[24 November 2009]
Sound Affects Editor
All the recent name-checking of classic albums from 1994 on this blog got me thinking: wow, wasn’t that a great year for rock music? Thinking about the Sound Affects posts on Blur and “Soundgarden” as I chowed down at a fast food joint, I instinctively rattled album titles off the top of my head: Definitely Maybe, The Downward Spiral, MTV Unplugged in New York, Vitalogy, and so on. After several titles ran through my brain, I couldn’t help but think I’d missed something blindingly obvious.
And then I remembered: well, of course Green Day’s Dookie was the best rock album of 1994.
Fifteen years ago, scores of critics admitted that yes, this 14-track album full of speedy pop punk tunes about panic attacks, boredom, and masturbation was quite catchy, but no one would’ve held it against them if they doubted that Dookie would have had staying power. It’s too unassuming, too fidgety, and too juvenile to fit the standard mold of a “Classic Rock Album”. But then again, rock started simply as good-time music for teenagers to lose themselves in, not to incite pop culture critics to stroke their beards in contemplation. Dookie was such a massive success (with ten million copies shipped in the United States alone since its release) because not only was it an unpretentious, remarkably consistent hit package with tons of great hooks, it was also fun as hell.
Which is not to sell Dookie short as an artistic achievement. In addition to being the Californian punk trio’s best album, it may also be its most culturally relevant. Sure, American Idiot (2004) captured the zeitgeist of discontent and uncertainty of those who felt weighed down by the Bush Jr. era and conveyed that sentiment through all the rock opera trappings listeners love to dissect for years on end, but Green Day’s major label debut is more universal and far more profound. It’s a record that speaks of the frustrations, anxieties, and apathy of young people (be they Generations X or Y) with an artistry and empathy few would have credited Green Day with possessing before it yielded its “Big Important Album” with American Idiot. At its core, Dookie is an album about coming to terms with one’s self and one’s failings in a manner that is not often triumphant or celebratory, but is nonetheless reaffirming to the underachievers of the world. Dookie is an album that says “Yeah, I’m a fuck-up” in a way that millions of people wish they could express themselves in, and that’s why it’s so great.
So over the next few weeks I’m going to highlight all 14 cuts from Dookie (plus the hidden track). In that time I hope to illustrate that not only was Green Day already musically mature at a time when the media painted them as mere snotty brats, but that Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong is one of the greatest, most underappreciated lyricists of his generation.
Now, let’s dive in:
From the outset, Green Day hits the ground running on Dookie. The record’s first track “Burnout” kicks off a pair of explosive drum rolls and one of the great opening lines in album history: “I declare I don’t care no more”. In just seven words, the song’s mission statement is clear: I am so fed up with life I don’t a fuck about anything, even proper grammar. The protagonist of “Burnout” (his hair “shagging in [his] eyes”) spends his days growing bored in his “smoked-out boring room” (most certainly getting high). Even when he “hits the streets at night / To drive along these shit town lights”, there’s nothing to make his dissatisfaction dissipate. He doesn’t feel like he’s headed anywhere in life—not that life holds any promise for him, as he states in the chorus, “I’m not growing up / I’m just burning out / and I stepped in line to walk amongst the dead”. My favorite lines in the entire song are “I’ve lived inside my mental cave / Throw my emotions in the grave / Hell, who needs them anyway”. It’s such a potent expression of apathy that works because it’s so matter-of-fact; the protagonist’s feelings are so deadened he can cast them off casually as if he were throwing thrash in the bin. It’s easy to see the song’s appeal to the slacker generation.
Despite being a paean to not giving a damn, “Burnout” is a speedy, antsy rocker that could only be executed by a group of well-practiced musicians. Green Day has always prided itself as a tightly honed band, and it shows as the trio delivers a fantastic performance. The instruments work together in such a way that they serve as one locked in, propulsive rhythmic force. Meanwhile, it’s singer Billie Joe Armstrong’s job to convey the melodic part via his vocals. A lesser punk singer would’ve gone the traditional monotone sneer route, but Armstrong has the chops and the good sense to make his delivery memorably hooky as he bashes out quick power chord changes on his guitar. One example of how well the group plays together is how the guitar and bass drop out for brief moments in the second chorus, just before Armstrong sings the line “I’m not growing up”. Yet the main display of the group’s interplay is the show-stopping drum solo, where Armstrong and bassist Mike Dirnt fire short bursts of guitar noise before allowing drummer Tre Cool to go hog wild on his kit. The band does this not once, but four times in a row, and it gets better with each pass. The song almost doesn’t even need to continue after that, but it does, allowing for one more verse before the band barrels onward to the finish line, closing on a perfect, abrupt ending.
As the final buzz of Armstrong’s guitar quickly fades out, a simple question springs to mind: how on earth wasn’t this a single?