Ah, side projects: a rock star’s oasis of songwriting freedom. Or, as Box Car Racer drummer Travis Barker explained to Rolling Stone, “I don’t want to be in a side project to be popular. I just want to play music and have fun, so it probably won’t be the most radio-friendly or commercial-friendly music.” Excusing the disenchanting implication that creating radio-friendly/commercially-viable music isn’t fun, Barker’s comments are indicative of the advantages the “side project” offers. Liberated of many expectations (hit singles, massive record sales), musicians can now make music that doesn’t follow sad formulas for success (you know, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus), or at least that’s the hope. Box Car Racer, one such side-spawn of pop-punk formula junkies Blink-182, is the brainchild of Barker and guitarist/vocalist Tom DeLonge. Box Car Racer isn’t nearly as experimental as its supposed influences (Fugazi and the Refused), but it’s a much-needed departure from the banality of Blink-182.
Box Car Racer has grabbed the finer elements of Blink-182—pop sensibility, innovative percussion, DeLonge’s snotty whine—and adds piano, strings and acoustic guitar, as well as a willingness to let the music run the show. DeLonge and Barker allow the band’s songs to go where they need to go, following the drummer’s imaginative beats rather than the rhythm of the radio. Neither genre-obsessed nor intent on defying convention, Box Car Racer is the perfect union between pop-punk riffs and instrumentation that spans all rock genres from indie to folk. Finally, we have a pop band that is attempting to take advantage of the potential of its instruments. Songs like “Letters to God” and the lead single “I Feel So” deliberately switch back and forth between rambling pianos, steady acoustic guitars, and a full band and percussive breaks with minimal guitar. The arrangements are sewn together by Barker’s drum kit, played deftly enough to command the music without ever taking time out for masturbatory drum solos. Instead, Barker sneaks in improbable tom hits and hi-hat crashes, adding intrigue to otherwise average sections, a trick he displays on nearly every track.
Lyrically, DeLonge continues writing about his favorite subjects (relationships and young people), but he offers an uncharacteristic knowingness to the songs. He minces no words on “The End with You” (“There are no useful drugs to escape from feeling numb”) and then offers up a witty metaphor on “Watch the World” (“I saw this man dispose of hunger and soap operas, too/I saw a field that grew perfection full of things you do”). The only “joke song” on the record is “My First Punk Song,” which may very well be the first song DeLonge or Barker ever wrote. With intentionally poor sound quality and absurd lyrics (“I got brownies from your mother/They gave me syphilis/I got no dick”), the track is a caricature of Blink tracks like “Happy Holidays, You Bastard,” a possible indication that DeLonge is growing up. Indeed, his words don’t exactly challenge the mind, but he’s offering more of himself than before, perhaps seeking an audience larger than Blink’s preteen fanbase.