Growing Up Without Getting Old: Green Day and the Art of the Unbelievable Comeback
What the hell happened?
I mean it. I really wasn’t expecting this. If you say you saw this one coming, you’re lying. In all seriousness, who thought Green Day had it in them to deliver one of the best rock albums of the year?
Bands that have been around this long aren’t supposed to be this creatively strong. Sure, every now and again there’s a fluke like R.E.M. or the Flaming Lips, a band that continues to produce good music two or three decades after their initial success. But mostly, once a group hits their peak, it’s a downhill slide. It’s exceedingly rare to find a group capable of releasing their best album a decade after their commercial peak. Who in the hell thought Green Day would be that one-in-a-hundred? Not I.
Green Day is a group that showed every indication of being on the cusp of diminishing returns. Their last album, 2000’s Warning, was released to mediocre reviews and middling sales. There was definite conflict in Warning’s material, as the group’s hard punk edge seemed increasingly at-odds with their steadily maturing songwriting acumen. Words such as “Beatle-esque” were bandied about by confused critics. Was this the same group that went Top 20 with an ode to serial masturbation? Was this the same Green Day who followed up their relatively poppy major label debut (the 10-times platinum Dookie) with the spitefully claustrophobic Insomniac?
There were four long years between the release of Warning and American Idiot, and in those four year’s you could have been forgiven for believing that it looked as if Green Day might be close to the end of their strange and unexpected ride. The inevitable hits package (2001’s International Superhits!), and the inevitable odds-and-sods compilation (2002’s Shenanigans) did little to dispel the notion that the group was treading water.
Which brings us nicely to American Idiot. To say that this is a creative renaissance for the group would be a gross understatement: the fact is that with this album Green Day have finally cemented their position as one of the best rock outfits of their generation. I don’t think that even their most enthusiastic fans could have predicted how fearsomely good this album would be.
Of course, every new Green Day album brings with it the perpetual kvetching over the soul of punk. Those who thought that punk died the moment Dookie hit the streets will find little hear to change their minds. Punk purists are perhaps the most loathsome gnats in all of creation. If you want to get technical, you can argue all damn day over whether or not the Ramones were really a punk band, or whether or not the Clash sold out when they went big, or whatever. Quite honestly, life is too short. Sure, we can all respect the Dischord records crews and their unswerving dedication to some pure Platonic ideal of Punk-with-a-capitol-“P”. But honestly, most people just don’t care. Call me a heretic all you want, but there’s a reason why most punk bands worth their salt eventually change and grow. Punk is a journey, not a destination. If you want to record the same brutally raw and punishingly fast tracks over and over again, go ahead and have fun. But if that’s all you want to do for the rest of your life, you’re pretty weird.
But the fact that a bunch of noise fetishists wanted to turn punk into thrash metal’s grim and ugly kid sister can’t erase the fact that so many of the early, seminal punk groups were nothing if not adept pop songwriters. The Ramones wanted nothing more than to create a genuine tribute to the Bay City Rollers and the Ronettes. From the very beginning the Clash had a crystalline songwriting talent that belied their angry exterior. The Damned were obviously having a good time. The fact that smart art-pop groups like the Talking Heads and Blondie have as much of a legitimate claim to punk credibility as Sham 69 or the Buzzcocks has always meant, to me, that punk was only ever a state of mind. You can hem and haw about whether or not Blink 182 or Sum 41 are punkers or poseurs, but at the end of the day it only matters to anyone insecure enough to perceive the dilution of an arbitrary generic idealization as a personal threat. If Sum 41 think they’re playing punk music, does it make your Minor Threat CDs any less enjoyable to you? If it does, that’s an extremely petty worldview you’ve got there.
In any event, there are few things less “punk” than a rock opera. The very phrase connotes a level of pretension and premeditation that is alien to even the most generous conception of the genre. Certainly, Tommy is a classic, and the Who are considered among the progenitors of punk . . . but still. Concept albums as a whole are tricky business, and when you take the final step dividing concept from narrative, you are entering hoary pastures. There’s blessed little air between Dark Side of the Moon and Tarkus. When I heard that Green Day were doing a “punk rock opera”, I have to admit I thought it was a joke.
But it wasn’t a joke. Apparently, the four years between albums were difficult for the group. They found themselves unhappy with the mixed results of Warning, riven by resentment and unsure whether or not to even continue. But the strangest thing happened: instead of allowing dissatisfaction to blow the group apart, they sat down and talked. Unlike fellow Bay Area natives Metallica, they didn’t need a $40,000-a-month shrink to work through their problems.
The group’s increasingly ambitious songwriting was openly addressed. The group wanted to place the straight pop which had begun to blossom on 1997’s Nimrod and which had taken a more prominent place on Warning into a cleaner synthesis with the aggressive punk of their early material. Basically, the group realized that they needed to manage the almost impossible task of embracing a more mature sound without sacrificing their youthful vigor. Amazingly, they have achieved this precarious balance on American Idiot.
The album begins with the title track, one of the disc’s harder punk tracks. It starts the album off on the right foot, with the group’s familiar sound on display for longtime fans, as well as a blast of energy for newcomers. The second track, “Jesus of Suburbia”, is the first of two nine-minute suites, containing five movements each. Obviously, the point of reference here is the Who’s immortal “A Quick One (While He’s Away)”. The Who were able to pull off the rather absurd premise of a ten-minute long operetta based almost entirely on their musical prowess. They couldn’t help but rocking, regardless of whatever the hell they happened to be rocking about. Green Day have discovered the same kind of infectious confidence on “Jesus of Suburbia”. You don’t notice that the track is nine minutes long, because each distinct suite has the energy of a distinct and coherent song. Every couple of minutes they lurch into another section, turning on a dime and heading off in another direction entirely. It’s thoroughly engrossing.
