"American Idiot" was a game changer for Green Day. The Bay Area trio had long reached star status, but no one was looking to them for sweeping political statements or, quite frankly--and perhaps unfairly-- particularly deep thoughts of any kind.
But there they were with "American Idiot" in 2004, being praised for saying the same things about George W. Bush that got the Dixie Chicks tarred and feathered. The Grammy rock- album-of-the-year winner moved Green Day squarely into the "serious" band column.
It's easy to see how Green Day could collapse under the weight of its own ambitions -- and "21st Century Breakdown" is massively, colossally ambitious, all 18 songs of it. It's exhausting to listen to the whole thing; I can only imagine what it was like to create it. There is a fervor and intensity to "Breakdown"; most tracks are propelled by an urgency constantly reminding us that time is running out for any hope of redemption. Plus, those who we used to look toward to save us-government, religion or any once trusted authority figure-have long turned their backs on us. It's every man for himself.
Billy Joel sang about Brenda and Eddie. John Mellencamp had Jack and Diane, Bon Jovi wrong about Tommy and Gina. Green Day gives us Gloria and Christian, two kids crazy in love, who are trying to figure out how to survive in a post-Bush world gone mad. There are no heroes, just villains.
From the opening salvo of the title track, we know we're in deep trouble: "Born into Nixon/I was raised in hell...I once was lost/but never was found." (Like many of the lyrics, this one seems to be autobiographical by lead singer/main songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong, who was born in 1972). Crisis has never sounded so good. Green Day--Armstong, Tre Cool and Mike Dirnt-- still consider themselves first and foremost a punk band, but they are an equally adept-dare I say, great,-pop band. Just as surely as their touchstones are the Ramones and the Stooges, their much-touted love for the Who and Beatles shines through consistently and proudly on "Breakdown," especially on the title track and penultimate cut "American Eulogy."
But there are plenty more influences where those came from. "Radio, Radio" -era Elvis Costello rings out of the impossibly catchy "The Static Age"; "21 Guns" recalls Mott the Hoople crossed with the Kinks. The potent, take-no-prisoners shot-gun blast of the nihilistic "Horseshoes and Handgrenades" is all Sex Pistols. (When Armstrong yells "I'm not fucking around," you best not doubt him.)
But that's not to say Green Day are slavish imitators. Far from it. The trio has taken their forebearers, studied them, been humbled by them, and, ultimately, integrated the best of each into Green Day's own post-punk creation. While never resorting to a "kitchen-sink" mentality, the band is fearless in corralling different sounds: The title track brings in it brings in a Celtic/Pogues' rambunctiousness as one point; the acoustic romp "Peacemaker" is set to a Latin beat.
Producer Butch Vig keeps the trains moving on time. The songs are short, Armstrong's vocals are clear and powerful whether he's screaming during "Know Your Enemy" and "Horseshoes and Handgrenades" or tenderly crooning on the Beatlesque "Last Night on Earth." Drummer Cool has never sounded so crisp and focused.
Still, it's a lot to absorb and the album could have benefitted from trimming a tune or two (although that's hard to do with a concept album, such as this). Plus, it's interesting the first few times a song shape shifts from its opening style into a completely different tune, then, morphs into another-as many of the songs on "Breakdown" do-- but it wears thin and I found myself wishing some of the them stayed with the original style that started the song instead of transforming into something completely new. But these are mere quibbles. If not a masterpiece, "21st Century Breakdown" is extraordinarily masterful and sweeping, not only in its conception, but in its execution.
In the penultimate song, "American Eulogy," our protagonists decide they "don't want to live in the modern world." And, quite honestly, who can blame them. But after 17 songs full of disillusionment and destruction-to ourselves and others-- we haven't come this far to be left, decimated. Instead, Green Day leaves us with the seeds of hope on the uplifting, driving CD closer "See the Light": "I crossed the desert/reaching higher ground/then I pound the pavement/to take the liars down." It's no happy ending, but maybe, just maybe, we can see one from here.