Tuesday, May 12th 2009
Reviews: Green Day
Does the heart of rebellion’s battle cry fall flaccid when the megaphone is held by Grammy-winning multimillionaires? You bet your ass it does, especially when the figurehead of their ire is no longer calling the shots. So how does Green Day deal with the incoming tide of inevitable hypocrisy and outdated rage against the very machine that put them on top of the world? Rebrand, of course! Fashion that rebellion into a freshly-packaged sweeping pop-punk opera, a blazing, 10,000 jigawatt Broadway spectacle.
The trio – Billie Joe Armstrong, Tre Cool & Mike Dirnt- put the old playbook away and reworked their multiplatinum pop-punk aesthetic for 2004′s American Idiot, stripping off the long-outgrown skate clothes, washing off the crust-pride and going absolutely huge with anthems of love, sorrow and, above all, rebellious indignation at the ever-downward-spiraling state of Americana and its cultural, spiritual and political leaders. They redefined themselves as pop-theater revolutionaries, and no transition has been so successful- or profitable- in a full generation of music history.
So where does a band go from there? Taking a leap of faith into even deeper uncharted waters is far from a surefire success model- Chris Cornell did the same thing, and look at what happened there. The only difference, and the reason 21st Century Breakdown, Green Day’s new album, will absolutely dominate radio this summer, is that Billie Joe & Co. have actually risen to their own wildly ambitious challenge. These songs are surefire huge-selling big-bang anthems of theatrical rebellion (Horseshoes And Handgrenades) and heart-stroking sentimentality (Last Night On Earth). The dagger’s still sharp, as evidenced in the searing anti-evangelical anthem East Jesus Nowhere, the chorus of which is as hooky as anything in their catalog: A fire burns today / Of blasphemy and genocide / The sirens of decay / Will infiltrate the faith fanatics! Don’t believe me? Check out a Green Day show in about a month and see who sings along. My money’s on about 75% of the audience.
That’s right, Green Day is back, and they’ve gone in the only direction American Idiot left for them when it laid their entire history to waste with five smash singles and more Grammys & accolades than they could carry. It redefined them entirely, and left little room for error in follow-up. The commercial and critical fawning over Idiot was like nothing Green Day had ever seen, giving a sense of definition to the collective underlying sociopolitical discontent muted by an America! Fuck Yeah! culture, rife with gluttonous indulgence and distraction. It blasted their demographic wide open and redefined them as respected, serious rockers, not the type of punk novelties that were so reviled in the days of Dookie.
According to Billie Joe, “21st Century Breakdown is a snapshot of the era in which we live as we question and try to make sense of the selfish manipulation going on around us, whether it be the government, religion, media or frankly any form of authority.” Granted, if you’re trying to follow an actual linear storyline here, I wish you the best of luck. The album’s split into three acts: Heroes And Cons, Charlatans And Saints and Horseshoes And Handgrenades. We’re led through tales of falling empires, desperation runs high and war is a daily presence with Christian and Gloria as the album’s centerpiece characters. Christian is a Molotov cocktail personified, while Gloria serves as the torchbearer for the cause, the cerebral core of the fight. The sentimentality behind each movement matters more than the overall message, however, and that’s exactly what works about this album. The theatrics are huge, but we’re not being pulled into a cause. We’re not being solicited for a movement. This is a rock opera.
The songs are beautiful. The production? Butch Vig’s inimitable touch has produced a sound both exquisitely cinematic and post-modern. Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool, the band’s rhythmic foundation, have never sounded more explosively precise and energized. Billie Joe has pushed himself farther than ever as a vocalist – his falsetto at the Queensryche-esque onset of Before The Lobotomy is a delicate breeze of nostalgic reflection, a polar leap from the Gimme gimme revolution! howls in Know Your Enemy.
Despite the overdrive applied, nearly every song seems to burst from an unorthodox opening return to beefed-up version of the three-chord blast anthems that defined the band in the first place – but you really can’t fault the guys for sticking to the familiar meat, not when their last record sold 12 million copies in the age of the dying record industry. 21st Century Breakdown aims even higher, and it’s entirely possible that they’ll get there- there are no less than ten sure-fire radio hits on deck with this one.
There’s certainly a margin of redundant theatrics that must be granted, such as the Elton-esque piano opening to Viva La Gloria, a piece that’s overly dramatic in ways that will have a hard time translating live to any self-respecting grown audience. But once the full band kicks into play the song takes on the sort of high-caliber gravity-hook that Fall Out Boy have made careers out of just missing (almost) every time. Another example is the final, end-of-the-prom movement in the title track that pushes the song into cheese territory. It’s the strongest indicator yet that this album will likely end up on a Broadway stage one day.
For every over-the-top moment like this on the album, however, a redeeming balance is struck elsewhere, such as in Horseshoes And Handgrenades, which opens to a military march before bursting into full-on Foxboro Hot Tubs surf-punk energy. I’m not fuckin’ around! Billie Joe snarls at the onset, and whether you believe the sentiment or not, what separates him from the Dexter Holland school of mid-thirties pop-rock rebellion is that there’s no thick fog of compromise here. The air is clear, the game faces are on and every link in the chain has been fire-tested. It’s the sound of the evolution of pop’s former class clowns.
More dynamic and complex than its predecessor, 21st Century Breakdown doesn’t hit you with the immediate sense of novelty and magic that American Idiot did, but delivers a more consistently engaging listen across the board, thanks to Armstrong’s songwriting skills hitting an all-time high and Vig’s sonic vision. The indignation Idiot burned so brightly with has been traded for a reflective resignation that the best we can do is hold on to our hearts, stick to our guns and keep the fire alive in a post-rage eulogy to the fallen dreams and shattered ideals that American Idiot documented so well. Anything less would’ve been a disappointment. Anything more, absurd grandeur. This is Green Day’s sweet spot. Love it or leave it.
21st Century Breakdown
May 15, 2009
1. Song Of The Century
2. 21st Century Breakdown
3. Know Your Enemy
4. ¡Viva La Gloria!
5. Before The Lobotomy
6. Christians Inferno
7. Last Night On Earth
8. East Jesus Nowhere
10. Last Of The American Girls
11. Murder City
12. ¿Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl)
13. Restless Heart Syndrome
14. Horseshoes And Handgrenades
15. The Static Age
16. 21 Guns
17. American Eulogy (Mass Hysteria / Modern World)
18. See The Light