By Arye Dworken
Of all George W. Bush’s “accomplishments” during his tenure at the White House, Green Day fans can thank him for scaring Billie Joe Armstrong straight. American Idiot was the pop-punk group’s brilliant statement of disenchantment with the government and the trio’s first attempt at full-blown epic maturity. The best thing about that record, however, was that no one expected it.
It sounded like an impossibility come true: A pop-punk band with a drummer named TrÃ© Cool that wrote songs about masturbation and boredom transforms into one of the most politically outspoken mainstream rock act on the airwaves? But in 2004, Green Day cashed in a reality check priced at 6 million albums sold, while U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was surprisingly apolitical and R.E.M.’s anti-Bush folk song “Final Straw” from Around the Sun went unlistened. “Jesus of Suburbia,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” captured the angst of our country’s sane half. Critics lauded Cool, Armstrong and bassist Mike Dirnt as the new Clash, and in truth, they weren’t entirely wrong. Green Day was becoming a band that mattered. Now, five years later with 21st Century Breakdown (which you can hear in its entirety), Green Day discovers that once you go Important, you don’t go back.
The pop-punk vets’ eighth studio album is like dÃ©jÃ vu with an “epic” politically themed concept album that could easily translate to a Broadway stage. And why not? Sequels work so well in Hollywood. Why shouldn’t rock bands also build on their biggest and bravest successes? In fact, I encourage an 808s & Heartbreak, Part II.
This time, split into three sections–”Heroes and Cons,” “Charlatans and Saints” and “Horseshoes and Handgrenades”–21st Century Breakdown centers on protagonists Christian and Gloria, two American kids growing up in the heartland. Following Bush’s ravaging of America, the two lovers are up against the world and questioning religion, politics and the media. Which is unfortunate because in a hopeful Obama era, you’d think they would have something to be positive about (despite Billie’s feelings about Obama during the campaign: “It’s a bit early to tell if this is the guy I like.”). But I get it. Like the Daily Show and its fixation with Fox News and Republicans, when your enemy isn’t a specific entity, it’s time to get general. And broad. Like really, really broad. Like “all of religion and the universe, etc.” broad.
And so Armstrong has found plenty of anger to go around. At 69 minutes, Green Day’s latest packs in 18 hook-sharp songs (two barely go over five minutes). Chances are we’ll be hearing singles from this one for a few years coming. From the first single (and suprisingly, the album’s weakest track), “Know Your Enemy,” to the “Hate To Say I Told You So“ copy of “Horseshoes and Handgrenades” to the classic Green Day pogo-stomp of “The Static Age,” 21st Century Breakdown hits nearly every style within the trio’s reach. Punk? Check. Garage rock? Check. Glam? Check. Power ballad? Double, no, triple check. “Last Night on Earth” could be a Fountains of Wayne ballad outtake while “Restless Heart Syndrome” is Green Day’s answer to Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain,” right down to its drizzling violins. As the band’s chief songwriter, Armstrong has been referencing the Beatles, Queen and David Bowie as primary influences, and their collective presence shines through.
The album isn’t amazing–like I said, the surprise factor helped American Idiot–but 21st Century Breakdown is strong as hell. These punk-rock Peter Pans have not only progressed musically and lyrically seven albums in, but they also stayed relevant along the way. That makes this a sequel nearly as good as its predecessor, and how many follow-ups can you say that about?
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