“When I Come Around” is more than just the best song off Dookie. It’s quite possibly the best tune Green Day has ever made, one of those transcendent moments in pop music where all the elements congeal to form a greater whole that’s gratifying on an almost instinctual level. Even upon a cursory listen to the track, it’s no surprise that it was a hit. In early 1995, “When I Come Around” became the third and final single from Dookie to top the Billboard Modern Rock Charts (helping the album match a number of Modern Rock chart-toppers managed previously only by U2’s Achtung Baby), acting as the capstone to a year-long breakthrough success story that included multi-million unit sales and a Grammy Award win for Best Alternative Music Performance.
“When I Come Around” is undoubtedly my favorite track from the album. It’s also one of the songs I hold dearest, by any artist. As such, it’s been somewhat difficult to write this entry in my overview of the Dookie album. If only you knew how many times I’ve rewritten this post before submitting it. I’ve loved “When I Come Around” ever since I began tuning into my local modern rock station in the late ‘90s. Even upon my first proper introduction to the song, I was keenly aware that I was somehow already familiar with the track, which mystified me, as up to that point I didn’t listen to rock music past 1980, and was only starting to get into more recent releases. My best guess is I heard it around 1995 when riding to a sixth grade field trip to the beach, an occasion during which I recall spying the unmistakable CD case for Dookie laying on the floor of the minivan I was in. Even after all this time, and all the myriad styles and artists I have encountered in the intervening years, my appreciation of the song has increased, even edging out old Dookie favorites “Welcome to Paradise” and “Basket Case”. And frustratingly, even after so many attempts to tackle the issue, I really can’t explain why I adore it so much. Sure, it was the perfect song for me to connect with when I was in high school, but that was nearly a decade ago, and I love the song even more now than I did then. I wouldn’t call “When I Come Around” my all-time favorite song (contenders for that slot change far too frequently to me to declare a winner), but it’s clear given its number one ranking on my Last.fm and iTunes playlist tallies that it’s the likeliest contender. When it comes down to it, this song is just utterly fantastic, and I don’t think I could ever get bored with it.
Why is “When I Come Around” such a killer single? Primary credit should be given to its use of that oft-deployed rock and roll secret weapon, The Riff. No, not the riff. The Riff. Mind you, this is a very important distinction of terminology, one made between mere repetitious guitar licks and those instrumental parts so awesome you find yourself uttering swear words as exclamations when the song comes on the radio. Green Day isn’t a riff-inclined band, but “When I Come Around” has Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong driving the song with an instantly recognizable two-bar guitar part that ranks among the best rock riffs of the 1990s. It’s four chords (G5, D5, Em, and C, tuned down a half-step) played in a moderate tempo palm-muted groove. The I-V-VI-IV chord progression is rather routine (sharp-eared folks will notice it’s the same chord progression as U2’s “With or Without You”), but the way Armstrong plays it gives it a unique character that makes it instantly recognizable from the moment it first escapes the speakers. Amidst the aforementioned palm-muting, Armstrong lets the full chords ring out once apiece to emphasize certain beats. To further distinguish the riff, Armstrong hits the full E minor and C major chords on the upbeats of the first and second beats, then rests a bit before playing the C again on the way back to the G5. These little touches do a lot to add color to what could have been a straightforward chord sequence. Also, notice how the song doesn’t end on the G5 tonic chord, but on the C, an inspired choice that lets it close in a manner that’s sonically appealing but isn’t overly tidy.
Given how fetching the guitar riff is, it can be easy to overlook Mike Dirnt’s bass part. In fact, I never paid any mind to what he was doing until I saw a transcription of the bassline in a guitar magazine. Laid out, it becomes clear that Dirnt isn’t content to simply keep pace with the guitar by doubling what Armstrong does. Instead, Dirnt produces a positively busy bassline laced with several pull-offs and hammer-ons, giving it a bubbling melodicism that both intertwines with and contrasts with Armstrong’s guitar part. Also of note is Dirnt’s little pull-off fill that occupies the space vacated by the guitar when Armstrong sings the title phrase in the chorus. It’s a dead simple little touch that’s placed at just the right spot in the song.
As the song relies on a riff instead of standard chord changes for its verses, Armstrong can’t dominate the song’s melodic duties with his vocals as he usually does. Instead, Armstrong sings around the riff in a winding manner that makes some lines run into one another for a constant flow, in the process yielding some atypical emphases such as the slightly-hysterical utterance of the phrase “so don’t get”. It’s notoriously hard to sing over busy riffs, but Armstrong manages to hold his own, producing some pretty memorable vocal hooks, not the least of which is the song’s chorus “No time to search the world around / ‘Cause you know where I’ll be found / When I come around”.
Speaking of the chorus, “When I Come Around” contains some of the strongest lyrics on Dookie. Armstrong’s lyrics rely on the fact that “when I come around” can have a literal and a metaphorical meaning. In the first verse, Armstrong’s narrative persona is practically sauntering, telling a lonely soul, “You’ve been searching for that someone / And it’s me out on the prowl / As you sit around feeling sorry for yourself”. While the first verse is all about how Armstrong’s character is arriving to fulfill that person’s needs (the literal meaning), the second verse is a reversal that forces him to reevaluate his intentions (the metaphorical meaning). In that second verse, he quite pointedly acknowledges, “I’m a loser and a user / So I don’t need no accuser / To try and slag me down, because I know you’re right”. He continues, “So go do what you like / Make sure you do it wise / You may find out that your self-doubt / Means nothing was ever there / You can’t go forcing something if it’s just not right”. By that final line it doesn’t seem like he’s addressing another person anymore. Rather, it’s more that he has “comes around” to the realization that he’s not what the other person needs.
As a whole, “When I Come Around” is an aural representation of yearning, wary anticipation, and contemplative self-reflection. That’s why I feel the single’s accompanying music video (featuring the band members wandering aimlessly around San Francisco as lonely souls spy on one another in a voyeuristic loop) suits the song perfectly, even if Green Day itself considers the clip to be a weak effort. When that video came out, Green Day was one of pop culture’s hottest talking points, yet the group was still trying to come to terms with both the positive and negative aspects of its sudden fame. In the center of the media glare, Green Day ended up providing a video that, while unambitious compared to the promos for “Longview” and “Basket Case”, offered up a revealing image of itself: three young men walking listlessly in a space of broad possibilities with no destination in mind, uncertain of what was in store for them next.
Of course, Green Day could’ve made a video featuring nothing but television static and it wouldn’t change the fact that “When I Come Around” is simply an amazing pop song. If one song from Dookie deserves to enter the rock music canon, this is it.