Review: Green Day’s “21st Century Breakdown”

May 18, 2009 6:30pm

  As a longtime listener and admirer of Green Day, my initial reaction to their new album, “21st Century Breakdown” was negative.  It seemed to me like a retread.  Why do another rock opera when they did it so well the first time on “American Idiot?”  Why not do something else?  Why not make an all-acoustic record?  Why not go back to their roots and make a punk album?  Maybe this time go the other way from what people expect and make it rawer and louder than ever before.  Sure, their incognito album from last year (the, sixties-style garage punk freak-out album they recorded as the Foxboro Hot Tubs) already sort of did that, but it seems like they could’ve done something more than just expand on the newfound sonic landscapes of “American Idiot.”  Really, they have become an epic stadium rock band.  Coming from the world of punk, as someone who has listened to them for quite some time, this can be a hard reality to swallow.  “American Idiot” was great!  In fact, it was one of the best albums of this decade.  Part of me thinks Green Day would have been better off if their foray into the world of rock operas had merely been a pit-stop.  It’s hard not to look at their current enormousness in both sound and structure as a sell-out move.  Rest assured all you worried Green Day fans.  My initial reaction to “21st Century Breakdown” was wrong!!!  It’s an ambitious and enjoyable effort showing a wide musical range.  Don’t get me wrong.  The album still has its issues.  It is not a near-perfect masterpiece like “American Idiot.”  The first issue I have with it is its production and mixing.  Butch Vig produced it.  It should sound good, shouldn’t it? I mean the man produced Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Dream,” two of the finest, trend-setting rock albums of the nineties.  Not only that, he’s in Garbage, one of the most sonically adventurous alt-rock bands around. This is a massive surprise because usually his sonic touches compliment the artists.  So, why is Billie Joe Armstrong’s voice so buried in echo and over-compressed?   Why does everything in fact sound a little over-produced?  Is it mixer Chris Lord-Alge’s fault?  “American Idiot” also had this issue but to a lesser extent.  Here, the album sounds like it’s a little too shiny.  If Green Day’s rougher-sounding past is any indicator, their songs don’t need this harsh treatment to shine.  This is the kind of production treatment you give a weaker band.  This past weekend, I watched them perform on “Saturday Night Live.”  People you’d expect to sound good on SNL don’t always, but in the live setting, with all the gloss stripped away, when they performed “Know Your Enemy” and “21 Guns,” they sounded like themselves.  They sounded like Green Day, not the occasionally bloated band on the record.  That production is meant to be there to propel the sound.  The truth is it only cheapens it.  So even when you consider that the old Green Day may be gone forever and it’s more than a tad over-produced, the album still plays pretty well.  That’s a testament to the band’s songs.  Yes, “21st Century Breakdown” is another rock opera full of political rage.  Like “American Idiot,” it centers around two protagonists. (This time, their names are Christian and Gloria and not St. Jimmy and Whatsername!) Also like “American Idiot” the “plot” is somewhat incidental and vague.  I’m sure if they ever wanted to turn either of these records into full-blown musicals there’d be enough structure to craft scripts around the songs.  So, what exactly is there to admire about this record since I’ve already proceeded to tear it up a little?  The ambition is one thing to admire.  At 69 minutes, this is the longest Green Day album to date.  In fact, it’s twenty minutes longer than “American Idiot” and more than twice as long as “Insomniac.”  The fact that they are willing to stick to their guns and record yet another rock opera (despite this also being a possible hindrance) is also quite admirable.   They didn’t take the easy route.  When their major label debut, “Dookie” came out back in 1994, few people would have imagined that this was in their future.  Too many people criticized them.  I, may I add, was not one of those people.  Writing reviews for my high-school newspaper at the time, I declared “Dookie” to be the best album of the year!  (My opinion still stands, but if you were to ask me now, I’d say that it actually probably tied with Portishead’s “Dummy.”  Oh, time is a great educator, isn’t it?)  “21st Century Breakdown” isn’t “American Idiot.”  It’s more like “American Idiot,” Jr. It doesn’t quite have the same intensity, it’s a little watered down (perhaps to please the fickle youth) but there’s still something on it worth a listen.  It all begins with “Song Of The Century.”  At just under a minute, this mainly serves as an intro.  It’s just Armstrong singing alone over the sound of FM static.  Throughout the record, the idea of a dial-shifting radio is a motif which is repeatedly visited.  Like throughout “American Idiot” there are biblical images all around and the protagonists are thick in some sort of un-named epic battle.  This track mentions “leading us all to the Promised Land” and “Winning the war and losing the fight.”  The album is actually broken up into three acts.  The first act, “Heroes and Cons,” starts right after the intro.  Part of me worries about their new insistence to divide their album into movements.  I hope in ten years or so they don’t follow the lead of nerdy prog-rock bands like let’s say Coheed and Cambria and decide to do a rock opera about something weird like mythic sorcerers, or dragons or something else equally unusual.  I think that’s unlikely to happen.  As long as they stick to vague political fury, there’s really nothing to worry about with Green Day.  The title track is next and it actually sets the pace for the ride to come.  It starts off with a piano chording away before it charges into a big, Who-style, “oooh-ooohh” segment.  This sounds very much like it would’ve fit on “American Idiot.”  Once again, Billie Joe Armstrong is calling out to a hopeless generation when he sings, “My generation is zero. / I’ll never make it as a working-class hero!”  (That line is an obvious nod to the John Lennon song the band expertly covered on a Darfur charity album two years ago.)  The song finds them in ballad mode, but it’s still big.  You can imagine it reverberating off stadium seating, but it also seems anthemic, like the work of Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel.  (I mean this as a compliment.)  Again, the fact that they now write songs like this, few people would’ve ever predicted.  Two minutes in, the song shifts, however and cranks up, considerably.  This is like the “Jesus of Suburbia” suite from “American Idiot.”  Not only are the before-mentioned Who an obvious influence, but you can’t hear a song like this without also thinking of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Next is the album’s first single, “Know Your Enemy.”  Let me say that despite my enjoyment of their performance on SNL of this song, I’m not completely sold.  It’s the weakest, most monotonous single of their career.  There are glimmers of the old Green Day in its energy, but until the bridge it sticks to the same repetitive six note refrain.  That being said, I’ll take this any day over many of the songs by Green Day’s younger imitators.  “¡Viva La Gloria!” is next, introducing the female lead, Gloria.  Gloria seems troubled, but she also seems ready for a fight.  “The cracks of my skin can prove / As the years will testify / Say your prayers and light a fire / We’re going to start a war. / Your slogan’s a gun for hire / It’s what we waited for.”  As many religious songwriters, along with U2, Van Morrison  and Laura Branigan have taught us through the years, Gloria is a fun name to say over and over again in song.  Green Day make the most out of this musical choice! “Before The Lobotomy” initially finds the band in softer, power-ballad mode.  It’s obviously a place to discuss a sensitive back-story about how “there is no more laughter. / Songs of yesterday now live in the underground.”  Thankfully, Green Day smartly do not allow this to go into full-throttle cheeseball mode.  In fact, roughly a minute-and-a-half in, the song becomes a real rocker.  Tre Cool keeps the rather off-kilter beat.  Christian, the male lead, is delivering a eulogy, but to what?  Lost ideals?  Isn’t that really what both this album and “American Idiot” are all about?  Once you realize how messed up the world can be and you are exposed to the “brutality of reality,” there’s no going back to the innocent dreams of your childhood.  It’s all about growing up.  In many ways, both these albums depict what it is like to come of age within the chaotic vortex of society.  As this track continues, the band delivers a rocked-out version of the opening section.  With the guitars revved up, it’s more powerful the second time around.  “Christian’s Inferno” starts off a dark dose of spoken-word, breakneck punk but then is given a happy chorus full of “whoa-ha-whoas!”  At first, it might seem a little odd, but the way the band molds these two very different parts together shows that they know exactly what they are doing.

