Now that the pre-release hype has died away, I've decided to take another look at Green Day's latest, 21st Century Breakdown.
Something about this album's sheer existence made it seem set up to fail. Billie Joe and crew had struck gold with American Idiot, somehow marrying multi-track thematics and ten-minute epics with their classic sound, making it one of the most successful albums of the 2000s. Beating that with their next album just seemed like a short-term form of Axl Rose syndrome - pre-release, review and post-release hype, the possibility of a stage production, movie, and more buzz surrounding American Idiot -- it all kept promo machine going through the massive gap of time between releases (nearly five years). Yet, fans and industry people still were left going "when is that next album ever going to come? And is it going to be remotely as good as Idiot?"
The release finally came about a month ago, and reviews have been mixed-to-positive. But that's not what I'm here to talk about. I want to focus on what the album is, and what it isn't.
First, what it is not:
A cement-strong concept album -- While their marketing message for the album plugged it as a three-act concept album, the threads of narrative and sound that stretch through this album are not very strong. Two main characters are spoken of (Gloria, Christian) but where they go and what they go through is vague. It's mostly presented as vignettes. No matter... it's enough to unify it, but it's not story heavy, like The Decemberists' recent The Hazards of Love
Classic Green Day - Strong affinity Dookie is nowhere to be found on this album. But on that note, affinity to Warning isn't here either. Of course, they haven't abandoned their core sound, but their song structures, production, epic key changes (see: chorus on "After the Lobotomy") seem to have sprung out of something new in the past five years. People looking for Green Day circa 1994 may be disappointed, but those who have decided that 15 years' worth of music and life experiences should yield some sonic change will notice a departure from the past. It's not like every song on this album is "Last Night on Earth" (whose closest similarity in the GD catalog is "Wake Me Up When September Ends"), but for every "East Jesus Nowhere" or that feels old school, there is a "Murder City" that toes the line between classic and new-sound, as well as a "Restless Heart Syndrome" straying way away from their core sound. It pretty much falls into perfect thirds - 6 tracks classic, 6 tracks new-sound, 6 tracks somewhere in between.
Heavy, deep, overwhelming social critique - Going off the concept-album idea, Green Day has consistently portrayed this as an even heavier look at what American society is like today. I see traces of it, and none of that is very poetic ("...the bastards of 1969!" doesn't roll off the tongue very well in the title track), but it DOES exist. But maybe that just does fit Green Day. They're not the kind of guys to hole up in the branches of trees to stop loggers, and they're definitely not a trio of Dylans, but they do get across the anxieties and idiosyncrasies they set out to portray.
What it IS:
Longer than I expected - This is satisfying to sit down and listen to all the way through because it actually has some length to it. For every 3-minute track there's a 5-minute beast (those are usually where the loose story plays through the most), and at 18 tracks that adds up. There's a few throwaway tracks like "Peacemaker" and "Know Your Enemy" (I have little doubt that long-term fan hindsight will put it into the lower tier of Green Day singles because it has this incredible ability to be catchy for the first minute and a half then mind-numbing for the rest)
Chock full of singles - when I heard "concept album" I got worried that there wouldn't be much radio-ready coming from 21st Century Breakdown. Hearing the repetitive "Know Your Enemy" made me even more worried - if this is the lead single, what will follow? After hearing the full album a few times, I remembered -- often the lead single isn't the best material off the album, even if it gets the most radio play. It happened with The Killers' Sam's Town ("Read My Mind" was the third single, but is probably one of the best songs the Killers have ever produced), It happened with U2's HtDaAB (The whole rest of the album was much better than "Vertigo")... and 21CB follows suit. I'm disappointed with the selection of "21 Guns" as the second single, but it's probably because it's being tied into the new Transformers movie soundtrack and needed to hit the airwaves sooner rather than later. Nevertheless, they have plenty of options for radio play all the way into the fall and even winter: "Viva La Gloria", "Last of the American Girls" and even the title track are excellent options.
Easy on the ears - Experimentation and sonic evolution don't always produce good results. (Case in point: U2's No Line on the Horizon, Metallica's St. Anger). While a few songs feel wonky ("Peacemaker") generally the stretching Green Day does is still accessible. You'll get what I mean when you hear the very beginning of "¿Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl)"... Question marks filled my head until the chorus came in, then it all felt right. That's a great microcosm that portrays the album in general -- the first time you hear it you may go "huh", but deep down listeners will find Green Day is still there.
Overall, I feel Green Day's latest is a fantastic work. American Idiot was hard to follow, but I think Green Day did it right - they didn't repeat that sound. I now think of Idiot as a stepping stone, bridging the sonic gap between Green Day's 90s work and 21st Century Breakdown. The album really isn't all they sold it to be (concept album, etc.) but what it truly IS doesn't come up short -- it's just different than what they said. Deep down, I just found the album to be satisfying, even on the first listen - something I can't usually say.