In 2005, Green Day set out to create a “punk rock opera” in the form of American Idiot. A concept album that told the tale of the “Jesus of Suburbia” (who is no relation to Bad Religion’s “American Jesus”), the record proved to be widely successful, both critically and commercially.
In 2009, the band is back with another concept album. They’ve left behind Jesus and focused on the life of a couple. Broken into three acts, the record chronicles their life as they try to make their way through a country and era that has become quite messy.
A concept album is only as good as its music, so how does this one stack up? Pretty well, but maybe not as good as it could be. The record is in itself a masterpiece; it’s just not very punk rock, and the Green Day of old is continuing to fade away.
Perhaps that’s just me being picky based on the musical evolution Green Day has taken. As the music of Green Day has evolved, their sound has steadily progressed away from the solid pop punk of their early days, and 21st Century Breakdown is finding them at their highest point musically so far in their career.
Unfortunately for my taste, this is also distancing them from their past, putting them in a genre that is more power pop than punk rock, and while they continue to solidify as musicians, they seem to walk further and further away from the days, sounds and attitudes of the Kerplunk era.
That’s an old criticism, though, one that punk fans have been making ever since the band first signed with Reprise.
There are definitely a few tracks where the band reflects back upon where they’ve come from. Songs like “East Jesus Nowhere” with its fist-pumping rhythms and sing-along choruses, “Horseshoes and Hand Grenades” with its solid punk hooks, and “American Eulogy,” a building song with purely perfect choppy punk rock guitars, are all refreshing throwbacks to the Green Day of old.
But for every song like that, there are two that are more pop than pop punk, drawing more influence from Elton John or Billy Joel than the Clash or Buzzcocks. The songs are all perfectly produced but perhaps a little too perfectly. They’re missing the buzz and hum that could have helped blast the polish off a bit, and adding a little more grit would have made them more palatable.
Another beef I have is with the album’s predictable stretches. Some of it gets so formulaic that you can immediately anticipate the structure of the next song. On one stretch at the end of the album’s first act, ”Gloria” starts out with a soft intro before busting out into a power pop-perfect song, and is then followed by “Before The Lobotomy,” which starts out with a soft intro before busting out into a power pop-perfect song. These are then followed by “Christian’s Inferno,” a song which finally mixes up the formula by starting out with a dirty, rough opening, you know, before busting out into a power pop-perfect song.
My actual favorite moments on the records are the times when Green Day drops all convention, and does something completely new. This comes in the form of the Middle Eastern-influenced “Peacemaker,” with its blatant religious references, and the Gypsy Punkish “¿Viva La Gloria?” The band's forays into world music are a refreshing break from the predictable, and really great songs to boot.
Where’s the single?
It will be interesting to see which songs become the prime singles for this album. With a video already released, first and foremost will be the poppier “Know Your Enemy,” but as later singles come out, the choices will be important, not only for record sales, but also for the public’s perception of who Green Day is.
Will they go for airplay with a track like “East Jesus Nowhere,” and retain some of their pop punk designation? Or will they break away completely, releasing one of the many tracks that reflect a pop rock ideal, like the soft, sentimental, Beatles influenced “Last Night On Earth?”
The thought process that goes into that could be more interesting than the album’s storyline.
Speaking of the storyline...
The storyline is readily apparent, if narratively unfollowable. There is a progression through feelings of alienation and confusion, heartbreak and love. A bleak story about our disintegrating society is definitely depicted, with the requisite highs and lows, and even if there are times when you’re not quite sure what the story is, you know how you should feel about it.
At its essence, the theme of the album is both punk rock and suburban at the same time. We have today’s economy, culture and world events to blame for this, for the feelings of alienation and desperation no longer being the prime real estate of the punks. Perhaps that’s what makes Green Day the best candidates to step up and be the voice for this era – they’ve been through it all before. But anguish and repression loses some of its credibility underneath all this power pop lacquer.
As A Whole...
All in all, 21st Century Breakdown does what it’s set out to do. It’s created yet another “punk rock opera” for the band. This time around, though, the “punk” portion of that phrase seems to have shrunk quite a bit.
At times it’s predictable, and at times it’s formulaic, but 21st Century Breakdown is still a bold undertaking that shows that Green Day is unwilling to settle on their previous sound, and that they are still exploring both who they are as a band and the concept of the album. Fans of American Idiot will neither be surprised nor disappointed, and this record is probably looking forward to piles of accolades and tons of time on commercial radio and the charts.
It’s just not what I wanted it to be.
ACT I: HEROES AND CONS
1. Song of the Century
2. 21st Century Breakdown
3. Know Your Enemy
4. ¡Viva La Gloria!
5. Before The Lobotomy
6. Christian's Inferno
7. Last Night On Earth
ACT II: CHARLATANS AND SAINTS
8. East Jesus Nowhere
10. Last Of The American Girls
11. Murder City?
12. Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl)
13. Restless Heart Syndrome
ACT III: HORSESHOES AND AND HANDGRENADES
14. Horseshoes and Handgrenades
15. The Static Age
16. 21 Guns
17. American Eulogy
a) Mass Hysteria
b) Modern World
18. See The Light
Release Date: May 15, 2009