Before I received my copy of American Idiot, I saw a half-hour television performance that the group recorded for the Fuse network. They performed every note of “Jesus of Suburbia” with perfect precision, perhaps even shaving a few seconds off the total playing time. They needed an extra set of hands to tackle the layered guitar parts, as well as to handle the stunt xylophone during “Dearly Beloved”, but considering the complexity of the music it’s impressive that the only needed a single set of extra hands. Although Green Day have always been an impressive live band, they have now evolved into something else entirely, tackling these dizzyingly complex movements with the exact same level of reckless enthusiasm with which they have always tackled their hardest and most unforgiving punk tracks. “Jesus of Suburbia” is just a damn fantastic piece of music, probably the best thing on American Idiot. I find myself wanting to listen to it over and over again, repeatedly pressing the back button on the Windows Media Player like a chimp pulling the lever for his food pellet.
The rest of the album is pretty damn good, too. The melancholy melody of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” will stick to the inside of your skull like salt-water taffy. “Give Me Novacaine” is a soft-hard bruiser of a track, with a sweet acoustic pop verse set against a sludge-drenched punk chorus. It almost sounds like half of “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” welded to half of “Geek Stink Breath”—and as unlikely as that sounds, it works. There are even the soft, muted sounds of a Hammond organ purring softly as the track slides to a sweet close.
“Extraordinary Girl” is another early favorite. It’s one of the least typically Green Day tracks on the album, with a strange retro-‘60s vibe that almost reminds me of the Bangles with a tad more of a Carnaby Street vibe. “Letterbomb” features a brief cameo from Le Tigre’s Kathleen Hanna, and it is also one of the album’s most incendiary tracks. This could easily be a hit in the vein of “Basket Case” or “Nice Guys Finish Last”. I am still a bit torn on “Wake Me Up When September Ends”. It’s one of the album’s most heartfelt and affecting tunes, but it’s also the one most likely to end up used at the end of an episode of Dawson’s Creek, or whatever show the kids are watching these days.
But at the end of the day, I really can’t accuse Green Day of having compromised anything for the sake of recording more accessible pop music. The fact is that they suffered for the right to write whatever the hell kind of songs they want. The group almost imploded from the stress of trying very hard to be two things at the same time: an orthodox punk group and a burgeoning power-pop outfit. Ultimately, the only way they were able to make it through was by realizing that they weren’t going to be happy unless they accepted the fact that their muse wanted them to go in some expansive directions. It’s the same thing, really, that happened to the Clash and Wire and so many of the best punk bands throughout music history. They reached a point where they realized that the rigid strictures of punk were standing in the way of doing what they wanted to do. Not everyone can be the Ramones, and really, who else has ever approached that kind of Zen purity with their abrasively minimal songwriting? I’m glad Joe Strummer and Co. didn’t give a second thought to these things before they recorded London Calling, and I’m similarly glad that Green Day were able to settle the matter in such a way as to enable them to record American Idiot.
What is that? There’s no way American Idiot deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as London Calling? Well, don’t get me wrong, the album isn’t that good, but that’s not saying much considering that by any measure London Calling is considered one of the top-five rock albums of all time. Sure, Green Day aren’t quite in that league (who is?), but they are definitely playing in the major leagues.
The “Homecoming” suite which closes the album is, while perhaps a bit less cohesive than “Jesus of Suburbia”, all the more maniacally inventive. Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool actually get to sing a section each. Dirnt’s piece is an odd piece of punk-rock chamber music with martial drums, while Cool’s bit is just a crazy piece of roadhouse rock and roll which reminds me of what Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band would sound like if you stuffed them all in a closet together and made them huff modeling glue out of a paper sack before they went on stage. It all builds to an impossibly preposterous and almost comically grand finish. While the influence of the Who is pervasive throughout the album, this track wears the influence most plainly. It didn’t initially impress me as much as the rest of the album, but after a few listenings it has grown on me considerably.
The album ends with “Whatsername”, a plainspoken and painful evocation of, well, growing up. Billy Joe sings “I remember the face but I can’t recall the name / Now I wonder how Whatsername has been” with the honest emotion of someone who has lived through the disorientation of growing up and older and experienced the realization that the past can never be reclaimed. “I’ll never turn back time”, he sings wistfully as the albums comes to a close. It’s as brutally affecting a line as I’ve heard all year.
Certainly, it doesn’t really do you any good to try to follow the supposed storyline: like Tommy, it only makes as much sense as you’re willing to suspend disbelief. But the fact is that despite some recurring motifs, the album would hold up just as well if you had no idea there was supposed to be any sort of common thread between the tracks. It’s an album full of brilliant tracks that somehow add up to more than the sum of their individual parts. If there’s ever a Broadway musical adaptation I’m sure it will all make sense, but until that day you will just have to be content with the album as is.
If, 10 months ago, you had told me that Green Day would release one of the very best pop records of the year, I would have laughed. Nothing against Green Day, but they have always been the underdogs. No one ever really expected them to be so unbelievably popular as they were in the ‘90s. No one really expected them to still be around and still selling records some 10 years after Dookie. The fact is that they are without a doubt the most successful punk group of all time, with all the contradictory baggage that such a dubious honor implies. They are also now one of the very best rock bands currently working. American Idiot is a work of staggering ambition, made all the more impressive by the fact that they make it all look so damn effortless. Considering the fact that Billy Joe is still only 32 years old, it boggles the mind to imagine just where the band can go from here.