The evolution of musical artists is an enigma in itself. While it can often polarize the fan of a beloved artist, it is absolutely fundamental for an artist to be able to grow, particularly as they become older and their longevity hinders on their next move. Surely it doesn’t always work, and many times, bands fail to ignite a fire with a large audience and are forced to step back creatively in order to earn their fans’ ears back. The approach is an anomaly since selfish listeners can’t budge and try out a drastic (or not so drastic) change, simply based on the band members’ decision to explore new depths of sound.
In 2004, Green Day did precisely what they had to do in order to maintain relevancy. There was no other choice after the mild success of 2000’s Warning, arguably their most inventive and shape-shifting album left the band in a questionable state. Following the lead of The Who down to almost a ‘T’, the band wrote a massive punk rock opera that followed the vaguely metaphorical tale of a youth living two different lives in a troubled modern era. The success paved the way for Green Day to distance themselves from their bratty punk rock past and move towards crafting ambitious efforts that rang of fierce, unsavory lashings at politics and religion, all while weaving a yarn that while still punk rock in all its context, allowed the band to develop a gratuitous sense of self while expanding their trademarked brand of punk rock.
For their eighth studio album, 21st Century Breakdown, the band recruited Butch Vig (Garbage, Nirvana) to help them lead the way towards trumping their cornerstone record. The title alone suggests an abundantly clear expansion of where we left off on American Idiot, albeit this time around, there’s less outright punk rock and a far greater lean on well-built, muscular pop rock that is split into three acts in operatic form, all interweaving a tale of two lovers caught in an apocalyptic age of chaos and beauty. This is no longer a world where Green Day can make Dookie; the band set the bar high for not only themselves, but for other rock acts to follow — and with nowhere to go but up, the band has created a lavishly told story of Christian and Gloria, two idealistic but weary & rather naive individuals fighting for a world they believe in but have difficulty trusting. In 18 tracks, the album is nearly 70 minutes long — normally, this would ask a great deal from the listener, as sitting through an album over one hour long can be an arduous task in itself. Yet Billie Joe Armstrong and company have provided an engrossing narrative that flows through it’s three acts jubilantly, asking more from the audience rather than to simply have a good time. The band has put together 18 tracks that reference each other, the band’s past albums and many of their own influences (a trait for which Billie Joe Armstrong is notorious). Reading as a nostalgic, self-reflecting story of love & war, fire & vengeance and (ultimately) submission & pride, 21st Century is hardly your average mainstream rock album. Perhaps that is the challenge for Green Day here, as they prepare to submit an album that is no longer constructed solely on power chords and sardonic hooks about masturbation, smoking pot and having some drinks.
After the introductory song plays through radio static (don’t worry, it will come up later again — it’s important to the storyline), a clean piano note chimes in before Tre Cool’s effortlessly-paced drum work storms the gates. The title track alone bursts forth with resilient aplomb, saluting the band’s musical influences & heroes, as well as significant events that shaped the current state of mind that has been the band’s focus. “Born into Nixon / And raised in hell,” Armstrong cries out. “Last one born / but first one to run,” a lien that alludes to Bruce Springsteen and also hints at the storyline that will be tackled in both American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. The song swiftly changes course into a Dropkick Murphys-like jig-flavored party before ending on a “Bohemian Rhapsody” finale. The first single, “Know Your Enemy” may come off as rather generic, however in context of the album, it sounds better than just a basic radio hit. Despite the next two tracks starting out as slow and overproduced interludes (that acoustic guitar sounds like Firehouse, no?), they eventually soar into sweeping, epic choruses that discuss the rise and fall of Gloria, an angel with a devil on her shoulder (see if you can catch the “Basket Case” reference in “Before the Lobotomy”). The lovelorn ballad, “Last Night on Earth,” is delicately vast and shows a gentle side to what the next act slices up. While it comes off as the kind of song John Lennon would have penned for the Beatles’ Let it Be, it could potentially become this disc’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (which means get your fill of it now before radio kills it).
The references that continue to come (which include the melodic harmonies and even some of the song structures themselves) are welcomed as they tie in with the overall theme. With that said, however, it might be the album’s only stopgap. It will take more than a couple listens and will also require some lyrical studying to understand that the band is doing everything intentionally. That means every word repeated is significant to the story, and similarities to past Green Day tracks are meant to be self-referencing allusions to Christian & Gloria looking back at a world that has become nothing but a fight between all civilization. Act II is a bombastic, angry middle half, filled with lyrics that mention fire, vendettas and could be seen as an allegory for the fall of Rome (“For I am Caesar / I’m going to seize the day”). “Christian’s Inferno” rings like a fuzzy-tuned industrial cut, “East Jesus Nowhere” (which takes it’s name from a line in Juno) gets bigger after each verse, with it’s lyrics mocking Christian extremists in a similar way Armstrong chastised politics on Idiot (“Your confession will be crucified … Join the choir, we will be singing / In the church of wishful thinking”) and “Murder City,” while sounding a bit like the b-side “Too Much Too Soon,” is a dark, blistering anthem that reiterates Christian’s passionate rage.
By the final act, dealing with the conclusion that harks back to the two previous acts, it’s obvious Green Day has created an album that while almost nearly a copy of American Idiot is more clever than it appears to be. “Horseshoes and Handgrenades” is like the Hives on overdrive and “American Eulogy” is the mini version of “Jesus of Suburbia,” going back to Nimrod-era Green Day (that redundancy is pure 90’s, baby). “21 Guns” is arguably the album’s highlight, presenting an anti-war ballad that is both monumentally enduring and also sophisticated protest. Armstrong’s vocals are less strained than they were at times on Idiot, sounding less like a vocalist and more like a performance artist; it is as if he is shouting these yarns into a crowd from a Broadway stage. Every member does their part to piece the album together, successfully proving that the band can offer up a strenuous peak to climb, yet pass it without losing a breath.
Certainly the band’s most ambitious output, it is also their most polarizing for fans unwilling to give change and evolution a shot. While it may seem a tad self-indulgent, this is merely a huge rock band doing huge rock band things, refusing to become thick-minded clones of their former selves. Several listens open up a world of curiosity, in hopes you will be able to pick up each clue that lays hidden in the epic song structures, telling a complex story that plays like a spin-off. Exuberant and demanding, 21st Century Breakdowndestructs the modern world in hopes of a bright future, something that is sure to be of interest in the next entry to Green Day’s catalog. The smartest mainstream rock band out there, Green Day have gone the way of The Who, but it will be every other band that becomes green with envy.