Following the release of Blink 182′s last album, Rolling Stone magazine said that "it sounds like they’re just getting warmed up." Now, while guitarist Tom DeLonge is busy with his independent project, "Angels and Airwaves," bassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker have released a new album, "When Your Heart Stops Beating," with their new band, +44. After declaring their band on "indefinite hiatus," the rockers finally seem to be going all out. And this time, they’re playing by their own rules.
With "Angels and Airwaves," DeLonge sought "the conceptual depth of Pink Floyd," "the anthemic architecture of U2" and "the energy and youthful vibrancy of Blink". By contrast, +44, pronounced "plus forty-four" and named for the United Kingdom’s international calling code, combines techno beats and digital sounds with heavy guitars and drums, a sort of rock version of Postal Service. Had punk rocker Carol Heller of "Get the Girl" stayed on as the band’s guitarist and co-vocalist, they might have also called to mind Postal Service’s frequent use of boy-girl exchange and lament. The band apparently changed direction in mid-course, however, and Heller left. The result is consistently poppy music in 12 upbeat songs.
Gone are the days of Blink’s pop-punk. Nary a "palm-muted" progression is to be found; instead, the guitars are almost always distortion-free and acoustic. The drums deserve special mention. If +44 went pop-rock, no one told punk rocker Barker, who is determined to play his heart out. Even when the band is playing one of its many ballads, Barker seems like he’s about to unleash a fury of punk. The intensity that Barker brings to +44 distinguishes the band musically.
Hoppus deserves credit too; the man was born to write for radio. Each song has a hook, and none is repetitive. The album does suffer, however, from organizational problems. Though each song is worthwhile, their order is uncomfortable. The record opens with "Lycanthrope," a driving adrenaline rush of music. It seems to start in medias res, quite an extraordinary feat. It is followed by "Baby Come On," however, a ballad that instantly stops the momentum. Unfortunately, this pattern repeats itself for the first six songs, alternating between upbeat rock song and slow ballad.
Drums blanket the album, working well with Barker’s punk inclinations, such as in the double time of the band’s first single, "When Your Heart Stops Beating." The synthesized guitars of "155" sound more like 1980s pop-rock than new-age electronica. It is "Make You Smile," that stands out as the record’s best song. Featuring Heller’s original vocals, it perfectly combines digital beats with the rock aesthetic, and epitomizes +44′s ambitions.
As a greater indication of what was first envisioned, the band’s website features a "remix" of "When Your Heart Stops Beating," which is ironically closer to the original sound than the newer one. It replaces the leading guitar and drums with electronic substitutes, and slightly distorts the vocals. The two versions are a metaphor for the ultimate fight of "man vs. machine." Alas, the machine has won.
Hoppus said recently that the lyrics of +44 are some of the most personal he has written. This is easy to believe given the inane quality of Blink’s earlier repertoire, which was directed toward a teenage audience. Conversely, +44′s lyrics are more mature and sometimes even morose. "You smile while you twist the knife in my stomach," Hoppus sings in "Lillian." On "Little Death" he claims that "a little death makes life more meaningful." The peppiness of some melodies often belies the sentiments beneath. This is highlighted in "No, It Isn’t," which Hoppus admitted is directed at former band mate and friend, DeLonge. In it, he declares, "This isn’t just goodbye, this is I can’t stand you." He regrets the guitarist’s decision to "burn down something beautiful."
The artwork of the jewel case pictures the words "When Your Heart Stops Beating" in black with the letters "ART" of "heart" standing out in blue. It is not a subtle message; nor a correct one. Though DeLonge might have aimed too high and spoken too greatly of his mildly successful new sound, at the very least it followed through on its vision. In +44, Hoppus seemed to have reneged on his. Though the result is a good listen and a worthy purchase, it doesn’t live up to its potential.