For the first time in his career, Billie Joe Armstrong has written himself into a corner.
Such a notion might seem odd at first, though, especially considering that Green Day were one of those rare bands who made it a point to change their sound from album to album. Following 1994’s Dookie, these unlikely frontrunners of the American punk-pop movement gradually began trying new and different things, leading to albums with darker lyrical themes (1995’s Insomniac) and more personal introspection (1997’s Nimrod).
Yet with 2000’s criminally neglected Warning, the band began truly branching out, integrating more classic rock and British pop into their sound (case in point: the riff from that album’s title track wasn’t just inspired by the Kinks’ “Picture Book” — it was outright stolen from them). Best of all was a story-song called “Misery”, which used folk instrumentation to tell a story of criminal dealings gone wrong, replete with recurring characters and grisly lyrical deaths. Much like how the Who’s “Rael” suite from 1967’s The Who Sell Out eventually gave way to Tommy, we could here see Green Day dipping their toes in the dangerous, choppy concept-rock waters that have swallowed so many bands before, and — most critically — it seemed like the band was enjoying the wade.
So when 2004’s American Idiot entered the public consciousness, everyone did an abrupt double-take: here was a band – whose previous commercial high points were dorm-room acoustic ballads and rocking odes to masturbation – that had not only crafted a full-blown rock opera, but also managed to make it visceral, engaging, and flat-out exciting listening experience, layered with thoughtful political overtones that weren’t overly explicit. Just when it seemed like Green Day were going to be written off as a great ’90s rock act and little else, they had suddenly crafted what is arguably the best disc of their career, and one of the defining works of the decade thus far.
Like the best concept albums, American Idiot worked because the songs worked both as standalone singles and as a part of a unified whole. Then again, any band capable of writing songs as affecting and instantly identifiable as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” deserves every accolade they have coming to them, and as the multi-platinum certificates, U2 collaborations, and multiple Grammys proved, Green Day – long thought dea – had successfully launched Act II of their career: they were now a “serious” band.
Yet even with all these milestones, Billie Joe Armstrong now faces the greatest challenge of his life: writing a follow-up to his unquestioned masterpiece.
At first, it seemed like the last thing that Green Day wanted to do was acknowledge that there’d be an album following American Idiot, forming the retro-rocking side project Foxboro Hot Tubs as a fun distraction from their more “serious” work (much as how Green Day formed another “joke band” prior to American Idiot: the schizophrenic New Wave punk-rock outfit The Network). Yet while Pete Townshend followed Tommy with the best standalone album of the Who’s career (1971’s Who’s Next), Armstrong feels that the only way to follow his massively successful rock opera is … with another rock opera.
From a conceptual standpoint, 21st Century Breakdown doesn’t differ from American Idiot‘s template at all: much like Idiot‘s heroes St. Jimmy and Whatsername, we are again following another boy/girl couple through the charred political landscape of post-millennial America: the confused, hedonistic Christian and the affected, lonely Gloria. Again, the lead characters get songs named after them (“Christian’s Inferno”, two incarnations of “Viva La Gloria”), and, again, the lead-off single is arguably the most innocuous tune on the album, seemingly detached from the supposed storyline that Billie Joe is building for us (“Know Your Enemy” feels like a last-minute track written for radio play, aping the peppier, angrier “American Idiot” a little too closely for comfort, a red herring of a single that doesn’t do justice for what follows).
When we open up 21st Century Breakdown and begin to dissect it, however, it simply doesn’t have the clear conceptual heft that Idiot did, and, as such, the album’s emotional impact feels just slightly out of reach. Part of the problem? Oddly, the instrumentation. While Idiot was essentially an album made out of the classic bass/drum/guitar combo (save for a string section on “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and the feedback loops that grounded “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”), 21st Century Breakdown runs through a gamut of noisemakers, with synths and E-bow’s running wild while Armstrong’s simplistic piano chords take center stage, almost overshadowing his own ax-work this time out (the title track itself is a quarter-note away from turning into the opening for “Baba O’Reilly”).
Though this certainly makes for the most musically varied disc the band has done since Warning, it’s hard not to feel that Green Day is using these sounds more as a crutch than a way of amplifying the lyrical content. Simply put, this is the most hook-free Green Day album since, well, ever. Your first straight-through listen reveals lots of ideas, exciting arrangements, and numerous time changes (used most effectively in “Before the Lobotomy”), but there is no easy entry point into this disc, no gut-punch six-string stunner like “St. Jimmy” or overwrought ballad like “Wake Me Up When September Ends” to serve as a proper introduction to Breakdown‘s big ideas — of which there are many.
21st Century Breakdown isn’t just Green Day’s “serious” disc; it’s also their “statement” album, their ramshackle sense of fun now replaced with scathing lyrical attacks on the Regan generation, religion, and just about any other authority figure that comes to mind. “Born into Nixon, I was raised in hell” Armstrong begins on the title track, “a Welfare child where the Teamsters dwelled”. Though their fans who were raised on Dookie may very well respond to the sentiment that “We are the desperate in the decline / Raised by the bastards of 1969”, some of Armstrong’s critiques feel somewhat disjointed, as in that same song he also warns that “Homeland Security could kill us all”, and in later songs rails against the drug industry (“Restless Heart Syndrome”) and the class war that currently dominates this country (“American Eulogy”). Armstrong runs through a long list of hot-button topics, and no matter what you ultimately think of 21st Century Breakdown, you can’t fault it for lacking in ambition.
