Saturday, 16 May 2009
Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown
I really don't have to go through the whole back history of Green Day, do I? Breaking out of a small-town punk scene with Dookie, slowly fading after that until resurging with American Idiot - its a story well-trodden. For a protest rock opera, American Idiot had gone down in the charts with all the sales figures of an X-factor pop album. Though the band themselves must have enjoyed the plaudits, the indisputable financial gain and the filling of arenas worldwide it must have put them in a bit of a situation.
So, what you do when you're a bunch of middle-aged punk rockers still hanging on to those old-skool punk protest ideals but are one of the biggest acts in the world? It appears that they played a definite gamble with the American Idiot formula, now it seems they're gambling that they can pull it off again. Only listening to the record itself will prove whether they've got away with it.
I initially planned to review this as I listened to it for the first time, but that never really materialised, which is quite lucky, because in a maelstrom of nostalgia and love for the 'Day, I was going to review it very highly. And, to spoil the review somewhat, repeated listens have downgraded my opinion of the album each time, to the point that, from thinking it was a success, I now see it simply as a stinking failure.
Let me explain. I said to myself when starting this review that I wasn't going to judge it against past albums, but to get a full view of how much of a letdown 21st Century Breakdown is, we are forced to look back at American Idiot, and why it was so great. It wasn't supposed to work, but it did, chiefly because it felt natural. 'American Idiot' crackled with stinging anger and threatened to explode under the sheer weight of venom Billie Joe and the boys were throwing at it. 'Holiday' was swashbuckling, 'St. Jimmy' the aural equivalent of a severe electric shock and 'Letterbomb' summed up everything about Green Day in just over four minutes - fast, loud, and powerful. The MTV favourites - 'Boulevard...' and 'Wake Me Up...' were both big ballads, packed full of emotion - the former, desolation and loneliness, the latter, sadness of loosing a loved one. The whole rock opera idea worked because there were no weak links, and everything flowed into the next. The story idea worked as well, as not only was it clear what it was about (to a degree), but once you understood what it was about, you could easily find yourself believing in the main character, the proverbial 'Jesus of Suburbia'. People could relate to the feelings, emotions and experiences laid bare on the album - the barbed criticisms of brash, myopic patriotism in '...Idiot' and 'Holiday' not only rang true with Americans, but with Europeans and particularly British people too - its effect was universal.
'21st Century Breakdown' will, in terms of sales figures, probably reach similar heights as 'American Idiot', but I can guarantee that it will not have as much of a lasting impact, simply because it is a poor copy of 'American Idiot' itself. Every song appears to swell with a feeling of self-importance and grandiose splendour, but all this does is mean that, in terms of simple listenability, nearly all the songs miss the mark by miles. By trying too hard to replicate what made American Idiot great, Green Day have wound up with something that, when listened to, will not inspire emotion in people - they will simply sit there and shrug.
The warning signs were there from the first single, 'Know Your Enemy'. Someone I know is quoted as regularly calling it 'the most generic rock song ever written', and, although that would be a little harsh, he would have a strong case. Whereas 'American Idiot' the single blasted out of speakers and radios and emphatically roused the troops simply by being furious and pulsating, KYE simply tries too hard to cajole the masses - who is the enemy that they speak of? Further regressional tendencies occur on the 'Viva La Gloria' duo of songs - tracks 4 and 12 respectively. 'Viva La Gloria!' could not try harder to be a slightly more epic and arena-sized rewrite of 'Letterbomb' if it tried, and 'Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl)' recalls some of the better moments off of 'Warning' in the form of 'Misery' and 'Blood Sex And Booze'. '21 Guns' has 'Boulevard...' written all over it, 'East Jesus Nowhere' is Holiday with a little more stomp, and the title track is a much watered-down version of Jesus of Suburbia. Green Day cannot expect people to judge this album on it's own merits if it is so ingrained in the memory of it's predecessor; it was always going to be tough for them to break out of it and make something that stood alone, nodding to it's past but having it's own identity, but it doesn't even felt like they've tried - it's almost as if they're happy recycling the A.I. formula, track by track, even at times note by note, and rack up another million billion record sales. Some of the other tracks are just poor altogether - songs such as 'Restless Heart Syndrome' and 'Last Night on Earth' fail to pass muster despite the tonnes and tonnes of strings and Pro Tools trickery thrown at them.
Okay, you think, so some of the tunes aren't really up to scratch, let's have a read through the lyrics. But again, we are destined for disappointment. Trying to plough through 21st C.B.'s weighty lyric booklet is like trying to walk down a hallway which has been flooded with toffee and fudge - you're bound to get dragged down, and end up scratching your head and wondering what the hell Billie Joe is on about. 'Last of the American Girls' is a prime example - 'She rides her bike like a fugitive of critical mass'. Whatever kind of social observation or criticism of American life Billie Joe is trying to get across, it just falls flat on its face. Not only has the music gone up a gear in terms of aloofness and arrogance, but so has the lyrics, to such an extent that no emotional investment can be made whatsoever in any of the songs - the listener is simply left wondering what on Earth is being said, let alone whether he or she believes in it or understands it.
The criticism does not end there. Despite being the same length, roughly in minutes, as A.I., it feels overlong and weighty. As epic track after epic track comes out of the speakers, it can feel like a bombardment, a sensory overload. It wouldn't matter too much if you had something to actually listen to, but when it's endless stadium-rock-sized riffs and Billie Joe's self-indulgent ranting, it just becomes a bit of a white noise. What single-handedly salvages some credibility from this album, however, is Green Day themselves. They are such good songwriters as a unit that the law of averages dictates that, even when they are writing average stuff, every so often they will produce a gem. 'Christian's Inferno', 'The Static Age', 'Murder City', parts of 'Before the Lobotomy' (from about 1:20 to 3:30), most of 'American Eulogy' (despite the pretentious title) and the middle bit of the title track (from 2:13 to 4:13) are awesome, and so long as long as you largely ignore the lyrics, they manage to extract some sort of fist-pumping energy from the listener. The undisputed best track on the album, however, is 'Peacemaker'. Fast-paced and dominated by slightly Latin-sounding acoustic guitars and a trademark Mike Dirnt bassline, the song rattles along at a great pace, and Billie Joe's lyrics hit the mark perfectly, with it's overriding theme of extremism and paranoia giving the song a slightly disturbing edge amidst the James Bond-sounding swishes of strings that flit in and out, and the duelling lead guitar solo at the middle eight. It's not because it's different to anything Green Day have done before that sets it apart on this album - it is simply because it is simple, imaginative, and provokes genuine emotion within the listener. Plus the fact that you will be humming it for the rest of the day.
The fact is that, if you discard some of the weighty ballads, trim down some of the remaining songs, and possibly throw in one of the B-sides from the Know Your Enemy single, the excellent and zippy 'Lights Out!' (find it if you can - it is fantastic), Green Day would have had a good album to release. Not great, and certainly not fantastic on the same level as A.I., but good. As it stands, they have what is trying so, so hard to be a fantastic record, but collapses under it's own self-indulgent and excessive weight and ends up at around average level. And for this record to be called average signals a massive failure on Green Day's part.
Label: Reprise Records
Release Date: May 15th 2009
Standout tracks: Peacemaker, The Static Age, American Eulogy.