So, it didn’t work out with the guy or girl you met at The Rock Show. And you’ve realized that after 23, everyone still hates you. This may come as a shock, but the lessons doled out to us by blink-182 weren’t necessarily applicable to life in your late 20s and beyond. But you know what? That’s fine.
That’s what we had Box Car Racer for.
20 years ago we were introduced to blink-182’s older, far more jaded cousin who quickly assumed the role of life mentor; dishing out some hard to swallow home truths such as that the government will lie to you, or that growing up doesn’t suck, everything kinda does but that’s, like, what brings us together, man.
In celebration of Box Car Racer’s 20th anniversary since their formation, a mere 12 months before the release of their self-titled debut, we look back at the talismanic release and re-clock some of the bigger truths buried so deep within, that none of us really knew what we were holding at the time.
Let’s set the scene. The year was 2001. blink-182 had just released Take Off Your Pants and Jacket and were therefore neck deep in their dick joke phase. It was also the year that blink-182 key ingredients Tom DeLonge and Travis Barker would shack up with guitarist David Kennedy to begin fleshing out the song ideas that DeLonge deemed too dark for blink-182’s wheelhouse. With some reported tension between himself and Mark Hoppus, it doesn’t look like it took too much for him to dive headfirst into the passion project, which was made all the more dark by a generation-defining event that would take place between Take Off… and Box Car Racer’s 2002 self titled debut: 9/11. At that time, it was 9/11 that irrevocably marked a change in the global zeitgeist from sustained puppy-dog eyed, youthful optimism to steel-eyed existential cynicism.
Box Car Racer didn’t waste a second in addressing this general malaise. Opening track ‘I Feel So’ is nothing if not an ode to all the bad feelings that seem to be part and parcel of exiting the halcyon days of youth: Mad, angry, calloused, confused, as well as a yearning for more; more bravery, more strength, more youth – more time. blink-182 certainly left those descriptors out.
To be fair, they hadn’t totally shied away from the perils that await at the pointy end of youth. Songs like ‘Anthem Part Two’ or ‘Shut Up’ gave us a light sketch of the scene, but it was a picture that Box Car Racer filled with depression-tinged technicolour. On Box Car Racer’s ‘All Systems Go’, what DeLonge may have previously held back came out swinging (“When will this be over/This cold and bitter season/The government is lying/The truth is found with reason”), bringing in even more wise-older-cousin energy than its spiritual precursor, the tongue-in-cheek ‘Aliens Exist’.
‘Tiny Voices’ was another glib glimpse into the future that in 2001/2002 seemed an eternity away. With the passing of the sands of time comes the degradation of self-assurance. Gone are the days where we can blindly trust our intuition, informed only by the confidence of youth. “Tiny voices make things harder,” DeLonge tried to explain to us 20 years ago. It all makes sense now, doesn’t it fellow former youths?
Perhaps an unofficial follow up to ‘The Rock Show’, ‘And I’ is a far more realistic story of dating in your late 20s. Lost in crowds, riddled with self-doubt and the fact that despite how much you may want someone, despite how much you both may really like the same bands, sometimes things just aren’t meant to be. Fucking brutal.
Upon its release, our cotton-wrapped ears heard ‘My First Punk Song’ as the whole wise-older-cousin façade breaking. “I got no dick,” the song rings out on, but with these far wiser, far more cultured ears, ‘My First Punk Song’ hits different. Rather than a band taking reprieve from their mature sensibilities, this song is a testament to the throbbing nihilism of the late 20s. “Fuck them all and watch them drown” is what aggression sounds like when you’re 25+. It’s messy, erratic and only socially permissible in short bursts.
As the album comes to its conclusion, the life lessons only become sterner and more apparent. Which works for this extended metaphor too, as the family dinner is coming to an end and you’re about to have to leave your older cousin’s bedroom, but they haven’t imparted all of their hard-earned wisdom yet. The clock’s ticking, and there’s no time to be whimsical now.
‘There Is’ speaks to the crushing weight of remorse, and the reality that there might be someone out there for you, but you’re doomed to love from afar. While blink-182 never denied us the pain of heartache à la ‘Don’t Leave Me’ and ‘Dammit’, they certainly never managed to make it sound as real as Box Car Racer did. “Will you sleep tonight? Will you think of me?” DeLonge pines in a fashion that’s far too relatable to get into for a public facing opinion piece.
‘Elevator’ featuring Mark Hoppus marks the official end to the narrative of Box Car Racer, and we can now hear it as the full stop that it is. While ‘Adam’s Song’ taught us about the struggles of death through the lens of the individual, ‘Elevator’ shows us the impacts on those around us, too. Inspired by the tragedy of 9/11, the song shares the perspective of the individual and the onlooker. This was a striking dichotomy for listeners at the time, who, intoxicated on youth, would have struggled to conceive of feelings and thoughts in others.
The album officially closes with an instrumental – a moment of contemplation. Like the closing monologue of Stand By Me, ‘Instrumental’ is a time to reflect on everything we’ve just heard. That is, things aren’t going to be the same anymore. They’ll never be the same again. But as unjustly brutal as your late 20s are, and as strange, cunning and baffling as the feelings that come with it may be, we bloody well all feel them.
Box Car Racer would vanish almost as quickly as it appeared. By 2003, after selling 65,000 records with little to no marketing beyond word of mouth, the project was officially defunct. Tom and Travis would return to the blink-182 fold, bringing much of the experimentation from Box Car Racer to the writing sessions for their seminal self-titled release that hit shelves that year.
Both Barker and DeLonge have publicly signalled that something is in the works to celebrate their 20th anniversary in style. Speaking on behalf of all of their day one fans, here’s hoping it’s a new album, and therefore a new guide to life – that would be just swell right about now.
If only we clocked Box Car Racer as the ‘how to’ guide it was all those years ago.