Yet in tackling so many issues, Armstrong loses sight of conceptual unity, and — as such — there is no central thesis statement to tie everything together. At its worst, 21st Century Breakdown is a mishmash of political mantras. It’s like the ending of “Restless Heart Syndrome”, and Armstrong gets his philosophy from several bumper stickers and reads them off as if they bear weight despite being riddled with clichés (“So what ails you is what impales you / You are your own worst enemy / You’re a victim of the system” and so on). The Christian/Gloria storyline proves frightfully hard to follow, feeling almost abandoned by the time we get to “American Eulogy” (unless you really want to dig into it and claim it’s the same eulogy Christian is singing prior to his operation in “Before the Lobotomy”), and then, the group’s master statement is revealed: “I don’t want to live in the modern world” (repeated ad nauseum).
Part of the reason that Idiot worked as well as it did was partially due to its timing: it came out a month and a half before George W. Bush was re-elected into office. There were scores of disaffected, politically-informed youth that felt anger over the course that the GOP-helmed America was taking, and Armstrong managed to articulate that anger very precisely, Bush’s second term inadvertently giving Idiot more potency than even Armstrong could have anticipated. While punk purists always mocked Green Day’s Dookie-era antics for moving away from the anti-establishment preachings of their punk forefathers and moving closer to sophomoric humor, Idiot was punk through and through: it was protest-rock in an age that had forgotten what protest-rock sounded like.
In an Obama-lead America, however, Armstrong’s scathing lyrical indictments feel, well, somewhat dated. There’s still much to be upset about these days — the economy, the still-ongoing wars (remember the “Wake Me Up When September Ends” video?), the torture talks, and big government spending (just to name a few) — but dousing our problems in gasoline (a frequent lyrical theme this time out) and throwing a match over our shoulder just doesn’t feel as grand a gesture as it did in 2004. Armstrong wants to talk about everything at once, but in doing so, he spreads himself thin.
And it’s a damn shame, too. Despite the lack of hummable rallying cries and focused ideology, 21st Century Breakdown contains some positively breathtaking moments. We’ve never heard Armstrong sound as angry as he does on the opening to “Horseshoes and Handgrenades” [sp], we’ve never heard the band introduce a bassline as sinister as the one they use on “Christian’s Inferno”, and God help us all if the lovely, understated “Last Night on Earth” doesn’t become the new standard-bearer for high school slow dances the world over. The album is still rife with fantastic standalone songs (the Fountains of Wayne-styled “Last of the American Girls” battles the simplistic, heartfelt “21 Guns” for the album’s Best Track prize), unabashed hero-worship (it’s not a stretch at all to imagine Roger Daltry singing “Before the Lobotomy”), and clever winks to their own past (“Peacemaker” might as well be “Misery, Pt. II”). Needless to say, there’s still a lot of excitement to be found in 21st Century Breakdown.
Yet when you begin taking Armstrong’s lyrics at face value and stop trying to tie them into 21st Century Breakdown‘s supposed three-act format, we get some of the best (and most venomous) lines of Armstrong’s career. On the scathing “East Jesus Nowhere”, Armstrong calls out those running on blind faith and tactical imperialism:
Put your faith in a miracle
And it’s non-denominational
Join the choir, we will be singing
In the Church of Wishful Thinking […]
I want to know who’s allowed to breed
All the dogs who never learned to read
And the cops of a new religion
Even if the Christian/Gloria characters feel somewhat left by the wayside by the album’s conclusion, Armstrong still manages to flesh out their post-9/11 sense of desperation, the lovely Gloria a runaway and a junkie, Armstrong’s descriptions of her (from the second “Viva La Gloria” song) as potent as anything he’s ever written:
To your lost tranquility
And find yourself with your face in the gutter
You’re a stray for the Salvation Army
There is no place like home
When you got no place to go
The traces of blood
Always follow you home
Like the mascara tears
From your getaway
You’re walking with blisters
And running with shears
So unholy, Sister of Grace
In an interview with Q Magazine that ran prior to the album’s release, Armstrong notes that after Nimrod, he wanted to write songs of substance, and with Warning‘s lead-off single “Minority”, he started to say things he finally wanted to say. Years later, upon hearing a Lynryd Skynyrd song on the radio that declared pride in being a redneck, Armstrong got so pissed off at the sentiment that he wrote “American Idiot” as a direct response, and, since then, he’s taken very careful consideration in crafting his lyrics. Such quality care is evident throughout most of21st Century Breakdown and, as such, individual moments positively glisten, even if the widescreen view of it is muddled and confused, the whole less than the sum of its parts.
Though Armstrong’s declaration of not wanting to live in the modern age is undoubtedly a central theme of the album (he repeats it enough times), perhaps the most telling statement about 21st Century Breakdown‘s intentions rests simply in its last line: “I need to know what’s worth the fight”. After listening to the admirable, powerful, frustrating, confusing, and fiery album, straight through, it’s hard not to wish that he followed that sentiment and picked something worth fighting for, instead of tackling everything at once.