21st Century Breakdown: Green Day’s Operatic Follow-up to American Idiot

The middle-aged boys of Green Day continue they’re singular positions as composers of punk opera, as explained in this review from Richard Lindsay. 

There are pop music artists that hold us in awe of their voices, not just their power or range, but their longevity. The fact that Bono and Sting can still hit the high notes in the hits they recorded in their 20’s despite being old enough for AARP membership is surely one of the miracles of music. In the case of Billie Joe Armstrong, lead singer of Green Day, the miracle is not the purity or clarity of his voice, but that he still sounds like a punk kid when he’s pushing forty. Somehow the adolescent edge has never gone out of Green Day, either in their sound or in their songs, although maturity has brought on political awareness that takes them far beyond their early hits about masturbation and smoking pot.

21st Century Breakdown, one of the most anticipated albums of the year, continues the oxymoronic genre (punk concept album) Green Day created with 2005’s American Idiot. With this second concept album, Green Day has positioned itself as historic, chronicling the cultural malaise caused by the Bush war in Iraq and the subsequent “Great Recession” from the point of view of working-class suburbia. One of the few Generation X bands that have taken a real crack at political protest, they’re cranking out some of the most socially relevant rock since Nirvana.

Not that they weren’t always innovative. “Pop punk” was a putdown for their creation when Green Day hit it big with Dookie in 1994. At the time, a punk band that could write a decent melody and sing in tune was considered a sell-out. Then the numbered imitators came along (Blink 182, Sum 41, THX 1138…wait, no…never mind) and suddenly they were pioneers. But unlike the latecomers to the genre, Green Day has dared to evolve, continuing to stretch their talents as musicians and songwriters In the process they now have lots more tricks up their sleeve than the usual punk three-chord Monte.

21st Century Breakdown
is broken into thee acts, “Heroes and Cons,” “Charlatans and Saints,” and “Horseshoes and Hand Grenades.” The album starts with an introductory waltz, “Song of the Century” sung a capella by a distant-sounding staticky Billie Joe that sounds like a hymn of yore. Then the band launches into the title track, and a great line, “Born into Nixon I was raised in hell/A welfare child/ Where the Teamsters dwelled.” As usual with Green Day, the tormented lyrics are balanced with an almost jaunty pop music accompaniment—in this case, Beach Boy-style harmonies. The song continues the innovation of American Idiot, with tracks that switch up tempos and styles within the same song, creating extended punk epics. In the first song, they switch from straight-ahead pop into a kind of Irish jig, then segway into a Queen-like half-time modulation that ends with “Dream American dream,” then “Scream America scream.”

Now as a bit of personal disclosure, since moving to the East Bay, I’ve been become a bit of a Green Day pilgrim, checking out 924 Gilman Street, a nonprofit, drug-and-alcohol-free punk club where the band played many of its early gigs, and (how do I say this in most un-stalker-ish way possible?) I have located and driven by Billie Joe Armstrong’s house in the Oakland hills. (Don’t worry about me until I start camping outside wearing black eyeliner.) And I can say, having dined at the Hometown Buffet in Pinole, California, where Armstrong grew up, it is not exactly “hell.” It is working class, and is “blind from refinery sun,” thanks to the Chevron plant in Richmond. With lines like, “My name is no one the long lost son/Born on the 4th of July/Raised in an era of heroes and cons/ That left me for dead or alive,” the point of the album seems to be the conflicted feeling of being in a country currently defined by its warring tendencies toward unlimited opportunity and profound inequality.

Along the way we’re introduced to the characters Gloria and Christian, whom I suppose we can assume are the guy and girl on the album cover making out on top of a car while a city burns behind them. Gloria is described variously as “the sinner on all the saints,” “the last American girl,” and “sister of grace,” a kind of punk non-virgin Mary. Of the “Gloria” tracks, the best is track four, which starts with a pretty piano and strings intro, before moving into its up-tempo pop chorus of “Gloria, viva la Gloria!” which sounds suspiciously like “All of Me”

Christian apparently has some mental health issues, as expressed in “Before the Lobotomy,” which starts with a “Stairway to Heaven”-style acoustic guitar intro, and then accelerates into a kind of power-pop guitar chord song with some hints of reggae. Another punk epic, it also has a Queen-style modulation ending. “Christian’s Inferno” mixes pop punk with eerie Black Sabbath dissonance.

