Pop-punk has always been considered a genre where progress has a ceiling. In the mid-’00s, the golden age of the largely teenage phenomenon, bands could hope to score sync deals on television shows or in video games; their presence would become branded throughout pop culture. When the mall-punks of the era outgrew their interest in bratty hooks and crunching guitars, so did everyone else, with few exceptions: All Time Low managed to maintain a respectably sized audience, growing ever-so-slightly with each passing year. Default genre spokesmen Blink-182, perhaps not aging quite as gracefully, just put out an album after a years-long absence that has debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with more than 170k in straight sales. But that number primarily comes courtesy of their most loyal fans — in 2016, even Blink are largely a cult act.
This brings us to Good Charlotte. The California-via-Maryland band has always felt like the exception to the rule. Their appearance was a lot darker than that of their crossover-punk brethren, but their pop songs were even more effervescent. Unlike the comfortable middle-class backgrounds of other acts in the scene (whose socioeconomic privilege was quite relatable to many of their fans), GC — formed around twins Joel and Benji Madden, whose father abandoned them when they were teenagers and whose mother was often hospitalized while battling lupus — struggled for everything they were given. That’s why they consider their success living the American Dream, and with a few platinum-selling releases and marriages to mega-celebrities Nicole Richie and Cameron Diaz, it’s hard to argue with them.
The danger in success, of course, is complacency. Good Charlotte have never been ones to settle or wax nostalgic in any real way. Their latest album, Youth Authority — the band’s first since 2010’s underperforming Cardiology — attempts to avoid that with minor moments of triumph. Opener “Life Changes” is a classic pop-punk song, the kind of couch-jumping, detention-earning anthem that unleashes your inner juvenile delinquent. As Joel sings, “You know they say that nothing lasts forever / You know they said we’d never stay together / It’s a long way down / Can’t turn back now,” it could easily be a reflection of, say, graduating high school and departing from your hometown. But for the Maddens, it’s the narrative of leaving their broken home and their single mother, and finding solace in new adult relationships. That’s a lot for a four-chord rave-up to deliver on, but it’s easily the most powerful song on the record.
The weakest moments on Youth Authority are found on the slower songs. Nailing ballads was never a strength for GC, and why would it be? It’s their angst-ridden, palm-muted power chords that leave the kids swooning. The band flickers closest to lighter-waving territory with the unnervingly positive “Life Can’t Get Much Better,” whose optimism is mostly counterbalanced with “Reason to Stay,” a stadium-echoing heartbreak ballad that features Simon Neil of Biffy Clyro and manages to end hopefully. “Reason” is the superior of the two collaborations on the record — the other being the sentimental “Keep Swingin’,” with Sleeping With Sirens heartthrob Kellin Quinn — but that might just be our cowbell bias talking.
All of these songs arrive next to one another, muddling the album’s middle, but Youth Authority is sharpest on its edges. “The Outfield” is yet another chest-punching singalong, with Joel lamenting, “We were the young and hopeless / We were the broken youth / You’re not the only one they used / I was in the outfield.” The first line, of course, references their band’s blockbuster 2002 album, The Young and the Hopeless, a powerful moment of self-awareness from a band many doubted would endure long enough to afford such reflection.
Leading up to the release of Youth Authority, Good Charlotte said this isn’t a comeback or a reunion, but just a continuation. And indeed, the group’s sound has been kept alive in their absence by Australian acolytes 5 Seconds of Summer, who even enlisted Joel and Benji’s co-writing assistance for several of the best songs on their own sophomore album, Sounds Good Feels Good. They’ve also said there are moments on the album that feel straight out of 2002, and that’s true: Both the album’s most grating and gratifying moments sound like they could’ve emanated from a Hot Topic 15 years ago. There’s danger in that nostalgia, but when it’s good, it’s great. It’s a decidedly uncool record from a band that’s long since stopped caring about these things, and that’s what makes its heart-swelling highlights possible. Good Charlotte have nothing left to prove, and they’ve earned the authority to finally have fun with their freedom.