Green Day mines rock opera territory on 21st Century Breakdown
21st Century Breakdown (Reprise)
Anyone else out there agree that Green Day’s American Idiot was not only the most overrated record of 2004 but perhaps of the decade? Inarguable as that is, singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, and bug-eyed drummer Tré Cool were obviously impressed with themselves—which is understandable, considering their much-ballyhooed, proudly un-punk rock opera stopped a 10-year-slide into irrelevance. Prior to the release of American Idiot, Green Day’s last major accomplishment was getting the maudlin "Time of Your Life" placed in the final episode of Seinfeld. Then they stumbled upon the idea of creating a multilayered musical story attacking a certain idiot son of an asshole, and the result was the most unexpected career comeback since Elvis circa ’68.
Given that American Idiot shifted nearly six million copies, who can blame Green Day for going back to the well on 21st Century Breakdown? Once again, the band that was supposed to flame out 14 minutes and 59 seconds after the 1994 juggernaut Dookie has gone the full-blown rock opera route. This time, instead of bashing Dubya, Armstrong zooms in on two confused kids—Christian and Gloria—poking through the smoking ruins of post-Bush America.
As far as telling an easy-to-follow, concise story goes, the album won’t be making anyone forget about the Who’s Tommy. Presented in three acts—"Heroes and Cons", "Charlatans and Saints", and "Horseshoes and Handgrenades"—21st Century Breakdown finds Armstrong picking up the Tommy gun and spraying in all directions. The targets will be familiar to anyone with a degree in ancient (read pre-1983) punk-rock history: religious fanatics, bloodthirsty warmongers, right-wing assholes, and corrupt government officials all take a good shit-kicking. Sure the Dead Kennedys, D.O.A., and Stiff Little Fingers all said it better back in the olden days, but at least Armstrong is trying to get Hot Topic shoppers thinking about something other than tweeting on Twitter.
If the lyrics come off like they were written by someone who never got higher than a C+ in Punk 101, the music doesn’t. On good chunks of 21st Century Breakdown, it’s hard to believe this is the same band which once specialized in three-chord, buzz-saw blasts about jacking off and drooling on the couch in front of the boob tube. Displaying the same kind of ambitiousness that motivated the Clash to make London Calling, Green Day richochets from double-syruped balladry ("Last Night on Earth") to spaghetti-western-splattered Gypsy punk ("Peacemaker") to Weezeriffic nerd-pop ("Last of the American Girls"). The title track pulls off the difficult task of sounding like A Night at the Opera–era Queen headlining the 100 Club; "Restless Heart Syndrome" rides swollen strings and warm piano into Fab Four territory; and "Christian’s Inferno" dabbles in everything from Butthole Surfers artcore to surf’s-up punkabilly. Hell, in a move that would have horrified Joey Ramone, it sounds like someone drags out a harpsichord for "Before the Lobotomy."
For all its epic ambitiousness, though, 21st Century Breakdown comes across as curiously tame. The closest Green Day gets to the spit-and-fury sound that made 924 Gilman Street famous is the blowtorch punker "Horseshoes and Handgrenades", which doesn’t come until the final act. Do Armstrong and those two other guys who have been riding his coattails for a decade care that purists are going to be outraged? Fuck no. Only a true American idiot will miss the real message of this written-for-a-large-screen rock opera: if it wasn’t already clear, Green Day’s days as a punk band are officially over.
Download This: "Horseshoes and Handgrenades"