Sound — 8
When Green Day released 2004's "American Idiot", the world watched as the album opened the floodgates for anti-George Bush propaganda, as well as fuelling its creators' return to megastardom. But how do you follow up a hugely successful concept album that, to some people, made every punk album that had come before it irrelevant? Write another, bigger one, of course. So, we're presented with "21st Century Breakdown", Green Day's 7th studio album and their second giant slab of American political commentary. Split into three pretentiously titled 'acts'; "Heroes And Cons", "Charlatans And Saints", and "Horseshoes And Handgrenades", the album allegedly tells the semi-autobiographical story of Christian and Gloria (intentionally loaded names, no doubt), described by The Guardian's Dan Silver as a "narcissistic nihilist" and a "former freedom fighter struggling to capture her youthful idealism." With a running time of 70 minutes, it's hard to tell whether Green Day have thrown caution to the wind for the sake of creative freedom, or if they're simply trying to justify the fact it took them five years to release a follow up to their biggest album to date with quantity rather than quality. The simple answer is that it's a bit of both, and as such The Good, The Bad and The Absolutely, Irretrievably Awful would be more appropriate act names. Given the promises of subtly huge stadium rock that preceded the album's release, opener "Song Of The Century" is bound to catch even the most dedicated Green Day fan off guard. Rather than the huge, thumping powerchords of "American Idiot"'s title track or "Dookie"'s "Burnout", we are instead met by frontman Billie Joe Armstrong singing in the shower. In telephone quality. A cappella. It's nothing if not different, although downright bizarre would be more apt. "Sing us the song of the century / That's louder than bombs and eternity / The era of static and contraband / Leading us into the Promised Land," croons Armstrong, in what is presumably intended as some kind of alternative American national anthem. Lo and behold, the political propaganda is in full swing already, not 30 seconds in. It soon becomes apparent that, as self-congratulatory as a title like "Song Of The Century" sounds, it's actually a relatively clever play on words. This is a song about the century so far. All 8 and a half years of it. While the intentionally low quality production of the song does have its charms, even 57 seconds is too long, and it's a relief when the title track kicks in. Let's face it: When Green Day are on form, they're one of the best bands in the world. Their gradual evolution from snotty, snarling teenagers to mature alt-punk songwriters who still had some bite meant that when they finally conquered the mainstream they did so with dignity. They also had the experience behind them to deal with the fact that people would get bored of them pretty quickly unless they could write a radio hit. Hence, "21st Century Breakdown" contains a number of the core ideals of punk rock but with razor sharp production, musical diversity, and even the odd ballad. Aided by producer Butch Vig's emulation of Phil Spector's Wall Of Sound technique, "21st Century Breakdown" is overblown to the point where it makes "Born To Run" sound like a MIDI file, and Green Day give us an idea of what The Polyphonic Spree would sound like if all their songs had been written by Joe Strummer. The title track's acoustic guitar and piano opening sounds big enough to deafen the whole of redneck America, and the repeated back and forth chords of D and A build for a good 30 seconds before the whole band kicks in with their trademark distorted power chords and pounding rhythm section. Oh, this is unquestionably Green Day, but much, much bigger. So far so good, as the song is undoubtedly one of the best in their extensive back catalogue, building from a typical, albeit massive, three chord pop-punk ditty into a "Bohemian Rhapsody"-esque parody of "Star Spangled Banner" ("I can't even sleep / from the light's early dawn") via a bridge that offers a bizarre blend of U2-influenced guitar technique and traditional circus harmony. Lyrically the song provides a brief summary of the past, present and future of America, from the point of view of Armstrong and his oldest son, Joseph (hence "We are the class of '13," as Joseph is due to finish school in 2013). The opening lyric of "Born into Nixon, I was raised in hell / a warfare child where the teamsters dwelled," speaks for itself, suggesting that the demise of the Bush administration is nothing to get excited about, as it is simply just the end of another chapter in America's dubious political history, while "Last one born and the first one to run" tells us that the band are acutely aware of the enormity of their latest creation, namechecking Springsteen's biggest and best album, which was conveniently released shortly after the fall of Nixonism. The vicious swipes at the Bush administration heard in "American Idiot" are still present ("Video games as the towers fall / Homeland security could kill us all"), and this time they're not drowned in unnecessary metaphor. On the whole the song is reminiscent of "Homecoming", a five-movement epic from "American Idiot", which stretches to well over 9 minutes. "21st Century Breakdown" succeeds where Homecoming fails, though, in that it sounds as though the band fully intended for it to be a multi-movement piece, rather than simply five unfinished songs cobbled together with no real clue as to why. As the album progresses, Green Day's musical diversity really shines through, with "Peacemaker" being particularly outstanding. On the face of it, it's a bog standard punk song that just happens to be driven by an acoustic guitar, but when