Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown Review

I learned some time ago to stop paying close attention to Green Day songs and just let them work their charms over me on the basest of levels. Sometimes they lacked charm (such as the bulk of Warning) and sometimes the masses seemed to miss the point entirely (the reworking of the nasty-edged “Good Riddance” into a song played at tearful sendoffs and post-graduation parties is fitting for borderline cynics like myself, but everyone else?). But mostly Green Day specialized in power chords and suburban zit-faced angst. Novel attempts to buck the trend worked to vastly different degrees, particularly on the massively uneven free-for-all Nimrod, which earned points for sheer absurdism and aspiration. Then sometime in the middle of this decade they tried a political punk opera. You might remember it. How did that work out for them?

There will not be a single review of 21st Century Breakdown that won’t concentrate on Green Day’s last studio LP. Even if Green Day had decided to go way off the map, like recording a lo-fi hip hop record celebrating erectile dysfunction, every review would still return frequently to their last record. That’s because their last album was American Idiot, a twelve-time platinum blockbuster that launched six radio hits and made them as fashionable again as they were during Dookie’s commercial peak. While Idiot had plenty of detractors, it was still an album that could be embraced by polar stereotypes: the hipster elitists who think that Nirvana was average at best and the trend-stalking MTV junkies that wouldn't be able to name a Who song if it weren't for three freakin' CSI's. Those two bands were critical to Green Day’s evolution, you see: GD filled the subsidiary punk appetite of the consumers after a shotgun ended Nirvana in ’94 and they sounded closer to the Who’s power pop modsters than anything resembling the quick-to-rise, quicker-to-crash punks who originated the aesthetic. Also critical to Green Day’s evolution: people looking for a frantic good time without the patience to glance behind the power chords.

But lately they’ve been asking us to really read between the lines, not just on a song-for-song basis, but over the long haul of that tricky (and sticky) label: concept album. They have a point, even if that point is tough to decipher and tougher to care about. And it’s not that I disagree; it’s that it’s nothing new. When they purport ideas, they’re obvious; when they tell a story, it’s nonsensical to the listener. American Idiot was stuffed with indignation, though, so subtlety and originality was unnecessary—you could still get down to the silly Senatorial “speech” in “Holiday”’s bridge because it bluntly summed up the outrage of those who couldn’t figure out where their votes went on Election Day. 21st Century Breakdown, on the other hand, is not as vehement, settling on displacement and discord between personalities, resignation where they were once affronted. The rhetoric is sadly pretty empty; lightning luck struck once on Idiot and they ostensibly got away with a lot more than they should have. Returning to the scene of the crime wasn’t a good idea.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad Green Day is making a concerted effort to be ambitious and socially conscious. But there’s a difference between making a noble effort on good intentions and succeeding at making a worthy statement. And all could be forgiven if the tunes were good enough, but there’s very little here that asks to be repeated. We knew they’d ape the Who and the Clash, but loving references to Queen miss the glam rockers’ appeal, Ramones-esque bursts of energy sound too crisp and phony to work, and mostly they just seem to be recycling themselves. The thematic mentality may point towards modern day (as the album title suggests), but it sounds decidedly 20th century in its approach to muscular pop.

And muscular it is, to the point of exhaustion. Separated into three movements, the album’s first six tracks (discounting the “Song of the Century” intro) make up the first act, and there’s hardly any breathing room. They’re at their most Idiot-esque here, rampaging at a breakneck pace over polemic clichés that are tolerable in this environment—"enemy" is great fun for vigorous near-rhyming, as they grind away on the majority, the effigy, the urgency and the fury all the way to eternity (but no “anarchy” for these punks-with-a-point). “Christian’s Inferno” might have even been as unhinged as their best Insomniac moments if the same tuning and density didn’t fit it so well in line with the rest of this act’s songs. “Before the Lobotomy” and “¡Viva la Gloria!” both open gently and “Last Night on Earth” is a low-rent Lennon piano ballad, but even those moments are thick with luminescent, lighter-raised arena pomp, so it’s pretty much a non-stop assault. Luckily, the motif of “Lobotomy” is perhaps the album’s catchiest moment and the title track is indebted to their fabulous multi-part suite, “Jesus of Suburbia,” so as overly controlled and reminiscent as this act may be, it’s the strongest start to finish. Coming at the beginning before overlength saps away your interest helps, too.

