A lot of people probably thought Green Day were down for the count leading into 2004. They’d had a tumultuous decade of success in the 1990s, capturing the sound of a generation on Dookie and then writing the definitive graduation song with “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” Their catalog was stacked with hit singles and earworm hooks, but they’d ushered in the start of the new millennium with little fanfare. 2000’s Warning got decent reviews but changed their sound in ways fans probably weren’t expecting and weren’t terribly psyched about by being more folk-pop than pop-punk. That, combined with the lack of a world-conquering single and the fact that Napster was busy taking a hatchet to the record industry, meant that Warning only ever went gold. Not bad for your average band, but not so great for a group that had gone either multiplatinum or diamond on their three previous albums. Add the 2003 theft of the record that was supposed to the follow-up to Warning, and Green Day seemed washed up and left for dead.
Then a little album called American Idiot came along and gave Green Day one of the greatest second acts in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
I bring all of this up now because Revolution Radio feels like a similar kind of new beginning. It’s nowhere near as revelatory for the band and their songwriting, nor do I expect it to launch any singles on the level of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”—let alone several. What Revolution Radio does do is reinvigorate, re-center, and resurrect the Green Day sound after a major slump in the band’s career. It’s like American Idiot in that it feels like these guys have picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and resolved themselves to be ready for another decade of being one of the biggest rock bands on the planet.
One thing this album definitely proves is that Green Day are better when you underestimate them. In the early 2000s, most people would have said that the band’s best days were behind them. They responded by writing their best album and becoming as big and culturally relevant as they had ever been. Over the past few years, most people would probably have told you something similar. 2012 seemed to break the band, bringing a hilariously overambitious trilogy that flopped sales-wise, failed to deliver a radio hit, and got trashed by most critics and fans alike. Then Billie Joe Armstrong went apeshit at an IHeartRadio music festival, dropping a few F-bombs and smashing his guitar before walking offstage mid-performance. It was a sad, alarming moment—one that seemed straight out of a movie about an aging rock star struggling to stay relevant and working to keep his substance abuse problems in check. Just a few days later, Billie Joe checked himself into rehab for abuse of alcohol and prescription pills.
It felt like the end of Green Day. Not only did Billie Joe need to take a step back and rebuild his life, but bassist Mike Dirnt had to step back too when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. And touring guitarist Jason White was waging his own battle with tonsil cancer. No fan could have faulted these guys for taking some time. Their health, their lives, and their families, after all, were more important than any fucking album could ever be. But there was also the feeling among more than a few fans that it would probably be okay if they didn’t come back. A 2015 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would have been the perfect capper on an outstanding 25-year career. There would have been no shame in walking away. After all, most of the ’90s acts that Green Day came up with ceased existing ages ago.
Instead, Green Day came back with their most intense, most important, and best album in 12 years—since their last resurrection. Revolution Radio isn’t a perfect record, but it is a very good one—willing to be big, bold, and unapologetic in a way that most rock bands stopped being a long time ago. After the mostly weightless power pop of the trilogy, the album’s first single—the fierce and fast-paced “Bang Bang”—proved that Green Day could still write a song with gravity and stakes. Written from the perspective of a mass shooter, the song is a scathing criticism of how the media turns these twisted killers into iconic celebrities. Our culture offers an environment where new shooters are constantly copycatting each other—if not trying to “top” one another in scope of atrocity—and getting their faces in every newspaper and on every TV station as reward. “I wanna be a celebrity martyr/The leading man in my own private drama” Billie Joe sings on the chorus, a fiery proclamation reflecting a sick world where the quickest and surest way to become famous is to pull out a gun and start shooting. Some will criticize the song for being “too soon” or “too insensitive” to those who have lost loved ones in these shootings. Billie Joe even said he got “dizzy” trying to get into the mind of the character. But while “Bang Bang” is certainly provocative, it also has a message that needs to be heard right now. We hate the people who commit these atrocities, but in a way, we also create them.
The rest of Revolution Radio can’t quite match “Bang Bang” in sheer topical urgency, but it tries. In comparison to the troubling lead single, the title track is a series of mostly empty clichés about “rebellion,” wrapped up in a catchy melody and killer guitar riff. “Say Goodbye” is better, a song highly reminiscent of 21st Century Breakdown that tackles that nation’s recent rash of police violence (“Say hello to the cops on patrol/Say hello, they’re the ones in control”) and the appalling water crisis in Flint, Michigan (“Teach your children well/From the bottom of the well”). The ambitious “Forever Now,” meanwhile, hits on the most striking rallying cry Green Day have written since Billie Joe sang about being an American Idiot: “If this is what you call the good life/I want a better way to die.”
