The Descendents today sound a lot like the Descendents you've always known, but this album is hardly a self-conscious clinging to past success. Instead, it's the sound of four guys with a deep bond, making music on their own terms.
It's been 34 years since Milo Goes to College, and 12 years since the last Descendents record, Cool to Be You. So the news of a new Descendents record is surprising, that these players -- all in their 50s -- might spend three years making these songs speaks to the bond the band has, even when they spend time apart. That sense of unity drives Hypercaffium Spazzinate, the band's energetic, absolutely catchy new record. It's a logical older sibling to the band's 1996 classic Everything Sucks. That album, made when the band members were in their 30s, translates the teenage angst of their early life to early adulthood, to the trials Milo and company must have thought would be gone by the time they hit 30. There was a fresh anger and lasting romantic streak to that album, the two emotions that drove Descendents from the beginning and made them such a unique, lasting force in punk rock.
It's interesting to note that this album sounds more like Everything Sucks and that even the band's current bio avoids mention of Cool to Be You. That album, released on Fat Wreck Chords, might not have been the band's finest hour, but its flaw have been way overstated. The focus on that record was more on melody than anything. The songs were fleshed out, the tempos a bit slower. But what held that album back was that it felt almost obligatory. It had some great songs -- from the tender "One More Day" to the obligatory toilet humor of "Blast Off" -- but besides some shoehorned Bush-era politics, it was hard to see where that record came from.
Strangely enough, it was taking their time that makes Hypercaffium Spazzinate sound so immediate. By recording in fits and spurts, singer Milo Aukerman could belt out every take, and the band sounds energized in this setting, crafting short, punchy songs that highlight Stephen Egerton's unique chord structures, Karl Alvarez's sweet bass runs, and Bill Stevenson's brilliant, best-in-punk-rock drumming. It's also an album that feels like it has context, like there's an overriding purpose. It's hard to age gracefully in punk rock. You usually have to move out into other genres or reinvent yourself in some way. But the best thing about this record? It sounds, top to bottom, like a Descendents record, and leans on all the band's best instincts.
The interesting change comes in perspective. The band smartly weaves in some self-reference to suggest the ways they've changed in middle age. "No Fat Burger" makes reference to the band's early EP, Bonus Fat, as well as their 15-second ode to eating, "I Life Food". Except now, of course, the band sprints through a lament, a lean farewell to "juicy burgers" and "greasy fries". On "Limiter", Milo sings to a younger generation, about how "society don't want to see you go for All", referencing the band's long-running philosophy on life (not to mention the name the band took when Milo split for college). These references add focus to the album, and provide a set of knowing nods to long-time fans.
These references to the band's past suggest the passing of time, but they also shape the anxieties bubbling under the surface of this record. More than once, the songs worry over mental health. The album opens with "Feel This", a song that tries to deal with loss without becoming numb. "Want to pain straight, the way I found it," Milo screams towards the end of the song, ignoring offers of prescriptions and drugs that take the pain away. Despite the album's silly title, its reference to a new kind of stimulant suggests this album is about staying in tune with life, the good and the bad, the pain and the joy. "Limiter" screams against over-medicating kids. "Victim of Me" tries to break the cycle of complaining without acting. Some of the anxieties here aren't new to the Descendents. "On Paper" finds the band in their self-deprecating romantic mode, looking for love while having "charm of a murdering serial raper". "Testosterone" subs out the jock and cool kid antagonists of earlier records for careerists stepping over you to get ahead.
As the cover art suggests, though, the band spends these songs working on an antidote. Perhaps the greatest charm of the Descendents has been their consistent optimism. Even Everything Sucks ended with "Thank You". As Hypercaffium Spazzinate sprints to its close -- the album covers 16 songs in 32 minutes -- the band takes time to celebrate their own unity, their own esprit de corps. "Smile" is a letter from Milo to drummer Bill Stevenson, encouraging him and supporting him through a set of health scares. "Full Circle" looks back on all the years, back to 1980 and a "glimpse of brilliant when we all started to dig underground." And closer "Behind the Music" tells the story of Descendents not as a band but rather as a family, starting in that "carpet cave where we learned to play" and coming all the way to the present.
This new Descendents album is a great next piece in the band's legacy and a welcome return. The way all these elements of self-reference and anxiety and nostalgia and celebration come together make the album strikingly complex, but there's also the simple joy of these riffs, these choruses, the sheer, unstoppable, catchy speed of these songs. The Descendents today sound a lot like the Descendents you've always known, but this album is hardly a self-conscious clinging to past success. Instead, it's the sound of four guys with a deep bond, making music on their own terms. On paper that seems simple, but in practice on this album it sounds pretty damn strong.