21st Century Breakdown
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2009, Volume 16, #11
Written by John Metzger
Mon November 16, 2009, 06:30 AM CST
When it issued Dookie in 1994, Green Day hardly seemed like the type of band that would ever be in a position to help save the music industry. At the time, the outfit’s commercial eruption largely appeared to be a matter of its having been in the right place at the right time while copping the right attitude. There was nothing particularly groundbreaking about Green Day’s approach either in concert or in the studio. Although it indisputably had a knack for crafting punk-rock tunes that were ridiculously infectious, the ensemble’s crude lyrics and derivative arrangements merely reshaped The Clash’s legacy for a generation of relatively affluent kids who had grown bored with their belongings.
Green Day’s breakthrough performance at Woodstock ’94 occurred not because the outfit had made a major musical statement but rather because its set had devolved quite literally into a childishly anarchic battle of mudslinging with its fans. The images were as memorable as the melodies that filled Dookie. Yet, the superficiality of it all made it very easy to dismiss any notion that Green Day had long-term staying power. Combined with the lack of growth that it demonstrated on its subsequent outing Insomniac, the ensemble seemed destined to fade away as rapidly as it had appeared.
To its credit, Green Day refused to be dismissed quite so readily. It just wasn’t certain how to translate its newfound popularity into something greater. After slowing down the pace of its schedule, the group made attempts with Nimrod and Warning not only to broaden its sonic palette but also to pen lyrics that were more reflective and thoughtful. As hard as it tried, however, it looked more and more, with each passing year, as if Green Day would never manage to craft an album that was capable of surpassing the immediacy of Dookie or to escape the adolescent ruminations with which it had defined itself.
With its back pressed against the wall, Green Day redoubled its efforts. Eventually, its perseverance paid off handsomely. Issued in 2004, Green Day’s American Idiot was, perhaps, the most surprising endeavor of the past decade. In a sense, Green Day had returned to its roots by crafting an album that used massive, punk-driven guitar riffs and finely honed melodies to speak to a generation of kids as well as their parents. The difference however, is that Green Day’s approach had become wildly ambitious. Essentially, the outfit not only revived the long dormant rock-opera format that had been pioneered by The Who, but it also laced its output with a politically motivated message worthy of The Clash. The result was an effective collection of songs that no one expected the band to make. The outing sold like gangbusters.
If there were any lingering doubts about Green Day’s rejuvenation or its newfound maturity, they surely have been erased by American Idiot’s equally potent successor 21st Century Breakdown. Not surprisingly, given how well American Idiot fared both critically and commercially, the band didn’t deviate from the successful formula it had created. Yet, with its confidence bolstered, it also completely avoided all of the pitfalls that squashed its momentum when it recast Dookie as Insomniac.
21st Century Breakdown might be another rock opera that leans heavily upon the legacies of The Clash and The Who. Nevertheless, it also is a significantly refined synthesis of the musical concepts that Green Day previously had set in motion. Nods to Big Star (Last of the American Girls), Bruce Springsteen (Viva La Gloria), and John Lennon (Last Night on Earth) are scattered throughout the collection. Elsewhere, Viva La Gloria (Little Girl) conjures Kurt Weill by way of The Doors, while the title track cuts a wide swath through the canons of Sweet, Cheap Trick, Queen, and The Ramones. As for the overarching mood of the endeavor, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The best part, though, is that Green Day sounds like it is having fun.
The narrative that drives 21st Century Breakdown is divided into three acts, and it revolves around the tale of Christian and Gloria, a pair of late teen/early 20s kids who are struggling to find themselves amidst the wreckage of the American landscape. Like most rock operas, the plot isn’t always clearly defined, and consequently, the themes and concepts that Green Day introduces — the perils of organized religion, murky wars that are fought on foreign soil, and the overload of information that has been caused by an endless stream of technological devices and 24-hour news channels, among them — are more important than the events that take place within the story itself. There is no doubt that 21st Century Breakdown is about the decline of America’s dominance in the world, but it places less blame on the policies of the previous presidential administration than American Idiot. Instead, it examines how generation after generation of the country’s youth has failed to stop the bleeding. As a result, there now is so much that has gone wrong that it’s difficult to figure out which sector needs treatment first.
Green Day’s biggest weakness remains its inability to craft a ballad that has a lasting impact. Like its predecessors — Wake Me Up when September Ends and Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) — the group’s latest offering in this category (21 Guns) is immediately ingratiating. Set adrift upon the repetitive airwaves of commercial radio, however, it quickly becomes wearisome. The song fares slightly better within the context of 21st Century Breakdown, but poised at the endeavor’s emotional climax, its overexposure ultimately leaves the track too weak to contribute to the delivery of a knockout punch.
Fortunately, this flaw, while harmful, is hardly lethal. During Mass Hysteria and Modern World, Green Day regains a lot of the momentum it had lost in its attempt to mount an insurrection against the status quo. The group sidesteps providing any answers. Instead, it uses See the Light to hang questions in the air as it looks for direction. If anything, Green Day is trying to fight off the sense of apathy that it knew would creep back across the face of America no matter who was elected last fall. Through its theatrical performance, the band at the very least has turned 21st Century Breakdown into an urgent call for action, one that draws a line in the sand by daring America’s newly elected president to keep the country’s youth engaged before it becomes too late. ½
52nd Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Rock Album
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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