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Snap judgment: Green Day's '21st Century Breakdown'

March 3, 2009 |  1:05 am

Green_day_

Who: Green Day

What: The title track from the act's forthcoming album, "21st Century Breakdown," due in May.

The hype: Trinkets on the new album have been doled out to the media via reports in Rolling Stone and Billboard, both of which have compared "21st Century Breakdown" to works by the Who. It's a mini-suite, believed to open the forthcoming disc, and perhaps foreshadow Green Day's most ambitious album to date.

But slow down, as "21 Century Breakdown" (the album) is the follow-up to Green Day's 2004 epic "American Idiot," a record that saw Green Day reacting to the midpoint of the Bush years with newfound ferocity and social awareness, jettisoning the tepid, Kinks-inspired mid-tempo pop of 2000's "Warning." It put Green Day back on the map. It wasn't just a return to some melodically consistent punk rock, which was used largely as a jumping off point to explore new textures, but proved Green Day was ready -- and more than able -- to tackle big issues (see "Holiday," which frighteningly foreshadowed a remainder of a decade that would be marked by war and homophobia, complete with a militant breakdown and a rhythm that only hinted at the anger in the lyrics).

The song: It doesn't appear to have been officially released yet, having appeared on Stereogum late on   Monday and then gone by midnight. The quality also isn't that great, even for a tune slapped on YouTube, but it's enough to give a taste of the song. It doesn't feel like a first single -- more like a mood setter for a concept album or a potential rock opera. But if it lacks an initial hook, it's still a daring, challenging song. As first signs go -- emphasis on first -- Green Day at least appears ready to handle the difficult task of following up "American Idiot."

The cut begins with an extended piano roll, with guitars and background 'whoo-woo's' kicking in around the 45-second mark. Then it's straight into the sure to be oft-quoted lyric in every Green Day story from now through the course of the album: "My generation is zero / I never made it as a working-class hero."

The song switches course around the 2.5-minute mark, albeit with a little "Longview"-like drum fills, and the guitars get a bit brighter, a bit faster, and the song starts to feel like an anthem. Billie Joe Armstrong is in full orator mode, sounding like he's ready to lead a parade at a protest, and then the melody burns into a glammy ballad. Stereogum referenced My Chemical Romance, and there are shades of "The Black Parade" in the final minute of "21st Century Breakdown," but MCR was just as much a reaction to "American Idiot" as it was Queen.

The total running time of the leaked edition of the song -- and there's some debate as to whether it's the final version (if it's not, Warner will hopefully put out a full version sooner rather than later) -- is five minutes and 20 seconds. In sound, it's not all that removed from the longer pieces on "American Idiot," but it distills some of that album's extended suites into a more concise, manageable running time, which will be appreciated when placed in context of the full punk record.

Thematically, Armstrong's lyrics here provide a nice bookend to much of "American Idiot." Though we've now officially entered the Era of Hope, Green Day isn't having it. There's blame to be assigned here, folks.

Now 37, Armstrong is singing both as a father, referencing his son's "class of 13," and looking out at the mess of a country that awaits pops and junior. "We are the desperate and in the decline / Raised by the bastards of 1969," Armstrong sings, with the final word punctuated with a rhythmic punch.

References to homeland security, fallen ideologies, liberty and debt abound (choice lyric: "I'm taking a loan on my sanity"). It's all quite grand. This mini-suite lacks an official chorus -- or even a lyric hook -- but it doesn't matter, as Green Day delivers excess with ease -- there's nothing that sounds overcooked or overwrought in this rather fluid leak. In the end, Green Day puts what's shaping up to be an increasingly confusing period in our history in an emotion the act has long mastered: frustration. More, please.

-- Todd Martens

Photo: Kim Kulish

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