you stop and really listen to it, the crafting involved is masterful. An obvious Spanish flair acts as the backbone to this song which, when combined with Mike Dirnt's walking bassline and Tre Cool's rock solid drumming, provides the perfect bed for Armstrong's emotive and soaring vocals. Throw some well harmonised backing vocals into the mix, along with a twisting yet smooth lead guitar part based around the natural minor scale, and the result can only be described as an unlikely yet incredible combination of The Offspring, Gogol Bordello, The Beatles and a James Bond theme tune. Staggering. Elsewhere, Christian's Inferno channels the forgotten spirits of hardcore punk legends The Circle Jerks, while at the opposite end of the spectrum "Last Night On Earth" once again makes us wonder if this is really Green Day. If someone was to have told the band in the early 90s that one day they'd produce a pure love song at 63 beats per minute, driven by a piano and a couple of subtly arpeggiated guitars they'd have been laughed off the face of the earth, but that's exactly it. The lyrics do, however, feature Armstrong's signature dark side - "I'm here to honour you / If I lose everything in the fire / I'm sending all my love to you", which is all that really separates this song from the nauseating bile produced by bedwetters such as Coldplay, but the effect it has is immeasurable. Then there's "Restless Heart Syndrome". Unquestionably the most powerful song on the album, it begins as a mid-tempo piano ballad with a string section, with lyrics tackling the mental breakdown of Christian - "So what ails you / Is what impales you / I feel like I've been crucified / To be satisfied." The song gradually builds with layer upon layer of arpeggiated guitar, which, combined with Armstrong's haunting vocals, a descending bassline and glissando interjections from the strings creates an unfathomable amount of tension. The band get under the listener's skin for almost three minutes, meandering through countless false releases which create a physical itch. The song finally bursts at the seams as the music stops dead and Armstrong's processed voice darkly instructs the listener to "Know your enemy", and a rocket fuelled wah-guitar solo with enough power to blow the roof off the White House hits us full in the face, before a syncopated coda containing no fewer than four harmonised guitar parts bring the song to a pounding close. And so it continues, as an orgy of pianos ("Last Night On Earth"), string ensembles ("Restless Heart Syndrome"), dozens of stacked guitars ("21st Century Breakdown"), reversed signals ("21 Guns"), prog-style time changes ("Before The Lobotomy") and all-out cabaret romps ("Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl)"), complete with harpsichord, twist and turn through the darkness of Billie Joe's view of modern America, until we end up at the concept album's ubiquitous Epic Wrap-up, "American Eulogy". At this point we're given the rare treat of lead vocals from bassist Mike Dirnt, which will no doubt be a huge selling point to many of the band's long-term following. A song of two movements, "Mass Hysteria" and "Mordern World", "American Eulogy" ends with an innovative blend of two different choruses, made all the more astounding when one takes into account they are in different keys. The music gradually fades out as static noise overwhelms the four vocal parts, followed by a swift cut in the sound, seemingly ending the album. Primarily a live band at heart, though, Green Day treat us to an encore, in the shape of "See The Light", a song which reprises the D and A chords which open "21st Century Breakdown". As the final notes fade out, we are left to decode all we just heard. Listening to the album from start to finish in one sitting is certainly quite the experience, and even slightly exhausting. Whatever NME say, this album is most certainly not "dumb and obvious." "21st Century Breakdown" isn't without its issues, though. Amongst all the fresh and exciting stadium powerhouses there are more than a few duds. "Viva La Gloria!" is nothing more than a poor version of "American Idiot"'s "Letterbomb" with half an irrelevant ballad haphazardly whacked onto the beginning, purely for the sake of the bait-and-switch effect, while "Know Your Enemy" is possibly one of the laziest protest songs ever written. "Do you know the enemy?" asks Armstrong, somewhat predictably. 16 times. In 3 minutes. Combined with the three note melody which continues throughout all of the verses as well as the chorus and the three chord riff of B, E and A which follows suit, the vast majority of the song's musical content is revealed within the first 22 seconds. Which is probably why this was the radio hit - it's little more than a derivative, over-commercialised, passive aggressive pseudo-protest song for American housewives and stupid people. Even the lead guitar work, the only potential saving grace of this song, is ruined by the amount of times we have the same three notes shoved down our throats. There's some respite from the interminable repetition during the bridge, where Armstrong treats us to a new vocal melody, but within a few seconds we're back to the painful cries of "Do you know the enemy?" In the band's defense, they sound like they really mean it, but conviction alone isn't enough to redeem "Know Your Enemy". It's a shame. Green Day are far, far better than this, yet it's this song by which the masses will probably judge the entire album. Whoever made the perverse decision to release this as the album's first single deserves dumping on Alcatraz, with "Know Your Enemy" being blasted directly into their brain on a constant loop, until they finally understand what it's like to be a listener of modern rock radio.