“Christian’s Inferno” ends with an echoing electric-guitar-strum which loops and fades into the beginning of “Last Night On Earth.” Interesting, whereas the last song mentioned a “rejection letter,” this one mentions a texted “postcard.”  What’s with the obsession with mail?  Whereas the last song was a big rave-up, this is a ballad.  It’s actually a pretty Lennon-esque ballad at that.  (Think about his “Jealous Guy” and then listen to this.)  It ends the first act sensitively and sweetly.    Enter, Act Two, entitled “Charlatans and Saints.”  It gets set-off with “East Jesus Nowhere.”  It begins with another swipe through FM radio.  A voice on the radio declares, “…and we will see what a godless nation we have become!” before the guitars chime in with a marching-rhythm.  One can’t help but recall “Holiday” from “American Idiot.”  Both songs are about idealistic battles.  Armstrong sings, “Raise your hands up and testify / Your confession will be crucified / You’re a sacrificial suicide.”  It’s evident from his lyrics that Armstrong is critical of the tactics often used by religion.  That said, he uses a church sermon of sorts to raise a battle cry for his disenfranchised army as they sing in “the church of wishful thinking.”   The people in the song are praying for humanity, hoping something will fix their apparent anti-utopia.  But, as with most if not all “wishful thinking,” probably nothing will come to pass.

