Green Day: “21st Century Breakdown”
I’m going to engage in a bit of speculation here and say this: That I’m pretty sure Green Day knows that they aren’t exactly hip– or at least, that what they’re doing isn’t exactly hip. Who else, in 2009, makes a full-blown rock opera– twice in a row? Who else, in the age of Obama, writes vicious, no-prisoners protest rock? And who else wears their love of classic rock on their sleeves quite so audaciously– both the cool stuff and the not-so-cool stuff alike? To boot: They do all this while also ensuring that their albums become blockbusters, in an age when “albums” don’t really sell all that well.
See, here’s the secret about Green Day: As celebrated as they are in some circles for their deadpan irony and their impish humor, their greatest weapon, at least in recent years, has been their sincerity. Ernest in an era where ernest doesn’t fly, either in the mainstream or with the hipsters, Green Day lets it all hang out on big, album-length Statements that they really and truly believe in. Like U2 before them, they’re often accused of taking themselves too seriously, but the only thing they take seriously is their music.
That’s why some love ’em and some hate ’em. This much, however, is no longer up for debate: Green Day is a band like no other. As has been well-documented in recent years, they began as a slacker-punk act– a novelty band born out of a flash-in-the-pan movement, destined to be one-hit wonders– but they’ve not only outlasted all their peers, but they’ve gone on to play with a fire and an ambition that is simply unparalleled in mainstream rock.
But all that’s been said before. So here’s why I love Green Day: Because as much as they apparently love rock operas, political protest records, and classic rock, their albums are, nevertheless, Green Day albums first and foremost. They make personal music, and they do it the only way they know how: By being themselves. And their new one, 21st Century Breakdown, is a very fine Green Day album. In fact, it may well be their very best.
Yes, it’s another rock opera, and yes, it’s still very political, and yes, it once again owes a heavy debt to The Who. So on first blush, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was American Idiot II. But listen again. This isn’t so much a sequel as a reboot– an album that refines what worked about the last record, pushes it to a new extreme, and fleshes it out with more ambition and creative vigor than ever before.
The first two tracks lay the album’s DNA on the table, and reveal both the potential hazards, but also how Green Day makes it work. “Song of the Century” is a brief, sing-songy prologue– an introduction to the fact that this record has a clear narrative trajectory. But where the story was sometimes obtrusive on American Idiot, here it proves to be a valuable framework for Billie Joe Armstrong to organize his thoughts. It doesn’t fetter him– it liberates him. Next, the title song is a full-on, multi-part suite that pays winking homage to at least half a dozen classic rock staples: John Lennon, Queen, Mott the Hoople, Springsteen, and more. But the song’s craftsmanship is not just clever, it’s brilliant: Green Day proudly declares their love of classic rock even while staking their own place within it, all the while keeping things rooted in quick, punchy punk, so as to keep things from getting bogged down in pomp and circumstance.
And while there’s plenty of pomp here– that’s part of the point; this is a bold update of classic, protest-rock tropes– there’s also a lot of fire; Green Day can still write punkish barn-burners like the best of ’em, they can write sweeping riffs destined to fill arenas, they can cheekily play with flamenco sketches and gypsy guitar, and they can write stately ballads that demonstrate just how little they care about conforming to anyone else’s standards of what punk should be. For the most part, they left their raucous garage rock tendencies with last year’s Foxboro Hot Tubs project, so yes, Breakdown is very polished, but that’s what it’s supposed to be: Polished, mainstream rock.
Billie Joe Armstrong still writes entirely in slogans, of course, for which some people will deride him, but would it still be a Green Day album otherwise? Thing is, he expresses himself remarkably clearly through those slogans, and the story he tells both is and isn’t about America. It’s a story about a particularly modern malaise, a disillusionment that steams from a loss of trust in the government, religion, and the values of generations past. He juggles a pair of characters who represent two different perspectives– the brash yet apathetic Christian and the politically-minded but increasingly cynical Gloria– but the genius is that these characters are really just the two voices in his own head, and this music is nothing if not an attempt to sort through his own fears and concerns. It’s music written for the masses, but distinctly personal in its expression.
Which goes back to their earnestness. Irony may sell better, but Green Day is having none of it; everything about this music– from the classic rock adoration to the flair for grandiosity to the cultural concerns and the wrestling with demons– screams that this is the work of Green Day, with everything acting as a conduit for their expression, not a a way to hide themselves or mask their feelings. They pour everything– their interests and obsessions, their fears and their values– into this music, and then they just let it rip. Which is why they’re a band like no other, and why these albums strike a nerve: They represent something more raw than punk and more cantankerous than rock– something honest and articulate, emotional and true.