Musically, “In the End” is dead simple. That’s because it’s played so fast. Green Day holds to the theory that the faster one plays, the simpler the arrangement has to be so the song doesn’t become a blurry mess amidst all that distortion. Played in a rollicking standard-issue punk rhythm, Billie Joe Armstrong’s guitar sticks to two chords (A5 and G5 power chords) for the verses. Even the typically dynamic breakdown section has Armstrong plucking out as few notes as possible on his instrument. Not surprisingly, Armstrong’s vocals are the focus of attention in this brief burst of a song, issued in a staccato delivery that constantly arches upwards melodically. The most exciting part of the song is definitely the elongated “Sooooooo” Armstrong belts out to bridge his way from the chorus back to the verse, enhanced by the music dropping out behind him for a measure.
“In the End” is a resentful screed against a girl who’s chosen to go with the guy that’s “all brawn and no brains”, instead of the speaker. Inquiring, “How long will he last / Before he’s a creep in the past / And you’re alone once again?”, he pointedly asks if that’s really what she wants. Having figured out what he perceives to be her true colors, Armstrong references the best song on Dookie when he sings “I hope I won’t be there / In the end when you come around”.
As catharsis, “In the End” does the job (in fact, it’s a great song to put on when faced with rejection and you aren’t partial to more morose musical tastes), but it doesn’t possess the depth a track like “When I Come Around” does. Rare for a song on Dookie, it’s one-sided with no self-effacing reflection or critical introspection. Sure, it’s common to feel wronged when the object of one’s affection chooses someone else, but it’s not as captivating as the times when Armstrong delves into his angst to confront his own flaws. Still, it’s a testament to Armstrong’s knack for memorable phrases that he’s able to conjure up an image of why he detests his rival merely with the lines “Someone to look good with / And light your cigarette”.