Much has been made about the fact that Revolution Radio is the first Green Day album in 16 years to arrive without any added baggage: no trilogy, no grand “rock opera” plotline, no concept. But while the record doesn’t technically tell a story, it still feels like a sequel of sorts to American Idiot. While many people tend to identify Idiot as Green Day’s “Bush album,” it’s actually a lot deeper than just the politics. The record captured the zeitgeist of 2004 by snapshotting characters growing up in that world—characters disenfranchised with the war, death, injustice, and bad leadership of their time. On Revolution Radio, Green Day don’t miss the fact that we’re 12 years and three presidential terms past that album and things still haven’t gotten much better. Racial tensions are higher than they’ve been in decades. We’re exiting the administration of a president who has set the record for most days at war as a sitting American leader. We have a legitimate major party presidential candidate who might actually be the worst person in the United States. And it’s a good week when you can check the Facebook trending topics for seven mornings straight and not read a headline with the word “shooting” in it. It says an awful lot that Green Day can build a song around what has essentially become a cliché (“We live in troubled times”) and still have it sound so sobering.
The characters on American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown were convinced that they could make things better by rejecting the normal conception of how you are “supposed” to live your life. They thought they could change the world by screaming louder, getting higher, and loving harder than everyone else. They also had a little bit of hope left that a politician might just come along and fix their problems.
Those beliefs aren’t gone, per se. This album is called Revolution Radio, after all. But you can hear the exhaustion of 12 years and everything the Green Day guys have been through in that time when you listen. Most of the songs are written from Billie’s perspective, but they could just as easily be telling the stories of Whatsername, St. Jimmy, or the Jesus of Suburbia. On the Who-ish opener “Somewhere Now,” we’re all “grown up and medicated,” sitting in the midst of middle age and significantly more likely now to “die in threes” than light the flame of revolution. It’s a realization that makes the record’s opening lines that much more demoralizing: “I’m running late to somewhere now that I don’t want to be.”
With a start like that, Revolution Radio could have easily devolved into Green Day’s darkest, angriest, and most pessimistic record. The realization that the punk ideology isn’t going to change things is a tough pill to swallow. The realization that politicians aren’t going to save you—and probably don’t really care to—is an even ruder awakening. But Green Day manage to find meaning and hope in more or less the same ways that their American Idiot protagonists once did: not by getting higher anymore, but definitely by playing their guitars louder and loving harder. A highly nostalgic record, Revolution Radio finds Billie Joe looking back at his life and the people who made it worth it. “Outlaws” is a stirring power ballad that pays tribute to the early days of Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt’s friendship, before all of the record sales and fame changed their lives. “Youngblood” is a jaunty rocker (reminiscent of “She’s a Rebel”) about Billie’s wife. And “Too Dumb To Die” captures the force and naivety of youthful hope: “I’m hanging on a dream that’s too dumb to die.”
“Still Breathing,” the album’s linchpin, brings the hope, love, and vibrancy of these youthful songs into the here and now. Arguably the best song the band has written since American Idiot, “Still Breathing” connects the stories of multiple down-on-their-luck characters (a soldier wounded in combat, a drug addict struggling to quit the habit that will eventually kill him, a struggling single mother about to break) to one powerful battle cry: “I’m still breathing on my own.” In the midst of darkness and troubled times, it’s easy to look back at “the good old days” and wish that things would be better. But until you’re in a hospital bed and hooked up to life support, you still have a chance to make a good life for yourself. As long as you’re still breathing, you’ve got hope.
That redemptive message—to make the most of your time here, of your friendships and loves and good times—could sound cliché in lesser hands or different context. But Billie Joe sells it here, not just because “Still Breathing” is surrounded by songs about unrest, darkness, and nostalgia, but also because he just stepped away from the edge himself. In a recent Rolling Stone cover story, Billie opened up about his addictions and admitted that there were times when he would wake up in the morning and be surprised that he was still alive. Now, he’s sober and treasuring the things in his life that matter: his wife, his kids, his bandmates, and the music. That personal experience informs every moment of the record, giving songs like “Still Breathing” or the tender closer “Ordinary World” (“Baby, I don’t have much/But what we have is more than enough/In an ordinary world”) their considerable weight.
Will Revolution Radio do for Green Day what American Idiot did 12 years ago? Will it open them up for one of the great third acts in rock ‘n’ roll history? On some levels, that seems doubtful. Radio is more allergic to guitars than it has ever been before, and there isn’t really an earworm here on the level of “American Idiot” or “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” But Revolution Radio is easily Green Day’s finest album since Idiot, and probably one of the most accomplished in their catalog. It keeps the lessons the band learned on Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown (the willingness to experiment with song structures, explore topical songwriting, and dip into wide-ranging influences) while jettisoning most of the excess that bogged down Breakdown and the trilogy. The result is a tight, thought-provoking collection of rock songs that makes Green Day sound vital again. So while it’s more likely that Revolution Radio will mark Green Day’s transition to “legacy act” status than herald their return to the radio, that’s just fine. As long as the albums are this good, I don’t mind either way.