“Peacemaker” plays like something out of a spaghetti western. Religious righteousness plays a role again with the line, “the infidels are going to pay.”  Is this a left over jab at George W. Bush, who some would say was the unmentioned but ever-present target of “American Idiot?” The “war on terror” no doubt laid the groundwork for both albums.  In any case, this is yet another angry battle cry.  What it means in the bigger part of the story is really unclear.  “Last Of The American Girls” should be a single.  Not only is it one of the best songs on the record, but it shows Green Day doing what they do best: Three chord pop songs!  That being said, this fits in with the rest of the album as the lyrics describe a girl in her every-day life.  (Gloria, perhaps?)  Sure, she does normal, mundane things like “put her makeup on,” but this wouldn’t be a Green Day rock opera without a threat of disaster.  You know something’s wrong  when you hear the lines, “She wears her overcoat / For the coming of the nuclear Winter. / She is riding her bike / Like a fugitive of critical mass. / She’s on a hunger strike / For the ones who won’t make it for dinner. / She makes enough to survive / For a holiday of working class.”    “Murder City” begins with the lines, “Desperate but not hopeless / I feel so useless in the Murder City.”   This track is also using the classic Green Day sound and should be a single.  “¿Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl)” also has a saloon-like Western feel.  It’s got a two-step country bounce to it as Armstrong sings, “Little girl / You dirty liar. / You’re just a junkie / Preaching to the choir.”  As always, his lyrics are still packed with bile and venom.  With all the structural changes to the band’s sound, that’s a wonderful realization.    “Restless Heart Syndrome” is the weakest song on the record.  It’s a wispy ballad about something being wrong.  Whereas, his lyrical knowhow was comforting on the last track, here Armstrong delivers lines like, “I’ve got a really bad disease. / It’s got me begging on my hands and knees. / So take me to emergency.”  They aren’t bad lines necessarily, but by his standards they seem rather pedestrian.  It could be more the tone of the song which makes me not able to appreciate those words.  The song tries to make up for it by its end as it rocks out.  The third act, “Horseshoes And Handgrenades,” begins with the track that shares its title. Like “Holidays In The Sun” by the Sex Pistols, it begins with what sounds like a marching army.  This is another highlight of the record because it shows Armstrong, Cool and bassist Mike Dirnt once again in their element.  The songs that work the best could go on any past Green Day album.  Here’s one of the few tracks where the band  members sound like they are having a blast.  You can tell by the amount of bombast Armstrong gives the line, “I’m not f___in’ around,” that he’s really enjoying himself!  “The Static Age” is another single-worthy track. Throughout the album there are a few mentions of this term.  Are the characters searching for clarity?  Are war and destruction and pop-culture hysteria blurring the lines?  This is a catchy pop song built around a tripping beat.  Next is “21 Guns,” the album’s second single.  It uses a similar chord progression as “Holiday,” but it’s played a little like “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams.”  Green Day have always walked the line of familiarity.  It’s somewhat remarkable with all the people claiming Coldplay ripped off “Viva La Vida” that no one has cited Green Day.  Their song, “Scattered” sounds a lot like the Harry Nilsson-popularized, “Without You. “  There’s a bit of Bryan Adams’ “Summer Of ’69″ in “Jesus Of Suburbia.”  Now, to me, the verse section of this song sounds  a little like Neil Young’s “Heart Of Gold.”  I suppose there are only twelve notes, but still, it is worth noting.  It’s a good song, “borrowed” or not.  Who knows if Neil will ever think they sound alike.   Both songs do have strikingly different choruses.  It’s just interesting.  “American Eulogy” is next.  It begins with more radio static and Armstrong singing another verse of “Song Of The Century.”  Then the track really takes off.  It’s broken into two parts.  The first is the sugar-shocked punk outburst, “Mass Hysteria.”  The second is the equally heavy “Modern World.”  The second half is much more worthy of fist pumping.  Indexing-wise, these really should have been two separate tracks.  In the old Green Day days, they would’ve been.  Think about how “Brain Stew” and “Jaded” were released as singles together and many stations would play them back-to-back, but on the album each song had its own track.  The album ends with “See The Light.”  It’s built around the same piano riff which began the title track.  Perhaps, this is why Green Day chose to do another rock opera.  It’s sort of interesting to be able to build other melodies off of the same riff.  If the tracks are connected, then there is a great excuse to create such a link.  This song provides positive closure to the record.”I just want to see the light,” Armstrong righteously proclaims.  Is it the light at the end of the tunnel?  Yes, it is! The album fades very slowly, with that now-familiar riff reverberating through your speakers until it eventually disappears.  “21st Century Breakdown” is nowhere near the best Green Day album.  It’s still worth your time and it’s still an excellent record.  Perhaps it says something about the band’s output as a whole that despite some key problems, it’s still a very good record.  Lightning rarely strikes twice.  If their next record is another rock opera, it could possibly be too much.  As impressed as I am by their artistic vision, part of me just wants a more traditional Green Day record.  Whatever the future may hold for them, I’m sure they will continue to make some of the best mainstream rock records out there.  “21st Century Breakdown” amazes and disappoints simultaneously, but it’s always a worthwhile journey.  Despite my complaints, this is still one of the most important records of the year.   

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