21st Century Breakdown
REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/03/2009
Green Day, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.
It started in 2005, months into the lifespan of their commercial comeback American Idiot. The album was an amazing, tight collection of songs with the reenergized sound of a band that gave voice to the anger millions felt in the lead-up to the 2004 election. Then radio began to turn “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” into an inescapable tune, causing fans to likely skip over that song on an album that should be played from start to finish to truly appreciate. The band released their self-congratulatory victory lap live album Bullet In A Bible. Then came the Grammys, where Billy Joe Armstrong made the ridiculously arrogant comment that their win shows that rock and roll could still be fun and dangerous.
As good as American Idiot was, it was about as dangerous as a Linkin Park album. The album had a few well-placed f-bombs, but it was so appealing, many suburban moms probably lifted the album from their sons and daughters to burn “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” to their iPod shuffle. Even big-time conservative talk shows barely raised an eyebrow to Green Day’s reference of former President George W. Bush as “president gasman”; they were too busy going after Kanye West and the Dixie Chicks.
Even the grandiose statements and live album excesses couldn’t diminish American Idiot’s greatness, though; it’s still a likely top ten candidate for Album of the Decade. So when it came to the follow-up, the big question for Green Day was whether to set their ambitions even higher, or scale back. Too bad the band recorded Warning before American Idiot. That album was able to strike a balance between the band’s punkish roots and the inevitable advancement of maturity.
The band faced a similar dilemma after their ten-million selling Dookie. Their answer, Insomniac, sold about a sixth of what Dookie sold. So perhaps in reaction to not wanting to repeat Insomniac, the band recruited Butch Vig, added about 20 more minutes of material and came up with 21st Century Breakdown. The album is split into three acts and unlike American Idiot, there are no nine-minute plus epics.
The two main characters in 21st Century Breakdown, Christian and Gloria, are young-uns trying to make sense of the last half of this war/economy-ravaged decade. What do they do throughout the album? They do…stuff. They survive while having a few internal arguments. Actually, it’s hard to figure out what the plot (if there is any) of 21st Century Breakdown, which is fine. However, if you’re going to break an album into three acts, there should be a reason. Otherwise, 21st Century Breakdown would have been just fine being a double-album filled with good to really good songs.
The choice of Butch Vig for producer was an inspired one on paper. Vig had already produced the defining recordings of some of the ’90s biggest acts and the slick sheen he adds to albums didn’t obscure the power of punk-leaning bands like Against Me! and L7. But on 21st Century Breakdown, there is an unmistakable feel of overproduction.
The second glaring problem of 21st Century Breakdown comes from the lyrics. Billy Joe Armstrong can be a great songwriter, capable of nailing the details of how indifference and boredom can erode a person’s sense of self, be it through channel surfing (“Longview”) or a parental neglect (“Jesus Of Suburbia”). But on 21st Century Breakdown, Armstrong gets predictable, especially on the ballads. On “Restless Heart Syndrome,” he opens with “I got a really bad disease,” and if you think the next line has something to do with being on your “hands and knees,” pat yourself on the back, you just wrote part of a song lyric. Other lyrical blunders range from generic rebellion statements like “My generation is zero” and “Homeland Security could kill us all” to visuals that I could go the rest of my life without hearing (“like a dog that’s been sodomized”).
Still, when 21st Century Breakdown hits, man does it hit. Mike Dirnt’s bass rips open the title track and provides an irresistible, funky intro to “Last Of The American Girls” that makes it almost physically impossible to skip the track. And Tre Cool remains one of rock’s secret weapons. If there’s any technical problem with the sound of 21st Century Breakdown, it’s that Cool’s drumming is sometimes lost in Vig’s slick sheen.
21st Century Breakdown tries to surpass American Idiot, but the album is done in by too many sappy ballads and glaring weaknesses in the songwriting department (nothing on the album can match either the propulsive title track to American Idiot or the bittersweet coda “Whatshername”). Still, somewhere between Rolling Stone’s slobbering 4.5-star review and Pitchfork’s snarky 4.8 grade lies the truth. This album has an almost magical ability to sound amazing on one listen and be utterly annoying on the second listen. And judging from Metacritic’s site, the album has quickly polarized critics. In a time where the significance of an album is undergoing some drastic revisions, it’s good to see one that still has the ability to stir up debate. That may be 21st Century Breakdown’s greatest accomplishment.