If one needs a barometer of how rock has changed in the last half decade, the Offspring will do just fine. In the mid-’90s, this Orange County indie band epitomized the loudest, brawniest, and most amped of skateboard rockers. They were never as punky as they would have us believe — their buffed-up sound was a little too clean, their grins a little too pearly white — but their concept of rock as contact sport instantly set them apart from most of their competition. Next to the downcast alt-guitar strummers of the day, the Offspring were proud exhibitionists.
Five years later, the Offspring are a true American band, making the leap from punk indie label Epitaph to the major leagues while holding on to much of their original core audience. Despite initial cries of sellout, they’ve managed to retain their bratty-outsider status. Their recent clash with Columbia over their new album, Conspiracy of One (the band wanted to offer it as a free online download but backed down when Columbia naturally balked), only reinforced that image, even if that battle seemed more like a good public relations move than a winnable fight. Conspiracy of One continues very much in the vein of its three high-energy predecessors. Dexter Holland still sings as if every muscle in his neck were taut, guitarist Noodles cranks out the rivet-gun riffs, the band knows a good hook when it latches onto one, and, in the venerable tradition of the Ramones, nearly every one of its fast-paced songs sounds pretty much the same. Adhering to their healthy-aggression bender, ”Come Out Swinging” and ”Living in Chaos” serve as anthems to self-respect and the eternal misunderstood teenager. If music were food, Conspiracy of One would be a PowerBar.
The band do make a few concessions to growing up: ”Dammit, I Changed Again” is almost amusing in the way Holland grapples with maturity. But just as it did with the Ramones, the formula has begun to set in. Like their earlier discs, Conspiracy of One has a novelty first single with a gimmicky vocal hook. But ”Original Prankster,” featuring a cameo by Redman, is little more than a retread of ”Come Out and Play” and ”Pretty Fly (For a White Guy).” There is the standard requisite contemplative nod, but ”Denial, Revisited,” Holland’s attempt to hold on to a relationship after numerous battles, is no ”Gone Away,” his elegy to an unspecified loved one (and a centerpiece of 1997’s Ixnay on the Hombre). ”Vultures” is so blatant a knockoff of ”Come as You Are” that it might conjure Kurt Cobain from the beyond, along with his undead lawyer.
On one of the album’s moshingest tracks, ”One Fine Day,” the Offspring act all rowdy and destructive. Their definition of an enjoyable few hours, Holland boasts, amounts to watching sports on TV, drinking Stroh’s (the most blatant product placement in recent memory), and destroying anything in sight. But as nihilistic as they try to be, both on this song and the somewhat creepy stalking song ”Special Delivery,” the Offspring still come across as congenial, even harmless — the kind of fun-loving wiseasses who would make good football-watching buddies.
Whether they want or not, the Offspring have become a bellwether for rock’s heightened testosterone levels. What was so aggressive in 1995 now sounds, in a rap-metal world, tuneful and friendly. The album opens with a snippet of ’60s stage patter from Beach Boy Mike Love (”when we’re ready to sing, we step up to the microphones and it comes out sounding something like this”). And it’s oddly appropriate. Compared with the knucklehead rockers who’ve come to dominate the charts, the Offspring are modern-day Beach Boys: Southern California good-timers with a love of escapist high jinks and feel-pretty-good songs. Sometimes, you wish their peers all could be California boys. B