With their eighth studio album, Green Day finds themselves in a post-American Idiot world and sifting through the consequences of nearly a decade of manipulation, lies, selfishness, and bullshit of the highest order.
The band is older, wiser, and more motivated than ever with 21st Century Breakdown, a seething, brilliant concept album divided into three parts.
Produced by Garbage member Butch Vig, 21st Century Breakdown runs through the narrative of Christian and Gloria, a young couple working through the shattered promises of this century. They live in a world that has let them down and the conventions they have come to rely upon have left them philosophically and spiritually lifeless.
Billie Joe Armstrong’s writing is even more spirited here, as their Johnny-come-lately approach to the Bush Administration left American Idiot a potent record that felt inadequately late to the party. This time, however, the trio starts the jamboree early and never lets up.
Perhaps the notion of big time rockers having something to say about the world, be it the environment or the government, is a little worn out and perhaps their words feel a little vacant at times. But every so often a band or singer steps through the affectation, rips away the film, and tells the truth. Springsteen did it with The Rising and now it’s safe to say that Green Day has done it with 21st Century Breakdown.
Where perhaps a failing of American Idiot was that the songs got a little too immense for the band, here Green Day has chopped things down and kept it lean. The compositions flow effortlessly, ranging from the power punk the band’s become famous for to deliberately sensitive ballads complete with Armstrong nailing a surplus of untamed notes.
Clocking in at a smidgen under 70 minutes, 21st Century Breakdown rolls through 18 tracks of candor, authority, and larger-than-life storytelling. The tempo shifts, key changes, strings, and thunderous guitar keeps things popping, with Tre Cool hammering his snare vehemently and Mike Dirnt’s bass rocking the lower registry expertly.
The first segment of the record, “Act I: Heroes and Cons,” begins after a pithy foreword and sets up our protagonists.
The title track opens with anthemic piano and a wide arrangement that sounds a little like U2’s biggest arena moments coupled with the epic song-craft of Queen or Bowie. Before things get too cozy, a beautiful skim of overloaded guitar sweeps into the cut and we’re off. The note shifts, the harmonies, and Billie Joe’s capacity to lead the living hell of a great rock tune all steps to the front.
The album’s first single, “Know Your Enemy,” highlights the first act with its commanding call to arms against indifference. And the character of Christian comes to light as a self-destructive hellion on “Christian’s Inferno,” a snarling and jeering barn-burner.
“Act II: Charlatans and Saints” ramps up and adds more depth to the 21st Century Breakdown yarn.
We’re introduced to the character of Gloria in further detail on “Last of the American Girls,” a definite classic with mischievous spring in its step. “East Jesus Nowhere” captures one of the record’s themes and eviscerates the church with hard-hitting accuracy. “Peacemaker” borrows a glossy Latin course and punches it up with “hey, hey” backing vocals.
The album’s closing part, “Act III: Horseshoes and Handgrenades,” builds on the building anger and continues the method of restoration with the “I’m not fucking around” garage scrap vibe of “Horseshoes and Handgrenades.”
“21 Guns” is the album’s anti-war hymn, reaching heroic heights with a sleek sort of sappiness that fits flawlessly. The range and sentiment may dishearten those looking for a little more Dookie from their Green Day, but I’ve never heard Billie Joe sound so good and so earnest as he pulls his frail voice upwards to knock out some stunning high notes.
We could bullshit all day long about whether or not Green Day is a punk band, a pop act, or a pop punk group. At this point and time, however, with the clever souls of these three men churning out some truly vibrant, electrifying, brave, touching, heroic music, it really doesn’t fucking matter what Green Day is anymore. Billie Joe, Tre, and Mike are through with that. With 21st Century Breakdown, it’s all about who (and when) they are.