Green Day's first album since 2012 sparks whenever Billie Joe Armstrong's lyrics get personal but falls flat when he takes on society's problems.
Early on the opening track of Green Day’s 12th studio album, Billie Joe Armstrong sings, “I never wanted to compromise / Or bargain with my soul / How did life on the wild side / Ever get so dull?” This is the mission statement of “Somewhere Now”, which is clearly intended to be the widescreen, important song to kick off the band’s first album since 2012. But the lyrics go on to be a muddled mess of lines about societal problems (firearms, PTSD), middle age ennui (shopping online), and celebrity culture (“We all die in threes”). Then there’s the music, which opens with an acoustic guitar riff that sounds like a direct rip off of the opening acoustic guitar riff of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling". The big rock section even kicks in at just about the same place, except in this case it’s the Who-inspired crashing guitar chords and drum fills instead of catchy arena rock.
One could make a case that the band is making a self-deprecating joke by placing the line about the wild side being so dull inside of a song that is so distinctly styled after early ‘70s classic rock. To make this case, though, one would have to ignore that while Billie Joe Armstrong has always had a sarcastic sense of humor, he’s rarely (if ever) turned that humor upon himself. He takes himself seriously, and he takes Green Day seriously. Which means that, save for Tré Cool’s really strong drum fills, “Somewhere Now” essentially implodes due to the unintended irony.
It’s not a good start for an album that follows Armstrong’s own implosion, at the IHeartRadio Music Festival in 2012, at the start of what was intended to be a long promotion and touring cycle for Green Day’s trilogy of albums, ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tré!. There, a drunken Armstrong noticed a clock rapidly counting down the band’s remaining stage time and he went off on a rant about how Green Day had been around for a long time and earned more time than the festival was willing to give them. Absent the fact that the band should never have been at the pop-oriented, overly stage-managed corporate concert in the first place, it was the moment that got Armstrong into rehab. Meanwhile the promotional plans collapsed, Warner Bros. hustled the three albums out on a compressed release schedule, and the trilogy tanked in the mainstream and elicited mostly shrugs from Green Day’s fanbase.
Four years later, a sober Armstrong is talking about how Revolution Radio is the most focused album the band has done in years and how its lack of a concept or gimmick is an asset. The problem Green Day faces on the album is a familiar one for many artists that have been around for more than two decades: they’re not pushing themselves much anymore. This is understandable; it’s difficult to mess with a successful formula. Green Day’s brand of pop-punk has never been particularly innovative, but Armstrong’s skill as a songwriter and the band’s general competence has taken them a long way. But without any concept or gimmick Armstrong’s songwriting is front and center, and it’s hit and miss at this point.
Which isn’t to say Revolution Radio is bad. At times it’s quite good. The loping “Say Goodbye” is effective with its echoing guitars and big drums. The lyrics, a bunch of generalities about violence with an aside about police violence, aren’t particularly strong, but the thumping music makes it effective. “Still Breathing” is overly familiar, a song with quiet verses and a loud chorus, but it works because Armstrong has a good melody and solid chord progression running throughout the song. “Youngblood” is mostly bland and repetitive, as Armstrong spouts platitudes about Adrienne, his wife of 22 years (for much better songs about Adrienne, see 1992’s Kerplunk!, still arguably Green Day’s best album). But it gets a spark of life near the end, when Armstrong asks “Are you broken? / Like I’m broken? / Are you restless? / She said, ‘Fuck you, I’m from Oakland!’” That line gives the character personality and also embodies Armstrong’s hardscrabble pride in his hometown. This spark extends into the next song, “Too Dumb to Die”, a catchy punk track that Green Day has approximately four dozen variations of in their catalog. But the lyrics are obviously personal as Armstrong sings about life in high school and his father striking with the teamsters.
When the songs are missing that personal spark, it’s up to the music to do the heavy lifting, and that’s when chunks of Revolution Radio fall flat. The most egregious example is “Outlaws”, a mid-tempo power ballad. This is clearly the album’s attempt at another “When September Ends.” But “When September Ends” had a core of Armstrong recounting his feelings of being 10 years old and losing his father to cancer. “Outlaws” is a tale of love between teenage delinquents and it’s just boring. First single “Bang Bang” is a raging, genuinely angry punk song about mass shootings. I’ve no doubt that Armstrong actually cares about this topic, but presenting his viewpoint through a sarcastic first-person screed where he is the shooter effectively distances him from his real emotions and blunts the song. “Troubled Times” is a too-general “Woe is the state of our world” track and the quiet verses-loud chorus construction does this one no favors.
The album ends with a big swing, the seven-minute “Forever Now”, and a folky acoustic song, “Ordinary World". “Forever Now” is a good reminder that when the band gets ambitious, it usually pays off. The beginning of the song feels like classic Green Day, as if it was something off of Insomniac. I realize that’s a very small, specific distinction, but Insomniac had a particular combination of harder-edged guitars and drums that shows up here. After the opening two minutes, the song has a genuine key change (rare for the band), followed by a syncopated version of the song’s main riff buttressed by a complicated drum part. When the song dips into a reprise of “Somewhere Now” and its acoustic riff for the express purpose of including the eye-rolling response “How did life on the wild side / Ever get so full?”, it works because it’s removed from its original musical context. The band manages to finish with a return to the syncopated riff and outros with quiet acoustic guitar, which leads nicely into “Ordinary World". This song works because of its lack of pretension. It also helps that even though “Time of Your Life (Good Riddance)” remains one of Green Day’s biggest hits, the band still places these acoustic numbers few and far between. That makes it a nice change of pace despite its predictable placement at the end of the album.
Revolution Radio ends up being a pretty good album. There are a handful of tracks here that are more memorable than anything on the 2012 trilogy. But it’s hard not to compare Green Day to several of their long-running fellow punk acts who’ve released strong records in 2016. Against Me!, the Descendents, and NOFX are firing on all cylinders this year. But Armstrong’s struggle with effective lyrics is a real issue, which often places a large burden on the music to be interesting. And Green Day doing run of the mill Green Day songs isn’t always enough to hold even this longtime fan’s interest.