Early-Aughts pop-punk stars Good Charlotte have made a new album, their first in six years, and it’s unclear who they want listening to it.
Longtime fans will likely find Youth Authority a little puzzling. Here are Joel and Benji Madden’s wonderful vocals, sounding as urgent and perfectly whiny as ever, with dense guitars soaring upward, the occasional EQ twist bringing it all rushing to the front. These are the things that make pop-punk fun to listen to, and that Good Charlotte mastered on their best-known record, The Young and the Hopeless.
But here, too, are intrusions of the bland neo-folk chants you’d never hear at Warped Tour (“Reason to Stay”); twee pop’s signature instrument, the glockenspiel (“Stray Dogs”); and even the bro-grunge of Linkin Park (“WAR”), which no one, not even people who listened to the regrettable genre the first time around (me), wants to hear anymore. It would’ve been worse for Good Charlotte to rehash their original sound, but this is hardly progress.
The other people who will probably listen to, and be confused by, this record are the teen-girl fans of the Australian pop-punk boyband 5 Seconds of Summer. For the past two years the Madden brothers have enjoyed an unexpected career turn as songwriters for 5SOS, whose perfectly pierced heartthrobs grew up obsessed with Good Charlotte. With a fan base that rivals One Direction’s in its passions, 5SOS could offer Good Charlotte a new audience, or at least new relevance.
Like 5SOS, I also grew up obsessed with Good Charlotte, and they were ground zero for my own taste. The Young and the Hopeless led me to the Rock Against Bush compilations, which led me to the Clash, and my listening spiraled out from there. When I read last year that a band who still had a place in my heart were writing for some Australian kids, I listened to 5SOS, and it sent me, cringing, straight back to Good Charlotte. 5SOS are homeopathic punk — so diluted, there’s hardly a trace of snarl. Good Charlotte may only be slightly stronger, but even that makes a big difference.
It’s also likely enough to turn off this potential new audience of 5SOS fans eager to hear their favorite band’s favorite band. 5SOS perform pop songs barely disguised with guitar distortion, whereas even at their weakest Good Charlotte are all crunch. And although the lyrics on Youth Authority have lost the punch of the band’s earlier work, they still reach for real irreverence. But the Maddens aren’t teenagers anymore, and their attempt to balance their core ethos with their own aging is wobbly at best.
They do nail it once, on the peppy, soaring love song “The Outfield.” Over a deeply satisfying, chugging guitar line, Joel addresses the partner who helped him grow into a better, and better-adjusted, person. “We were the young and hopeless/We were the broken youth,” he sings, signaling the distance of middle age without falling into nostalgia or bitterness. The outfield becomes a metaphor for a place where adult survivors of their own misspent youths might retreat and, eventually, find each other: “You’re not the only one they used/I was in the outfield too.”
But most tracks aren’t so nuanced, and none less so than Youth Authority‘s thunderous lead single, “40 oz. Dream,” a clunky invective against, well, everything about 2016. Joel details a waking nightmare where rappers sing, rock bands DJ, and his mom is (ugh) taking selfies. “Now all the punk rockers are over forty/They’re coaching Little League and reading stories,” he moans, later implying that the young punks at legendary Berkeley DIY venue 924 Gilman Street have become so tame they leave the cops outside “snoring.” But Good Charlotte aren’t from the Bay Area, and Gilman’s booking policy bans artists signed to a major label. He’s borrowing cred from a scene that wouldn’t want him anyway, an amazingly efficient way to sound totally out of touch.
Passing judgment on the uncool is a beloved pop-punk pastime, but when the people you’re judging are “the kids these days,” you sound an awful lot like the grumbling old-timer at the back of the show. Contemporary acts like Downtown Boys and RVIVR are more punk than anything the Maddens ever did, and so, for that matter, is Kendrick Lamar. The least Good Charlotte could do is acknowledge that the world kept turning while they were away.