“I’m not fucking around.”
You probably shouldn’t go into this expecting Dookie or Nimrod. It’s certainly not either. However, it’s not American Idiot, either.
The problem a lot of people had with American Idiot, almost five years ago, was that it was nothing like Green Day’s previous works, and that it wanted to be meaningful, and that there was too much balladeering (see “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Are We The Waiting,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” and “Whatsername”). It had seemed, to most people, that the punk hero for the 90s had lost his mind, and soul, in favor of pseudo-political lyricism.
On my first listen of the first Green Day album in five years (truly an eternity for most punk bands, especially Green Day, who released four albums in that span of time), that’s not going anywhere. Armstrong seems to have developed a taste for ballads and politics, which in the hands of more competent hands can be disastrous. That said, since American Idiot, he has clearly refined his ability to write those kinds of songs, and has learned to veil them, at least a little bit.
As for the ballads, they’re here, and in spades. Armstrong seems to have gotten a bit carried away with writing the kinds of songs that start as a quiet ballad and grow to be too loud (see “!Viva La Gloria!” and “Before The Lobotomy,” for starters). In fact, around half of the album is done like that. It’s a nice touch, especially on the former example, but at times, it gets just a little old.
This isn’t, of course, to say that the album is without its raucous tracks. “East Jesus Nowhere,” for example, is a reminder of why anybody and everybody liked Green Day in the 90s, and a reminder of why anybody liked American Idiot. It’s bass heavy, littered with cymbal crashes, and to be fair, damn near perfection. “Christian’s Inferno” accomplishes the same effect, while keeping in time with, from the sound of it, whatever plot this concept album was going for (note: I don’t care what the album is supposed to be about; I’ll leave the modern rock operas up to The Decemberists). The best example, however, is the slowly building “Restless Heart Syndrome,” which utilizes the quiet-to-loud dynamic perfectly, complete with a downright ridiculous guitar solo.
As for lyrics, they’re about as good as Green Day’s ever going to get, but to be fair, nobody had ever listened to Green Day for their lyrics. In the minute-long, radio static opener, “Song For The Century,” Armstrong sings, serenely, “Sing us a song of the century/Louder than bombs and eternity/The heir of static and contraband/Leading us into the promised land,” which gives us a pretty darn good idea of the kind of album we’re going to be listening to. The following track, “21st Century Breakdown,” explodes with the same kind of fire that U2 had in their heyday, with Armstrong coyly stating “I never made it as a working class hero,” and offers a breakdown worthy of American Idiot’s shining multi-part stars, “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Homecoming.”
The album is not without its duds, though. “Last of the American Girls” comes off like the sequel to “Extraordinary Girl,” arguably one of the weakest Idiot tracks. The following track, “Murder City,” sounds like something your kid sister might have written to be edgy in her 7th grade English class. That said, even the worst lyrics on the album (“I am a nation, a worker, a pawn/My debt to the status quo/The scars on my hands are a means to an end”) are still better than the worst of American Idiot (“I walk a lonely road/The only one that I have ever known/Don’t know where it goes/But it’s home to me and I walk alone”)
In the end, 21st Century Breakdown is not the fabled “return to sound” that most people imagined it was going to be. In fact, it sounds almost nothing like the albums that made Green Day the godfathers of pop-punk. It is, however, a worthy continuation of exactly what American Idiot was likely supposed to be: a total blast.