Green Day thoroughly revamped their image and perception in creating 2004’s American Idiot. Instead of following the clichéd “slacker rock” label granted from Dookie, the band forged forward at an unprecedented pace. Ignoring the simplistic 3-chord structure and juvenile lyrics, Green Day took on great musical complexity and lyrics with social relevancy. It was, at the time, a crazy idea and managed to be crazily successful. Fans and critics seemed to adore the album: the tale of alienation in modern America moved past the slacker attitude of blaming mom and dad while throwing the finger around.
So here we are, five years removed from what is now regarded as one of Green Day’s two best albums, and perhaps one of the more impressive releases of the decade. Now I find the latest “punk opera” from the band in my ears. Where does this stand?
Unfortunately, the “concept album” part of things serves to distract, and painfully so. In American Idiot, the tale of Jesus of Suburbia seemed to flow throughout, with bookend song-suites nicely tying the tale together. 21st Century Breakdown does not offer such a plainly revealed tale. Apparently the whole thing revolves around the lives of Christian and Gloria. However, neither character seems an essential part of keeping the album consistent: personality development is non-existent and most of the songs fail to even incorporate the characters.
American Idiot thrived on the success of the troubled Jesus character (recall the “soda pop and Ritalin”) and the wild St. Jimmy persona. Without these kinds of details about Christian and Gloria, it’s hard to even remember them as the songs continue. This is particularly evident when “Christian’s Inferno” comes around: what’s the point of a character’s rage when you don’t even recognize Christian?
This weakness also carries over to the lyrics. American Idiot blended fitting songs and sense-inducing lyrics to call forth particular moods within the album’s structure. 21st Century is difficult to comprehend inside of songs, much less throughout the album. Why is Armstrong singing about “all the white boys and the black girls” inside of “East Jesus Nowhere?” It’s tough to tell – I really can’t find any discussion of race inside of Christian and Gloria’s characters.
Thankfully, Green Day does not forget to consider song structure in creating albums. While you may never be able to figure out why “infidels” are going to pay inside of “Peacemaker,” you will have the samba-punk rhythm and music ringing inside your head for weeks. Most songs are similarly infectious, offering hook after hook of musical excellence.
21st Century is also strengthened by the musical variety offered. Continuing the fearlessness of American Idiot, this latest album explores more piano, strings and varied rhythms. A standout track and decidedly original piece is the late-album gem “21 Guns.” A restrained band rides on the strength of acoustic strumming and heartfelt singing to develop the groundwork of a great power ballad. Even the normally hectic drumming slows and follows in line with the song.
So where does that leave this divided album? Fortunately, the musical content far outweighs anything lyrical, leaving 21st Century Breakdown as a good album for any fan of rock music. However, the confusing and partially distracting rock opera concept manages to drag things down a bit. 21st Century Breakdown does not manage to be as good as its excellent predecessor, but still reveals a band that is willing to explore while creating new music.