being tricked by a female classmate who drenched him with a hose to humiliate him. But what a gory way to retell it.)

The effects of war are expressed on a more personal and historical level in an interlude following “Violence” (given its own track called “Stockholm Syndrome Interlude” on digital releases). Actress Joanne Whaley reads an excerpt from a devastatingly romantic letter from Hoppus’ grandfather to his grandmother during World War II while a repetitive piano riff echoes in an empty room. It ends on a harrowing note – “I’m completely lost without you” – that resurfaces during the final dreamy ballad track, “Lost Without You”.

It isn’t hard to see how some of the lyrical themes in untitled acted as a harbinger of the years to come. Throughout the album, there’s longing and yearning; there’s a distance that can’t be crossed. In February of 2005, Blink-182 announced an indefinite hiatus. Fans interpreted this as an impending breakup, and for a while, they were right. Personal tensions mounted after years of frustration. Eventually, the band members got to a point where they didn’t speak to one another.

As bad as things got, no one would have predicted that almost 20 years later, in October 2023, Hoppus, DeLonge, and Barker would release a brand new – and in some ways, classic – Blink-182 album, One More Time. Sonically, many of the songs could easily fit on untitled, and lyrically, the band has gone back to their roots (masturbation jokes abound, and there’s even a triumphant “Slide your mom on top of me” from DeLonge for good measure). While it’s largely upbeat and hopeful, it acknowledges the band’s tense history and reflects on the catastrophic events that had to happen in order for three lifelong friends to put their differences aside. 

One More Time marks the second time Blink-182 reunited with this line-up: the first time followed after Barker was only one of two survivors of a plane crash in 2008. The band reunited, toured, and recorded Neighborhoods (2011) while tensions among them continued to mount. DeLonge eventually quit the Blink-182 in 2014 and was replaced by Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba. The second return of Tom DeLonge followed Hoppus’ cancer diagnosis in 2021. Fans realized they were talking again and speculated a reunion before the cancer diagnosis became public knowledge. In a video of him playing the tabletop game Twitch stream, Hoppus glances down at his phone through oversized glasses. “Tom DeLonge,” he says, breaking out into a boyish grin before telling his viewers to check out a new single he hasn’t heard yet from Angels & Airwaves, DeLonge’s side project.

The lyrics of the new album’s title track and second single are incredibly on-the-nose: after DeLonge sings: “from strangers into brothers/ From brothers into strangers once again,” Hoppus offers: “I wish they told us it shouldn’t take a sickness / Or airplanes falling out the sky.” However, there is beauty in this accessibility, as it tells a story many people know. There’s no question of what the song is about. We’ve all watched as Blink-182’s journey has unfolded, and this latest development feels like a victory of male friendship standing the test of time.

Twenty years later, Blink-182’s untitled is the reason we’re still listening.