Lyrics — 6
In general it's fair to say that Billie Joe Armstrong is one of the most underrated lyricists in rock, but "21st Century Breakdown" ultimately leaves us wondering if his ambitious attempt at penning a narrative from the perspective of two fictional characters and employing it as a metaphor for American politics was a little more than he could handle. While the character-based songs such as "Christian's Inferno", "Last Night On Earth" and "Last Of The American Girls" present a clear profile of Christian and Gloria, the story itself is hampered by the interjection of weak political protest, meaning neither the story or the politics shine through. In the end it's hard to tell exactly what's gone on, or why Christian and Gloria even exist. Armstrong's lyrics can be beyond scathing when he puts the effort in, such as in anti-religious rant "East Jesus Nowhere" - "Put your faith in a miracle / And it's non-denominational / Join the choir, we'll be singing / In the church of wishful thinking." But lines such as, "Vigilantes warning ya, calling Christian and Gloria" ("American Eulogy") come across as unmitigated laziness. Green Day are better than this; proof of which can be found on this very album. With all that in mind, the criticism that Armstrong has received for his lyrics since the release of "American Idiot" has come almost exclusively from people who don't know the first thing about him. As is par for the course with such a mainstream band, they are the victims of incredibly harsh, ill-informed bile, and when critics realise the lyrics are actually rather well crafted the majority of the time, the band's perceived lack of authenticity always provides an easy target. "That Billie Joe Armstrong is so full of sh-t," spews one dissatisfied Amazon customer, "He doesn't know anything about the social issues he sings about." While this kind of criticism is borderline understandable from people who know little about Green Day beyond what they've heard on the radio, it's hardly fair to assume that the band are clueless or insincere just because they're rich. Sure, it's a known fact that lines such as "A hostage of the soul on a strike to pay the rent" ("American Eulogy") are sung into $10000 microphones in an ultra-modern studio in Hollywood, before the band take their big fat paycheques home to their multi-million dollar mansions and do their daily online shop for Gucci cravats, but the point is Green Day are speaking up on behalf of the voiceless. A band in their position could easily laugh all the way to the bank and never write anything meaningful ever again. But, having built their empire out of literally nothing (when recording their first album they were living in a disused mobile library and surviving on little more than bread and water), they've chosen to use their platform to stand up for people who need the empathetic voice which they can provide. It would have been all too easy for them to join the hordes of rancid pop tarts and start employing nameless idiots to pen crass, tuneless non-songs about shagging strangers in club toilets for them, but instead they remained true to their convictions. It's grossly unfair to suggest that the acquisition of wealth through one's own success erodes a person's ability to care about political issues, sympathise with people worse off than them, or have beliefs which aren't stereotypically congruent with being rich.
Overall Impression — 7
Since the release of "21st Century Breakdown" Green Day have been compared to every artist under the sun, some of which are justified (U2, Bruce Springsteen, The Who), and some of which are downright ridiculous (The Strokes? Queen? Chuck Palahniuk?!), but the blatant reuse of their own material from previous albums is difficult to ignore. "The Static Age"'s chorus is eerily reminiscent of "Church On Sunday", from "Warning", while the "Modern World" section of "American Eulogy" and "Warning"'s "Minority" can be sung over one another. The same goes for "East Jesus Nowhere" and "Welcome To Paradise", from "Dookie". Sure, they've ripped off The Hives in places ("Horseshoes And Handgrenades" = "Main Offender"), but this album is pure Green Day, and its musical content is evidently not as much of a leap into the unknown as it may seem. On the whole, "21st Century Breakdown" is a good album, but given that the band took half a decade to come up with this follow up to "American Idiot", good just doesn't quite cut it. However, Toby Cook, writing for The Quietus, hits the nail on the head with, "If you'd been plagued by visions of some Warner exec waving a wad of dollar bills in their direction, shouting: 'Look, look, just re-hash "American Idiot" and all this can be yours!' thankfully, for the most part, you can rest reassured that Green Day have ignored this temptation." The saddest part of it is that, with careful editing, "21st Century Breakdown" could have been one of the best albums of all time. There's definitely a lot of potential, but at 70 minutes and 18 tracks, it's far, far too long. Green Day deserve some credit for attempting another concept album, but the idea fails miserably when it's too long and patchy to be listened to in one sitting. A 45 minute album of the 10 best songs from "21st Century Breakdown" would be far more appealing, and would also save the listener the frustration of trying to decode a story which simply isn't there. Simply put, this is a good selection of songs, rather than a coherent album, and the hidden gems can only really be picked out when the songs are digested separately from one another. Here's hoping their next effort will be less sprawling and subject to more reliable quality control.