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Green Day’s ‘21st Century Breakdown’: Reasons to be excited

May 12, 2009 |  2:14 pm


With 2004’s “American Idiot,” Green Day essentially rebooted its career. The band jettisoned the increasingly tepid mid-tempo pop it had been favoring for a more topical concept album, and once again found some rock ‘n’ roll fire.

Before any music had been publicly released from its follow-up, word came earlier this year that Green Day was turning “American Idiot” into a musical. Then tidbits regarding “21st Century Breakdown,” due Friday, hit the press, and there were reasons to be skeptical. Designed as a three-part rock opera, there was the immediate fear that Green Day was responding to the wild success of “American Idiot” by getting even more bloated.

At 19 tracks and more than an hour in length, “21st Century Breakdown” is not the most accessible of mainstream rock albums. But amazingly, it often feels sleeker than its predecessor. The band doesn’t needlessly dress up songs with bombastic orchestrations, and Green Day arguably sounds more potent than ever.

Is it better than “American Idiot”? Pop & Hiss will need to wait until it can divorce the album from its pre-release stream to make that call, but it’s no less ambitious, and there are multiple reasons to explore it.

Concept album? It’s there if you want it. At the center of the multi-act song cycle are  a couple -- one rebel and one idealist. The pair are navigating an increasingly confusing America, trying to make sense of religion, war and a recession.  “I’m taking a loan on my sanity,” Billie Joe Armstrong sings in the title track. The debt hasn't really been repaid by the time the album comes to its conclusion with “See the Light,” where characters are still searching for answers. But you don’t really need to pay attention to any of that to enjoy “21st Century Breakdown,” especially the guitar shadings of “21 Guns,” the well-timed backing harmonies of “The Static Age” or the militaristic assault of “Horseshoes and Handgrenades.” 

The ballad works. Green Day has slowed things down before, and it has usually resulted in a hit. Both “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” became ubiquitous singles off their respective albums. Good songs each, but here’s the thing: Each goes a little too quick for the heart. There’s a reason one was used to say goodbye to a great American sitcom, and the other -- in darker times -- became associated with Hurricane Katrina. Maybe it’s the down-tempo guitars, or the way Armstrong’s voice suddenly slips into "this-is-important" mode, but the songs are engineered for insta-sadness. Not so with the slower moment on “21st Century Breakdown.”

Take “Last Night on Earth” -- a song I played three times in a row before moving on to Track 8. The obvious reference point is John Lennon, as this is a song that builds with grace. If the verses have a little love-letter sappiness, it doesn’t matter, as Armstrong delivers them with sweet confidence. Rather than fight back the tears with a snarl, Armstrong dips ever-so-slightly into a surprisingly natural falsetto. Everything about it feels perfectly comfortable.

The worst parts of “American Idiot” are gone. There’s nothing that tops the nine-minute mark here. Green Day has learned one needn’t have a mini, multi-part epic to pull off an epic album. There’s tempo and thematic shifts in the space of a song, sure, but nothing like the drastic turns of “American Idiot’s” “Jesus of Suburbia.” While instantly telegraphing the band’s ambitions, in hindsight it’s a tune that’s better to admire than actually enjoy.

The title track is the clearest descendant of such a song here, but it finishes in about half the time at five minutes, distilling “American Idiot’s” longest suites into something more manageable -- and even more fierce. There’s no chorus, but this is a glorious anthem, one that starts with optimistic pianos and goes down with burning, glammed-up guitars. A midpoint that questions the boomer vision of America doesn’t hurt, either.

-- Todd Martens

Photo: Getty Images