For those who haven’t been able to discern more than “Do you know your enemy, rah-oh!” in Green Day’s repetitive radio single, some of the words say, “Violence is an energy/ Against the enemy,” and “Silence is the enemy/Against your urgency/So rally up the demons of your soul.” The “enemy” of the song is complacency.

Act II, “Charlatans and Saints” is about religion and mental illness, or religion as mental illness.

“East Jesus Nowhere” is a militant bit of Gary Glitter stadium rock that criticizes America’s military-religious complex with a chorus of “A fire burns today/Of blasphemy and genocide/The sirens of decay/Will infiltrate the faith fanatics.” Part gospel revival, part Nuremburg rally, it’s angry ground first plowed in the title track of American Idiot.

But in the next track, the band moves in a new direction that surprises and delights: Klezmer. Yes, punk Klezmer. Ironically titled, “Peacemaker,” the song is about wasting those who disagree with you. “With God as my witness/The infidels are gonna pay.” Instead of “Hava Nagila,” the chorus is “Vendetta, sweet vendetta.” This song of the gleeful assassin is probably the catchiest on the album. They revisit this Klezmer revival in the final “Gloria” song, “Viva la Gloria? (Little Girl)”

Other highlights of Act II include “Murder City” and “Restless Heart Syndrome.” “Murder City” is about the riots following the New Year’s Day death of Oscar Grant, an African-American man shot in the back by a white police officer in an Oakland subway station. Its repeated line, “desperate but not hopeless,” tries to strike an optimistic note in the face of meaningless violence. “Restless Heart Syndrome” brings back the piano and strings used effectively earlier in the album. A song about mental illness and medication, its chromatic line, acoustic guitar, and echo effects have a bleary 70’s pop sound. It’s a solid piece of composition and orchestration that proves the band’s chops as songwriters.

The third act starts with a driving punk sound and some songs that could come straight off a standard Green Day album. “21 Guns,” the album’s second single, is a good ballad with Beatles-style background harmonies, but clearly an attempt to cash in on the success of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”  Sung sweetly by Armstrong, almost like a lullaby, it’s not so much about making peace as giving up—a kind of peace anyway if you don’t have much control over outcomes.

The album finale starts with a reprise of the “Song of the Century” hymn, followed by “American Eulogy” a rollicking two-part punk epic that features back-and-forth between Armstrong and bassist Mark Dirnt. The final song “See the Light,” has U2-like open fifths that fade out ethereally. The whole album is pretty dark if you just read the lyrics, but somehow Green Day and Billie Joe are always able to play their odes to angst with a twist of irony and humor, rather than a punk sneer.

Some of the song conceits are a little silly coming from a group of nearly middle-aged men. “Before the Lobotomy” is a ridiculous title for musicians old enough to realize lobotomies don’t happen anymore. (Just as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” was way too trite a title for a good song with a cool Smiths-style beginning.) Sometimes the adolescent rage the band holds onto, must even somehow nurture considering their current wealth and success, comes off like the kid at school who pens bleeding clichés in his black notebook and complains that nobody understands his poetry.

And maybe this is why, as creative and genre-challenging as Idiot and Breakdown are, I’d like to see Green Day go someplace new on their next release. The youthful rage of Gen X is well documented in film, song, and software. But what’s it like for us X-ers as we slack our way into middle age, raising kids while we still have our body piercings and tattoos? How do we take responsibility for the institutions – government, religion, family – that failed us so miserably? What happens when mortality stops being a fashion we wear like a black leather jacket and starts to become reality? By expanding their sound, and simply persisting, Green Day has earned the right to count themselves among the voices of a generation. Now the generation is waiting to hear what they have to say about where we are now, and where we’re going.