‘Dude Ranch’: When Sadboy Went Punk

“All’s fair in love and war, until you say it isn’t, but you’re wrong.” That line from the middle of “Lemmings,” the penultimate song on Blink-182’s “Dude Ranch,” is probably the best way to summarize the album. Blink-182’s pre-breakthrough album, which turned 20 this summer, is a strange mix of heartbreak, revelry in loserdom, and toilet humor. It was never an album that anyone would’ve predicted would shape punk music for years to come, but it did. It has become a classic, the success of which allowed Blink-182 to become a premier pop-punk group. “Dude Ranch” either embodies the implicit douchebaggery in every Nice Guy™ looking for love or it works beautifully as a coming-to-terms with being toxic.

Early Blink-182 could most effectively be characterized as the “Captain Underpants” of bands. Everything they did felt a little like a dirty joke. Founded by guitarist and co-lead singer Tom DeLonge, bassist and co-lead singer Mark Hoppus, and drummer Scott Raynor, Blink-182 quickly became a San Diego favorite and eventually released the album “Cheshire Cat,” probably the best example of an album that works as a brilliant act of intentional terribleness (See: “Just About Done.”) As the band began touring, they realized they were too popular for their label, which refused to see them as anything other than a joke, and signed a deal with MCA Records for their next album, after being promised full creative freedom.

That creative freedom actually made Blink-182 more cohesive. On “Dude Ranch,” everything’s in sync. The band debuted the glossy, polished sound that made them famous, making every guitar lick sound epic. Blink-182’s only weakness is its vocals. DeLonge’s is notoriously nasally, and while it works most of the time, there are moments it’s especially grating, like on the closer “I’m Sorry,” where it sounds like nails on a chalkboard. Hoppus, whose voice was ordinarily a clean bass, was quitting smoking at the time, and he sounds raspy, especially on songs like “Dammit.” Nonetheless, the sharp writing makes up for some of this. Hoppus and DeLonge are both clever lyricists and goofs at heart.

The album sets the theme brilliantly with “Pathetic,” an energetic rocker about a girl who calls the protagonist the same as everyone else and pathetic for thinking otherwise. The rest of “Dude Ranch” is largely about being a “Nice Guy” over the course of failed relationships and attempts to woo girls. The protagonist feels a sense of entitlement towards women he’s interested in because he believes he’s a better person than the guys these women date. Over the course of “Dude Ranch,” the protagonist gradually understands that he’s wrong and atones.

DeLonge and Hoppus fill different roles to make the theme palatable: DeLonge is the immature delinquent while Hoppus is the sadboy loser, the entitled protagonist who gets sad when things don’t go his way. DeLonge helps flesh this character out and give comic relief as a comically bad person who tries without avail to be good. For example, take “Voyeur.” DeLonge sings about being a peeping Tom while his situation gradually becomes more ridiculous (“I’ve made mistakes by looking in the wrong window / Her dad is big and I’ve never seen his face,” “My lady’s so sweet, she likes to entertain”). While DeLonge has moments of earnestness, they usually still feel immature, like “Enthused,” in which he vents about a girl who doesn’t realize he’s into her, or “Dick Lips,” in which he bemoans his parents’ anger at him for showing up drunk to a dance and getting kicked out of school. Because DeLonge acts as Blink-182’s frontman, “Dude Ranch” is able to explore the theme with a sort of comic touch.

Hoppus acts as a far more serious protagonist. His songs feature the central figure seeking something more from those around him and becoming frustrated when they or he inevitably falls short of his expectations. There’s a gradual realization, however, that what he wants is a girlfriend who will put up with his mediocre self. The climax of this realization is on “Josie,” in which Hoppus literally describes his ideal girlfriend.

“Dude Ranch” is all about the realization of this entitlement, as the album builds to an epiphany that the protagonist is a bad person. It’s a narrative that sounds murky and toxic, but one that Blink-182 mostly pulls off through the brightness and hookiness of DeLonge’s guitar work. By keeping everything lyrically simple, Blink-182 is able to be catchy despite their darker material. While this fails on tracks like “Boring” and “Emo,” it works resoundingly well for the rest of the album. “Dude Ranch” thus acts as a cheerful work of pop-punk sadness. It was the launching pad for Blink-182’s success, and their next two albums were smash hits and sounded like glossier versions of “Dude Ranch.” While the sound has become tremendously influential, no band since has been able to make the Nice Guy so likable. For all the accomplishments the band had, this one may be the most impressive.

—Staff writer Edward M. Litwin can be reached at edward.litwin@thecrimson.com.

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