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Green Day “21st Century Breakdown” Review

Published in Blog Archive, Culture Bully. Tags: , .

After selling over 12 million copies of the album, many have certified Green Day’s American Idiot a modern classic. The band’s concept album not only reintroduced the group to the mainstream, but American Idiot quickly became Green Day’s second highest selling album since its major label debut, Dookie, in 1994. With the album, Green Day once again irritated purists by introducing a rebellious aesthetic within the punk-branded rock opera; 21st Century Breakdown, however, should do little to raise the ire of traditionalists. It’s an amalgamation of many varying sounds and influences, while the record’s 18 tracks reflect a continued shift in the band’s direction, one that surprisingly has it sounding less like a group of next-wave pop-punkers and more like a modern-day classic rock band.

Not that Insomniac was a bad album [as a sidenote, I’d like to mention that it’s one of my favorite Green Day records], but to some degree it failed to live up to the mammoth anticipation that followed Dookie (which has now sold roughly 15 million copies worldwide). Likewise, the expectation following American Idiot is immense, and it’s far from an overstatement to suggest that the pressure to deliver another solid album has never been greater for the band. Following one of the greatest comebacks of the past decade, Green Day could have easily relaxed and put out an effortless follow-up to cash in while its popularity is still high. But they didn’t. They enlisted acclaimed producer Butch Vig to help give the album a stout sound and the final product is an album that is likely to solidify Green Day as one of the best mainstream rock bands of this generation.

21st Century Breakdown is divided into three acts, each loosely following a young couple, Christian and Gloria, as they’re confronted with a manipulative, authoritative culture. The first act, “Heroes and Cons,” immediately introduces reactionary lyrics of dissent against a government’s restrictive and oppressive policies. The album’s title track is a veritable opus that addresses homeland security and a burdened working class while the band carries on with one of the better attempts at a Queen song since… well… Queen. “Know Your Enemy” serves as the album’s first single, and the song is equally as approachable and sharp as American Idiot‘s self titled track and serves as a blunt call for dissidence, “Overthrow the effigy, the vast majority, burning down the foreman of control/ Silence is the enemy against your urgency, so rally up the demons of your soul.”

“Viva la Gloria” opens up the narrative surrounding the album’s characters, in particular regarding the female protagonist. The song’s introduction pairs Billy Joel Armstrong and a piano, adding a dusting of strings before the body of the song comes crashing in. “Gloria” introduces a theme that is at the heart of the entire album, and one that remains through to the final song: a cry to grasp onto hope and fight for what you believe in. The next song, “Before the Lobotomy” introduces the Christian character, with Armstrong adding a source for the character’s angst: “The brutality of reality is the freedom that keeps me from dreaming.” The act closes with “Last Night on Earth,” a ballad that adds emotional leverage to the characters’ relationship, fusing them throughout their journey.

The second act, “Charlatans and Saints,” opens with “East Jesus of Nowhere,” a song that grinds musically, attacking religious fundamentalism, which Armstrong cheekily addresses as “the church of wishful thinking,” adding, “The sirens of decay will infiltrate the faith fanatics.” The following track, “Peacemaker,” advances the album’s violent themes, and the song stands as one of the best on the first half of the record—a driving guitar track that offers a quick wink at the Spanish sounding spaghetti westerns. The remainder of the second act sounds of typical Green Day however, largely indistinct songs that unfortunately begin to blend together within the belly of the album.

The final act, “Horseshoes and Handgrenades,” kicks off with a song by the same name that might bear the closest resemblance to classic Green Day on Breakdown. The song bursts through the speakers with the opening line, “I’m not fucking around,” before later commanding, “Don’t you fuck me around because I’ll shoot you down/I’m gonna drink, fight and fuck and pushing my luck all the time now.” Even with the GG Allin-like lyrics of the last line, the song reinvigorates the album with a guitar as forceful as its lyrics, once again giving Breakdown a sense of urgency.

The next set of songs retreat into lighter sounding guitar riffs, but remain lyrically diligent, with “The Static Age” launching an attack at the senselessness behind much of modern advertising: “Are what you own that you cannot buy?” “21 Guns” offers a slight change of pace in the act, leaning on a theme of desolation: “When you’re at the end of the road and you lost all sense of control/and your thoughts have taken their toll. When your mind breaks the spirit of your soul/Your faith walks on broken glass and the hangover doesn’t pass/nothing’s ever built to last—you’re in ruins.” Musically, the final act peaks with the following track, “Mass Hysteria,” with the song enhancing the themes of anger and desperation that fuel the final act: “I don’t want to live in the modern world.”

“See the Light,” the album’s last song, serves as the story’s dénouement. It recaps the emotional battles that the characters have overcome, offering one last plea for hope as Breakdown fades out: “I just want to see the light, I don’t want to lose my sight/I just want to see the light, I need to know what’s worth the fight.”

It wouldn’t be much of a surprise to hear detractors condemn the album as preachy. But as the concept of the record revolves around the perceived values of the band as acted out through the story’s characters, it’d be inexcusable if Breakdown didn’t attempt to make a statement. If you’re able to put aside your preconceived notions about how a Green Day album should sound, and you aren’t holding a grudge against the band for not re-creating an album’s worth of “Basket Case” rehashes, you’re likely to hear something that is unique and creative (especially so when contrasted with many of the band’s contemporaries). It’s not the most artistic album of the year, nor is it the most musically sound; but it is the most well balanced, creative piece of work that Green Day has ever released. While the band was attempting to build on the momentum created from one of the decades highest selling albums, it somehow crafted a record that once more leaves the listener wondering “how can they ever top this?” The bar has again been raised.