I was never a Green Day fan growing up, unlike many of my peers. Dookie was huge when I was 13, but my late-blooming love of music was still in its infancy and the band largely passed me by. When I got to high school and my snobby streak began, I used to snark that Green Day were “the Clash without the politics,” which I thought gave me all sorts of faux cred. In hindsight, the band’s ear for hook and melody should have warranted far more respect, and frankly you could make a case that the band’s stoner/slacker ethos was a perfect fit for the politics of the 1990s.
But ultimately American Idiot that won me over, and in a pretty big way. In some ways, it was a record perfectly of its time. Its multi-part song sequences sat perfectly alongside the Fiery Furnace’s Blueberry Boat and Brian Wilson’s SMiLE on many year-end lists in 2004, and its political edges sounded like the Bush generation coming of age and realizing that their parents had been duped – and they were fucking pissed about it. But the record holds up today because of its more timeless qualities, from the way the band stretched its pitch-perfect punk over decades of rock and roll history to the waves of nostalgia and regret that linger in between the notes and reverberate well after the final chord of “Whatshername” ends.
The band had earned the credibility to go any way they wanted to with their followup – back to their punk roots, ahead to an even Who-ier path, or towards something completely different. So I have to confess some mild disappointment that 21st Century Breakdown is pretty much American Idiot II. The band does largely trade the multi-part tracks like “Homecoming” and “Jesus of Suburbia” for standalone songs, but they’ve been arranged into a three “act” album that, once again, follows a teenage couple through their combative, dramatic adolescence. The band’s sonic palette is remarkably unchanged, with producer Butch Vig making a record that sounds like it was produced by Rob Cavallo. And like Idiot, it’s a record that wears ambition on its sleeve, with every verse and chorus sounding like it was calculated for maximum life-changing potential.
You won’t mind that the band is repeating itself at first – if you don’t find yourself pumping your fist in the air during the title track (My generation is zero / I never made it as a working class hero) or bouncing along to “Know Your Enemy,” you should get your pulse checked. But partway through the record’s first act, the formula starts to wear a bit thin. If you’re like me, you’ll start to tire of the number of songs that start off with piano or acoustic guitar before quickly switching to standard punk fare 45 seconds in. You’ll realize that while these songs are pretty good, few are as captivating as Idiot‘s high points. And when you reach the act’s last song, “Last Night on Earth” – a weak ballad that feels like it’s only on the record because the band wanted a ballad at THAT particular point in their story – the “rock opera’s” limitations start to overcome its assets.
Which leads fittingly into “Charlatans and Saints,” 21st Century Breakdown’s most ambitious and, as such, problematic act. Where Idiot found the band stretching their sound within their means and with hooks intact, the six songs at Breakdown’s midpoint push the band’s soundscape into everything from samba to classic rock but without the songs to support them. Instead of aiming high – bigger, bolder – the band starts playing broad, and in the process they trade their efficient edge for a palette a mile wide but an inch deep. Even when something clicks, like the Cars-esque bassline of “Last of the American Girls,” there’s not a song there to support it. The one exception – the blistering “Murder City” – fittingly is the least daring of the act’s tracks. The other pieces of the plot just got lost in the shuffle.
The middle act got me so down that it took a few listens to move past it into the final five tracks, but holy crap am I ever glad I did. If Act I of Breakdown is enjoyable-but-familiar and Act II a disappointment, Act III is an absolute triumph. It begins with the Hives-aping “Horseshoes and Handgrenades,” which goes to show that Stooges riffs can still kill even when twice removed. It’s followed by the record’s best track, “The Static Age,” a euphoric, riveting piece of pop punk with a gigantic chorus and the best use of key change I’ve heard in a rock record in a long time. Then comes “21 Guns,” this record’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and while it’s not destined for the same classic status, it more than holds its own. The record closes with the two-part “American Eulogy” and the stunning “See the Light,” which ends proceedings on a very different – and welcome – note from Idiot. Instead of regretful nostalgia, we get a glimmering hope shining out between the piano and guitar feedback.
I’ve gone back to 21st Century Living quite a bit over the past week, and each time my initial disappointment lessens. Once you get over the familarity factor and the fact that it’s not going to become a modern classic like American Idiot, there’s a lot to love about the record (even acknowledging the middle act issues). Mostly, I think I find myself learning to love the record because rock bands trying to be even half this ambitious are few and far between. So many indie rock bands turn the distortion pedals off, or at least aren’t playing to the cheap seats; most aging rockers accept the false choice between smoothing their rough edges or emptily repeating their past glories. Green Day not only keeps the dials turned up to 11 – they seem to have missed the memo that rock and roll is dead, that popular music long ago gave up changing lives and has been content with just keeping the customer satisfied.
Like its predecessor, 21st Century Breakdown spits in the face of contentment. It’s the sound of Green Day wanting to be the biggest band in the world, their integrity and intensity both intact. Even if they come up short, I can’t help but salute them for trying.