Step one in Green Day's long-winded answer to the question of what's next after two rock operas in a row might take a couple of listens to warm up to.
¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tre! -- Green Day’s rapid-fire release of three albums over the next few months -- is simultaneously a bold artistic and commercial maneuver by punk’s biggest band and an excuse for the trio to affix a promotional budget to a dumb joke. Admittedly, it’s a joke that despite my better instincts always elicits a chuckle from me whenever I see the titles laid out in print, so I have to give Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool credit for that. That’s Green Day for you: even as all three of its members reach their 40th birthdays this year, their senses of humor will eternally be tapped into the wavelength of everyone’s inner middle-schooler.
Green Day’s new LP trilogy is the group’s response to the question of where it goes after two ambitious rock operas in a row. It’s a burning question both because the band’s ascension to the ranks of rock’s elder statesmen over the past decade raises speculation regarding what lands are left to conquer, and because the creative course Green Day has charted during that time has led it a fair distance from days of Dookie past. The 2004 career comeback American Idiot was an undisputed triumph, but its 2009 follow-up, 21st Century Breakdown, felt overly fussed-over and veered into solemnity on par with U2’s more insufferable periods. Subsequently, the available courses of action were either to scale down or go even more expansive. Either due to healthy self-confidence or unrestrained hubris, the band is doing both.
Which is how we arrive at ¡Uno!, the triptych’s first installment. After tipping far in the direction of bombastic self-importance in its latter-day discography, Green Day seeks to restore a bit of balance with an album it has alternately referred to as a “back-to-basics” undertaking and its “power pop” record. In practice, neither label fits. The only outright power pop number is the Romantics/Knack-aping “Troublemaker”, and the album’s more conventional pop punk offerings (augmented by touring guitarist Jason White, therefore effectively morphing the long-standing trio into a quartet) are delivered with the self-assured conviction possessed by those who can pull in enough ticket buyers to sell out Wembley Stadium. No longer speed-crazed kids aiming to make the unruliest ruckus they can, the now middle-aged Green Day men have tempered their tempos and replaced the buzzsaw distortion for a “punchier” guitar tone Armstrong has pitched as resting someplace between AC/DC and early Beatles.
Scaled down in comparison to American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown, ¡Uno! is the most unassuming Green Day album yet. There is no obvious breakthrough single present, no instantly-adoptable anthems, and no truly audacious stylistic experiments aside from the uneven “Kill the DJ”, a dub echo-soaked, Clash-channeling dance track that at fewer than four minutes nevertheless feels unnaturally overlong (chalk that up to Armstrong’s unending recitations of the chorus). Immediacy is a trait that’s at a premium on ¡Uno!, and bar occasional intrusions by the more bracing likes of “Nuclear Family” and “Let Yourself Go”, it’s an album that takes a few listens to latch onto. It’s as if Green Day is playing these tunes as though they are already familiar standards to listeners, a theory that gains further credence when considering how many touches ideally suited to live gigs in large venues are already present in the music -- these are songs fully expected to be played night-in and night-out to rapturous crowds totaling in the thousands. For instance, instead of just getting on with it, Armstrong likes to kick off tracks by strumming dramatic chord flourishes, conventional concert-speak that signals your face is about to be rocked ... which it will be in a few seconds, once he’s done milking it as you patiently listen along through your speakers or headphones. “Stay the Night” does away with all pretenses by incorporating a show-stopping extended finale into its arrangement right there on the record.
Though he’s not fronting material on par with “Basket Case” or “American Idiot”, Billie Joe Armstrong’s vocals are the one aspect of ¡Uno! that regularly impress. Armstrong’s technique has blossomed progressively over recent releases, and on ¡Uno! he belts out his latest batch of lyrics like the seasoned pro he has become. Be it the ‘50s rock ‘n’ roller inflections of “Nuclear Family”, the ragged screaming that punctuates “Let Yourself Go”, or the hand-on-heart caterwauling of the single “Oh Love”, the singer does his damnedest to sell even the most perfunctory song. So while the shortcomings I pinpointed in my review of “Oh Love” upon its unveiling back in July still stand (namely, that it’s overly strident and too long), I have since been surprised to find myself singing it here and there throughout my day, unprompted. Listening to Billie Joe's pipes ring out across the full LP, I sporadically ponder if it’s about time for the guitarist to consider a solo venture.
Even as a longtime Green Day fan, it’s apparent to me that ¡Uno! is a grower. That trait will likely relegate it to the more underappreciated corner of the band’s discography, alongside Warning (2000). However, it’s hard to draw any conclusions from ¡Uno! about whether or not the group requires further refreshing, considering it was recorded in tandem with two other individually-focused albums yet to be heard. ¡Uno! is the closest Green Day has put out to a “difficult” LP thus far, yet folks should not be dissuaded from testing to see if they will warm up to Armstrong, Dirnt and Cool’s first no-frills affair in over a decade. If they don’t connect with the record, there’s no need to prematurely write off the guys as irredeemable casualties of superstar rockism. It’s only two months until the next one, after all.