I hope you realize how awful it is when record reviewers find themselves completely unable to swerve and avoid the most convenient trope about a given record. In the case of Descendents’ Hypercaffium Spazzinate, their seventh album in 34 years, it’s the question of making that punk rock racket when you’re in your fifties. It’s even more inescapable considering Descendents’ place in the history of ‘80s SoCal punk. Not as enraged as Black Flag, not as intellectual as Bad Religion and not as nihilistic as Circle Jerks, Descendents endeared themselves to The Kids in a very low-key way.
Descendents’ concerns were what kids their age were hopped up on, especially fast food and passively wondering about the future. They wanted a dependable image more than an outrageous one: the minimalist cartoon sketch of lead singer Milo Aukerman was only on one out of every 35 PeeChee folders during their time, but the owner of that folder had a furious bond with them. They might not have seemed ambitious, but it’s hard to imagine a band having that strong a bond with their fans without harnessing some pretense to power. But that’s who Descendents were, and even when they went off for a bit to pursue whatever ALL was, they were linked to that youth. You couldn’t imagine them ever growing out of that music.
And they haven’t. Hypercaffium Spazzinate does exactly what Descendents albums did in those days: It zips along in just over 30 minutes with most songs clocking in under two. When they’ve made their point, they’re done. Aukerman sings exactly in the manner that aided and comforted a million Billie Joe Armstrongs. Drummer Bill Stevenson knows only one fast speed and only two time signatures. Stephen Egerton’s guitar consumes your headphones with sleek power and pop leanings. It’s almost a purity play: While other artists of their ilk and under their influence must have felt the need to “grow artistically,” Descendents brush it off like a petulant ex.
That makes it a lot easier for Hypercaffium Spazzinate to win you over, because while they haven’t grown out of the music, they have grown up. You can imagine teenagers singing songs like “Without Love” (“Another day goes by/We can’t live like this anymore”) or “Smile” (“All I can do is lend a hand/Be a friend again”), but it’s harder to see them making that kind of conciliation on their own. Descendents circle their way through curt examinations and self-deprecation, but only in the most consoling way actual adults have been doing for years. The hilarious “On Paper” takes stock of a romantic loser who can’t figure out how to shed his social awkwardness and live up to potential. “Testosterone” identifies the one universal trait of the haves in society, and it’s unchecked aggression: “Good things don’t come to those who wait/They only come to those who take.” The sub-minute “Human Being” and “No Fat Burger” deal with the harshest truths that come with getting older—the slow decline of altruism and the horrors of restricted diets.
Maybe this is a real signal one’s getting older, but Hypercaffium Spazzinate is best when Descendents shoot for empathy. “Limiter” is an extremely affecting statement against robbing kids of their childhood through rampant medication (“Back then everybody knew a spazz or two/We never thought those kids were bad, did you?”). “Smile” is Aukerman’s sweet encouragement to Stevenson during his recovery from a brain tumor and pulmonary embolism, and with “Comeback Kid” it’s hard to stop the lumps in the throat when Aukerman goes all-in on the pep talk: “When you laughed, I knew everything was fine.”
The closer “Beyond The Music” is as heartfelt a group valentine as punk can stand, and if Descendents decided to hang it up again its qualities as an epitaph would be pretty unmatchable: “Frustrato-rock or chainsaw pop, or whatever it is we play/This is our family and it will always be this way/Beyond the music.” Descendents have gone their separate ways plenty of times in the last 40 years, trying to forge adulthoods and, from all we can tell, living fairly honest lives. Maybe that element of groundedness makes the family reunions more upbeat, and is what keeps Hypercaffium Spazzinate youthful even after the bands Descendents have influenced have tried to branch into rock operas and EDM. Like all forms of popular music, the oldest stuff is more eternal than we give it credit for.
Paul Pearson is a writer, journalist, and interviewer who has written for Treble since 2013. His music writing has also appeared in The Seattle Times, The Stranger, The Olympian, and MSN Music.