Saturday, June 27, 2009

Green Day: 21st Century Breakdown Review

The following is my review of the new Green Day album, "21st Century Breakdown". I have included my impressions of the "storyline", the music itself, the lyrics and their meaning, and the overall feel of the album.

If Green Day's 2004 classic “American Idiot” was a vehement denouncement of the George W. Bush “era”, “21st Century Breakdown” is a confused observation (or anticipation) of the aftermath. Unlike its predecessor, the album seriously lacks direction and focus. The first single from it, “Know Your Enemy”, has Billie Joe Armstrong (or at least the characters whose viewpoints he illustrates) asking “Do you know your enemy?” Perhaps the point of this entire album is that, within its “universe”, there’s no definitive answer to that question. It is what I like to call a “Zeitgeist Album”…an attempt to capture the current sentiments of a period in time.

Like “Idiot”, this album is also a loosely constructed “rock opera”, though with a smaller cast of characters this time: Just Christian, a disillusioned, angry young man, and his also-disillusioned (but more optimistic) girlfriend, Gloria. Both seem to be taking a deep look into themselves, each other, and the world they’re living in. It’s not always clear which songs represent which character, but one thing is certain: they don’t like what they see!

What they appear to see is universal, omnipresent failure. This is a story of rebels without a cause, but not for lack of trying to find one. All they know is that they feel both oppressed and forgotten by society at the same time. “My generation is zero, I never made it as a working class hero”, the title track explains. In their eyes, America sucks (“American Eulogy”), its government sucks (“Last of the American Girls”), religion sucks (“East Jesus Nowhere”), love sucks (“Viva La Gloria: Little Girl”), and the media has no answers, just static (“The Static Age”). These kids want to fight for something, but there’s nothing worth fighting for anymore (“21 Guns”).

But the story doesn’t really have much structure. There’s no attempt to solve the issues the album spends 18 songs describing, and that is its major flaw. Or is it? That may be the point Armstrong, Cool and Dirnt are making: this is how the majority of America feels right now. Both the album and the country it is “eulogizing” have an uneasy “morning after” vibe. Sort of like the hangover after a house party that went wrong, where your house got trashed and then the cops came…and you woke up the next morning naked in the driveway. You feel uneasy, sick, confused and uncomfortable. You don’t know whether the worst is over or yet to come…because although the bad party is over, you still have to pick yourself up off the concrete and clean up the mess, and probably have a lot of explaining to do. Yet you have no desire to tackle the future because you’re in so much pain at present.

Musically, the album takes a couple of listens to appreciate. Some may call many of the songs ripoffs of earlier material by classic bands and Green Day themselves but each one comes off as a fresh take on old traditions. There are songs that sound sort of like older Green Day material (You’ve heard “21 Guns” before, it was just called “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”), some recall the Who (“21st Century Breakdown”), some are almost post-Beatles John Lennon (“Last Night on Earth”), some that sound a lot like the Clash (“Know Your Enemy”, “East Jesus Nowhere”), and a couple (“Modern World” and, to a lesser extent, “Christian’s Inferno”) that flat-out ape the Ramones.

Lyrically, Billie Joe Armstrong has never been deeper or darker. This is the only Green Day record I’ve ever heard that strikes me as completely depressing. Not to say that Armstrong’s gone “emo”. The material’s too smart to be called that. He’s almost the dark, hopeless polar opposite of Bruce Springsteen. His lyrics are the hopeless yang to Springsteen’s optimistic yin. He’s not QUITE as lyrically clever as Bob Dylan, but every bit as observant. He’s as bitter and acidic as Kurt Cobain, but not as chilling. He’s got zero sense of humor here, songs like “Long View” or “King for The Day” are nowhere to be found. So much for the “Hope” and “Change” of the so-called “Obama Era”!

My favorite part of the album’s three “acts” is by far the third, entitled “Horseshoes and Hand Grenades”, 7 songs divided into 5 tracks. In particular, “The Static Age” and the “American Eulogy” trilogy (comprised of three songs, “American Eulogy”, “Mass Hysteria”, and “Modern World”) echo my sentiments exactly, whereas much of the rest of the album’s material is just too gloomy for me to fully embrace.

“Modern World”, a Ramones-esque denouncement of a world progressing too fast for comfort, states “I don’t wanna live in the Modern World”. I feel Green Day’s pain on that one. But while it’s an enthralling, deep, at times catchy and brilliantly realized place to visit, I wouldn’t want to live in THEIR world either. They may not believe that hope, faith in God and love can get our country and our world out of the rut it’s in, but I do. The album’s vision is masterfully constructed…but I really, REALLY want to prove it wrong.

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