You can dismiss Blink-182 as cartoons if you like. They're certainly not going to stop you. They even call their new album Take Off Your Pants and Jacket: Say it out loud, let your inner eighth-grader savor the cadence of the phrase. It sums up Blink-182's wiseass brat-punk ethos almost as well as their recent live album, The Mark, Tom and Travis Show (The Enema Strikes Back), which featured the butt-stupidest stage banter since Kiss' Alive! (Mark: "You can leave now and beat the traffic!" Tom: "Or you can stay and beat your meat!" — and they get paid for this, ladies and gentlemen.) But this is rock & roll, where cartoons can get away with exposing emotional truths blocked to more portentous characters, and behind their doofy grins Blink-182 have plenty to say about the secret life of boys. Too funny for even the most uptight ideologue to dismiss as simps, these guys feel free to sing about their girl troubles without hiding behind either hipster irony or macho hostility. When they meet girls tougher than they are, which is usually, they're not threatened — just terrified and attracted and amused and, if they're lucky, quick-witted enough to sing "Please Take Me Home" before she moves on to someone else.
Take Off Your Pants is Blink-182's fifth studio album, and like all the others, it improves on the last one. They don't mess around much outside their tessitura — they like to keep everything light, fast and punchy. Even before the vocals, you can always tell it's Blink-182 and not, say, Green Day or the Offspring or Foo Fighters, all of whom sound sluggish in comparison. Their understandably underhyped musical chops are one of the reasons Blink ride high where so many similar guitar bands have fizzled. But another is that they're rock & roll boys who aren't scared to sing to, for and about rock & roll girls. They might have harpooned teen pop in their genius "All the Small Things" video, but the actual song was pure puppy love, with a "na-na-na-na" chorus ringing out like some lost Crystals or Shirelles oldie. They bare their painfully adolescent fragility, confusion and vulnerability, without playing coy about their pathetic sex drives or their moronic sense of humor. For teenage females who want to know what they're up against, Blink-182 are as educational as Jackass while bravely (and uncommercially) refusing to spoil the joke with the bully-boy whining that passes for raging against the machine these days.
On Take Off Your Pants, they continue their roll: happy songs about girls they like, sad songs about girls who don't like them, serious songs about divorce, dysfunction and the end of the world, plus one really funny song that goes, "I'll never talk to you again/Unless your dad will suck me off" and ends in forty-two seconds flat. The only false moments are the arty metal breakdowns like the horrendously titled "Online Song," which might work live but sounds strained and pompous on record, as arty metal breakdowns tend to do. But Blink make up for those with the single "The Rock Show," a slice of suburban teen romance that Joey Ramone is probably pogoing to right this minute in rock & roll heaven. Bassist Mark Hoppus sings about meeting a girl at the Warped Tour, which feels as apt and funny as the Ramones finding true love at the Burger King soda machine in "Oh Oh I Love Her So."
But, of course, it doesn't take long for the Blink boys to hop from the crushed-out harmonies of "The Rock Show" or "First Date" to the bleak stuff, especially the broken-family snapshots of "Shut Up" and "Stay Together for the Kids." And they bare their souls like never before in "Story of a Lonely Guy," in which ace guitarist Tom DeLonge sings about feeling like "just a stupid, worthless boy" over painfully pretty guitar ripples. It's one of the truest songs about being a boy anyone has dared to sing since the Replacements went dry. Blink-182 might never find themselves in danger of becoming respectable, committed as they are to three-chord kicks, bathroom-graffiti gags and staying quicker on the trou-dropping trigger than Britney Spears. But as they plow in their relatively un-self-conscious way through the emotional hurdles of lust, terror, pain and rage, they reveal more about themselves and their audience than they even intend to, turning adolescent malaise into a friendly joke rather than a spiritual crisis. And since nobody in his right mind would feel menaced by Blink-182, they don't waste time trying to menace you. Instead, the dumbass cartoon twerps of Take Off Your Pants and Jacket are a significant band in spite of themselves. For those about to jacket, we salute you.