It’s summertime, and for me, few albums encapsulate the feeling of summertime than The Offspring’s Americana.
Americana is not the Offspring’s fan-agreed magnum opus; that would be 1994’s Smash, an album that is still the top-selling independent record of all time.* Coming hot on the heels of the complete and utter musical paradigm shift that was Nirvana’s Nevermind, the Offspring’s third full-length album — their second on the legendary Epitaph Records — catapulted them to stardom on the backs of two very angsty, 90sy singles, ‘Come Out and Play‘ and ‘Self Esteem‘. You can almost smell the righteous youthful rage coming out of the speakers, cutting through the tinny drums and poorly-recorded guitars. It’s a dynamite record.
But you’re not listening to Smash. Instead, you’re joining the band four years later. The Offspring are now huge, and Americana is their second major-label album (Columbia signed them almost immediately after Smash blew up). 1997’s Ixnay on the Hombre was almost a sort of second ‘difficult sophomore album’ for them as they learned the ropes of an entire new way of making music, but by 1998, they’ve got it down. Frontman Dexter Holland has changed his signature hairstyle, and the band is riding high on the rise of a comparatively new trend: pop-punk. Bands like blink-182, Sum 41 and other combinations of single syllables and several numerals take the fast, frenetic aesthetic of California hardcore and skate punk, and then sing pop songs — generally about things other pop songs are about, like girls and how uncool your parents are. (In hindsight, it’s actually a totally weird moment in music history. But I guess it’s not the first time the mainstream has made a mint co-opting and sanitizing music it finds scary.)
Americana is a fascinating album. It’s got what are arguably the Offspring’s two biggest, poppiest hits, ‘Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)‘ and ‘Why Don’t You Get a Job?‘, but it also starts with a fantastic one-two punch of very old-school SoCal angst punk jams. Like most Offspring material, the album is dripping with irony and disaffection, the title track an angry tirade against everything twisted and wrong with modern America. Even the aforementioned poppy singles are sarcasm-laced takedowns of hateable characters and the trends they embody. The album closer is a jammy psychedelic number that was actually recorded for Ixnay, but shelved because the label thought it was too jammy and psychedelic. Like all of the Offspring’s best albums, it’s an album — it’s a cohesive package, not just a collection of songs. (Solidifying this notion are the various interstitial soundbites of automation and technology — only 90s kids will remember having a landline answering machine!) It’s even got that staple of CDs in the 90s, the hidden-track-after-several-minutes-of-silence. Sure, Smash may be their best record, but Americana is their most interesting.
I brought up Nevermind earlier for a good reason: in addition to its fundamental reshaping of the entire landscape of popular music, it’s generally heralded as a sort of cultural signpost of the 90s, a musical encapsulation of the malaise, alienation and nihilism of an entire generation. (Has anyone from Grantland written a really good essay about this to link to? Or Chuck Klosterman, maybe?) I put it to you that what Nevermind is to the early 90s (or perhaps more to the point, the post-80s), Americana is to the late 90s. It’s a musical time capsule in the same way, but instead of chronicling the start of a movement, it chronicles its effects. If Nevermind created Generation X, then Americana is the result of the theory put into practice for the better part of a decade.
I dunno, maybe I’m being a little grandiose. I mean, it’s just a pop-punk album. But either way, for my money, Americana is as close as you can get to reliving the 1990s until they invent an actual time machine.
* This record will probably never be broken, because people don’t buy music anymore.