Later, the Latin-flavored “Peacemaker” and the glittery cabaret bounce of “¿Viva la Gloria? (Little Girl)” offer interesting new dynamics. But Latin flavoring has become a go-to move of late and the latter has been done better by the Doors (plus, “Little Girl” eventually succumbs to the big, crashing choruses we’ve seen before from the band). Meanwhile, the “Horseshoes and Handgrenades” verses were blatantly once the property of the Hives’ “Main Offender” and the intro of “See the Light” is liberally borrowed from Pete Townshend. And as much as I love a good religion lashing, “East Jesus Nowhere” is militant inanity, declaring, “Raise your hands now to testify/Your confession will be crucified/You’re a sacrificial suicide/Like a dog that’s been sodomized.” Long before the lumpy messes of the second and third act, though, the tangled tale of the star duo (“subtly” named Christian and Gloria) has run aground and the listener has lost interest. It’s up to the tunes, and few of them work individually, and over the space of seventy minutes, there’s way too much stadium-baiting going on for it to be easily heard in one listen from the direction of “complete album” artifice.

Much of this album sums up the filler elements of Idiot—there’s an infectious drive to these songs, but they rarely have memorable hooks. Being loud, dense and fast is all they can honestly claim. As song composers, they know the tricks by now, but the playbook is limited. Running through eighteen tracks is way too much for so little variety. And since the time is spent with vague storytelling and bland “big meaning endeavors,” there’s not enough of a reason to stick around for the long haul. Late in the game, “American Eulogy” almost emerges as an infectious enough track to revitalize the album—you don’t need to still be trying to follow the muddled story to shout along with “mass hysteria!” That such a simple, inexpressive line could serve as one of the album’s few juicy hooks emphasizes the distance between concept and execution on a songwriting basis. “Murder City” sums up the lyrical character: “This empty laughter/Has no reason/Like a bottle/Of your favorite poison.”

The concept of American Idiot was always stronger than the dodgy narrative. And if the concept is less clear on this unofficial sequel, then that simply enforces diminished returns. Green Day has too much in the pop-punk chops department to deliver an album without at least some marginal appeal, but “marginal” can’t even be used to define 21st Century Breakdown. It’s too much all at once, serving too little that can be discerned. Breakdown producer Butch Vig was once accused of over-polishing Kurt Cobain; Billie Joe Armstrong is no Cobain, but regardless, these songs wouldn’t likely improve if they were smaller, rawer and less slippery. It’s a lot of anthemic power pop that’s not really all that powerful and not memorable enough to be tagged as anthems. A passable time waster, it’s thoroughly undeserving of its ungainly scope and never coalesces into anything more than a series of bungled opportunities sprinkled with a few infectious riffs and melodies.

Since they’ve clearly tempered none of their drive, desire and message-making, it inevitably returns to the listener’s relationship with Idiot. Comparing the two should seem unfair, but when you follow up a rock opera with another rock opera, there’s no other way. At least their musical heroes, the Who, split theirs with a legendary live album and Who’s Next. No one expects Green Day to aspire to Who magnitude, but I’m sure fans were hoping for something less bombastically shambling than this. Once one of my favorite rock records of 2004, I like American Idiot a little less each time I hear it, but still enjoy it enough to spin on occasion; I knew right away that 21st Century Breakdown barely even qualifies as an ugly stepchild.

"21st Century Breakdown" is on sale May 15, 2009 from Reprise.

Matt Medlock


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