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The Offspring, ‘Days Go By’ (Columbia)

SPIN Rating: 4 of 10
Release Date: June 19, 2012
Label: Columbia

Because the Offspring, like all of us, daily draw nearer to death, their new album is clouded with nervous fear: the sound of four forty-ish Cali guys who took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up as the Offspring. This is a poignant, mortal sound, but unfortunately, it’s also the sound of 12 more songs where the choruses are Brian “Dexter” Holland chanting laxly over muffled whoa-ohs. (This band has been whoa-oh-ing without cease for about 20 years now, long enough so that you can be sure they’ve had at least one conversation about it and decided it’s a necessary feature.) Songs like “The Future Is Now” and “Secrets from the Underground” roaringly insist that their real story lies ahead, and that they have much yet to say. Raging against the dying of the light is a fine tradition, and you could probably find an expert who’d tell you that it’s all art is. But even in 1994, these guys only had one thing to say, or rather, one thing to be.

The Offspring were a sarcastic band: That was their forte, their habit, their whole point. Their fellow ’90s pop-punk laureates could be sensitive, even thoughtful: Green Day’s suburban wasteland was a well-drawn universe of boredom, and blink-182 spared no strain or indignity miming earnest teenage narcissism. Both of those bands were pretty good. The closest to poignant an Offspring song ever got was on Smash hits “Self Esteem,” wherein toxic self-loathing is described so flatly it’s funny, and “Come Out and Play,” wherein Holland chants for three verses about apocalyptic teenage violence, but only sounds really excited when he starts moralizing: “Your never-ending spree of death and violence and hate / Is gonna tie your own rope.” (TIE YOUR OWN ROPE! TIE YOUR OWN!)

The Offspring’s other notable songs were things like “Bad Habit,” which is about road rage and climaxes with the frenzied apercu “you stupid dumbshit goddamn motherfucker”; “Cool to Hate,” which is a list of things you can hate that rhyme; and “Pretty Fly for a White Guy,” which does not actually think its subject is fly. Even in their prime, the Offspring were not good, exactly, but they were genuinely misanthropic, which in certain situations (adolescence and its relapses) can be similar. But it took a while to realize just how misanthropic they were, and are — that underneath their punk snot is not the traditional damaged heart, but a deep and clinical hatred of nearly everything. “Cool to Hate” is under three minutes long, but it could have as many unused verses as “Hallelujah.”

One effect of this disdain is to make the band’s stabs at empathy distended and awkward. Their attempts in the grim-and-nervous 2000s to draft a song capable of tolerance and sympathy birthed a couple of howlers, including “Kristy, Are You Doing Okay,” featuring the paternal concern from Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle,” and one of the commas from Fall Out Boy. But even during this phase of the band’s career, which continues to this day, they remain most devoted to put-ons like “Spare Me the Details,” whose first line dismisses Holland’s girlfriend as a “dumb donut.” (The details he wants you to spare him regard her drunken tryst, about which you seem suspiciously informed.) Songs like this are gross in ways that it’s difficult to describe; they cast the worst possible light on everything. “Spare Me the Details” is also one of later Offspring’s most alive, engaged songs — it pogos like an untrained puppy. But these moments are the Offspring’s best because they’re also the band’s worst. It’s when they’re the most like themselves.

Thus, the best track on Days Go By is “Cruising California (Bumpin’ in My Trunk),” a demented mockery of Cali-booster songs in which Holland howls sweatily about someone’s “caboose” over a thumping Eurobeat, and more than once references a no less quintessentially Californian band than the Ramones. This is a parody, but it’s less a parody of Katy Perry or Snoop than of excitement, or joy. It’s possible, since you’re only a person, to be momentarily cheered by the beat’s dumb belly-flop, but you’ll be reminded immediately — via Holland’s hysterical sneer, or the lyrics’ misheard slang, or the talkbox — that the song hates you, hates everything it’s imitating, hates itself, and probably hates California. It’s a kind of apotheosis, here in 2012: The most sarcastic Offspring song ever.

As such, it’s more toxic fun than anything else here, as guitars grind and drums fill and Holland yells and everyone grows a little older. That last part doesn’t pass unnoticed. Songs about the transience of life and the transcendence of love are all over this record — Empathetic Offspring &#8212 but, as always, this band slumps over like an empty puppet when they abandon contempt, and Holland ends up saying things like, “All our yesterdays are pictures lost in time” and “Been waiting for the season when the healing’s done” and “There’s something rising up / Not one but a million that have had enough.” (That one feels like an Occupy song, but only because Occupy just happened; it’s as vague as reporters kept insisting the movement was.) There’s a song about a stripper called “I Wanna Secret Family (with You)”, but the best part of that, besides the title, is the whoa-ohs.

The Offspring’s nervousness is palpable in their protestations of relevance and liveliness, but no matter how fast or loud things get, there’s no energy or wit, nothing to convince you this band could win, or even prolong, a fight with oblivion. They rouse themselves to mock dancing people in California, but if you’re not dancing yourself, you can’t mock death. It just sits and watches you come closer. Whoa-oh.