With this month being the one year anniversary of Feedbacks, and this being the tenth edition of the feature, I thought I’d revisit where this feature started. Sort of. The first Feedback looked at blink-182’s self-titled album, which was their last release before going on hiatus for a few years. Today, we’re looking at one of the albums that happened during that hiatus: +44’s lone album When Your Heart Stops Beating.
By the time they broke up in 2005, Blink-182 had become a surprisingly major act. By then, bassist Mark Hoppus and guitarist Tom DeLonge had been playing together for 13 years, and drummer Travis Barker had been with them for the last 7. They’d transcended the pop-punk scene, and competed with bubblegum pop acts and cultural zeitgeists like late 90s Eminem on the Total Request Live circuit. Even the darkness around their 2004 album couldn’t wipe away the affable, joke loving, dude-bro image they’d built up. Arguably, that image made the very public break-up worse, especially for Hoppus and DeLonge; with mentions of jealousy, betrayal, and shutting each other out, the hiatus felt like watching two best friends ditch each other.
But, even apart, the two couldn’t stop making music. A few months after Blink’s hiatus, Hoppus announced that he was starting a new electronic project with Barker and vocalist Carol Heller. This ended up being a false start–after a few demos and “Make You Smile”, Heller left the group, and Hoppus enlisted guitarists Shane Gallagher and Craig Fairbaugh for the finalized line-up that hunkered down and recorded When Your Heart Stops Beating.
What’s the difference between +44 and blink-182 (besides +/-138)? The short answer is that +44 is even more alternative/indie rock than even blink’s late period experiments, with only a trio of songs (“Lycanthrope”, “When Your Heart Stops Beating”, and “Cliffdiving”) getting close to pop-punk. The electronic brainstorming that birthed “Make You Smile” is still present, as well: there are a few drum loops and synth flourishes tucked away throughout the album, and Barker plays with a hip-hop beat on “Weatherman”. While there are some immediate tracks, more of the emphasis falls on texture instead of hooks, and guitar melodies are used more to accent a chorus than lead the way, such as on “Little Deaths”. Even on the more straight ahead numbers, such as the title track, there’s a sophistication here that there never was on a blink tune like, say, “The Rock Show”.
While “Make You Smile”, built on a simple piano accompaniment with textured guitars and electronic drums, is an interesting “what could have been” for +44, it’s hard to not be thankful that the project went the way it did. It’s a gorgeous track, but I think an album of similar songs would be too much. Besides, one of “Make You Smile”‘s strengths is that is a singular song; if I wanted to listen to The Postal Service, I’d listen to The Postal Service.
As with any Second Band, there’s plenty of speculation as to what’s about the old group (case in point: every other Foo Fighters song until 2004 was “maybe” about Kurt Cobain, if the internet is to be believed), but for this album, the answer seems to be “most of it”. Even if some of these songs aren’t immediately about The Mark, Tom, and Travis Show, they still come from the same personal and uncomfortable area that the more direct songs do. The warmest moment aside from “Make You Smile” comes from the chorus of “Cliffdiving”, which can only bring “The promise of summer”, and not summer itself, the way that “Feelin’ This” could. “When Your Heart Stops Beating” keeps things fairly self-contained, and “Baby, Come On” still sounds inspired by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind more than anything else. “Lycanthrope” can mostly be seen as being about werewolves, although it does start the album with the lyric “I wake up at the end of a long, dark, lonely year/It’s bringing out the worst in me”.
Elsewhere, things get much darker, and much more personal. Hoppus is generally considered the more thoughtful of blink’s songwriters (“thoughtful” being a relative term) who could always crack a smile in the bleakest setting, so seeing him go all-in on this album is disarming. “No, It Isn’t”, titled to answer “Is this about Tom Delonge?” with Hoppus eventually admitted “Yes, It Is”, is the bluntest of the bunch with an opening salvo of “Please understand, this isn’t just goodbye/This is I can’t stand you”. It comes towards the end of the album, which is especially moody, and almost lightens things a bit–at least the song is looking back at the bad relationship. Meanwhile, “Weatherman” might be the darkest, bleakest song that Hoppus has written. It doesn’t even come with the clarity and attitude of “Thank God that’s done” from “No, It Isn’t”. Heavy, distorted bass, and stomping drums plunge the mid-tempo number into despair from the start, and lyrics like “I’m dying/I’m trying to leave” and closing line “I’m barely holding on” paint an excruciating picture of what life had to be like towards the end of blink’s run.
A favorite tactic in 2006 (and admittedly one I considered) is to contrast When Your Heart Stops Beating and Angles & Airwaves’ We Don’t Need to Whisper, but the two have more in common than most think. Aside from both being born from blink’s ashes, both projects are self-consciously artier than their predecessor, and both are less democratic. Each one tries to be serious, and both have moments of “try too hard to gain too little”. Critics were kinder to +44 than they were to Angels & Airwaves, although “kinder” here means “Shrugged at instead of laughed at”, but Heart Stops Beating got left behind more than any of AvA’s records have. The band had been in pre-production for Heart‘s follow-up, but Barker’s plane crash/blink’s reunion seems to have nixed any talk of a second album.
Calling it anything past “pretty good” is a stretch, but When Your Heart Stops Beating is robust and well-crafted enough with a bit of focus that it handily beats Neighborhoods in my book. I get why it’s overlooked as a hiatus stop-gap: a pop record, it ain’t, and it’s unfriendly to boot, but there’s substance here. Now that their main group isn’t as big on the dick jokes, +44’s album might be seen as more fan-friendly now, too. In this age of oversharing, we rarely get work that’s this personal and this honest, and When Your Heart Stops Beating shows that maybe we’re missing something because of it.