In October 2004, I discovered Green Day’s American Idiot. I’d only heard their singles before that and had no desire to hear anything else. But the reviews were phenomenal, declaring some of the highest praises I’d ever seen. So I bought it, and even after five years, it’s still one of my favorite albums. It was ambitious, exciting, memorable and poignant. It was a masterpiece accepted into the commercial cannon; a modern day Quadrophenia. Now the band returns with a spiritual follow-up, 21st Century Breakdown. With its 18 tracks (broken into three sections) and more ambivalent story, you could call it their Tommy. Unfortunately, while it does sound a lot like Idiot and follow similar song structures (harkening back to the Who’s groundbreaking “A Quick One…”), it’s simply not as good.
Green Day needs no introduction, but the album does. If Idiot critiqued the Bush administration as it was happening, 21st assesses the damage in its aftermath. It also involves lovers Gloria and Christian, who butt heads between idealism and nihilism, respectively. This album is clearly more focused on political commentary than telling any story (it’s feels like more of an unrelated album than a rock opera), but there are some thematic continuities and music reprises. Overall, it’s an album with many good ideas and songs that sometimes sound too alike and never reach the commendable flow and staggering emotion of its predecessor.
Act 1, Heroes and Cons, opens with “Song of The Century.” It’s a brief message from Armstrong foreshadowing how this first decade of the century has been disappointing. His voice comes through over radio static (which is used to separated the three acts), and it’s a simple lullaby. Armstrong has always been a unique, unconventional singer, but he’s always a great vocalist capable of conveying anger and sorrow. It leads into the fantastic title track.
“21st Century Breakdown” begins with acoustic power chords as a piano and drums build it up. It does remind one of a Who track, and its structure is similar to Idiot’s “Jesus of Suburbia.” Actually, while 21st doesn’t have any sufficiently long songs like that, Green Day still place multiple parts in a lot of the tracks here, and this is the best one. It’s a rock anthem, beginning with a nostalgic melody and then going into a faster, angrier middle before slowing down for the hopeful conclusion (and all parts are catchy as hell). Yes, Armstrong and Co. make this type of song a lot, but they’re fucking good at it, so who cares?
“Know Your Enemy” is the first single from the album, and it’s a standard rock song with nice harmonies in the chorus. “Viva La Gloria” opens as a nice piano ballad a la “Good Riddance,” (let’s face it; Armstrong does rewrite the same few songs over and over again). Piano is featured a lot on 21st Century Breakdown, and to good effect. The fast chorus is very addicting and serves as a good introduction to the female protagonist. It’s a melody that takes two seconds to think of but could only be performed as well as it is by Green Day. “Before The Lobotomy” is another ballad, this time acoustic based, with a pleasant but derivative vocal line full of heartache to introduce Christian. The second section is heavier (as expected by the band’s usual template) but still involving, and it raises the adrenaline as only Green Day can. It leads back into the opening, now electrified.
The punky side of their sound comes through with “Christian’s Inferno,” a quickly paced, anarchistic narrative that fades into the poppy, piano lead “Last Night on Earth.” Armstrong sings of love in a rarely heard falsetto. Thematically, there is something about Christian loving fire within 21st, and this track is promising a future for the couple after he sets the world aflame.
Act 2, Charlatans and Saints, opens with more radio static before “East Jesus Nowhere,” another loud call for action similar to Idiot’s “Holiday,” starts. It’s catchy, but a bit too familiar. Still, by the end there is biting guitar solo and marching drum beat, and we’re tapping a solid object along with it. The slightly Latin rock feel of “Peacemaker” keeps it interesting, and Armstrong belts out his voice fantastically as the harmonies of his band accompany. “Last of the American Girls” discusses the female character in the same way of “Extraordinary Girl” from Idiot. Think of it as a slightly new take on the same song. “Murder City” is one of the catchiest songs here, and it feels like a prelude to a conclusion (it has that type of melody). Honestly, the song may have fit better later in the album, but it’s a winner nonetheless.
“¿Viva la Gloria? (Little Girl)” has the piano of a Western Saloon. Musically, it doesn’t seem to relate to the similarly titled track from earlier, but it is no doubt an update on the character. It’s another simple verse with a basic but exhilarating chorus (hey, that’s what Green Day do). The closing, mirroring guitar and vocal line add a slight but worthwhile tragic sound, which segues into the best ballad, “Restless Heart Syndrome.” If you’ve heard “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” from Idiot (and how could you have not?), you’ve pretty much heard this track already. It uses swirling strings to good effect (which shows producer Butch Vig’s contribution). Even so, it’s heartfelt and piercing to the soul, so it works fine (even if it’s just another example of Armstrong rewriting another song of his). It even features the same quickly played guitar effect that closes Idiot’s saddest song.
Act 3, Horseshoes and Handgrenades, commences with a song of the same name, and it is among the band’s most in-your-face, angry tracks. Armstrong’s voice is distorted a bit as he yells “I’m gonna burn it all down! I’m gonna rip it out! Well, everything that you employ was meant for me to destroy…” The track ends with him identifying Gloria, alluding to Christian hurting her in some way. “The Static Age” feels like an unrelated single placed in the middle of a concept album. The unexpected key change near the end adds a very short second section that’s immediately engaging before reverting back to the main song. “21 Guns” is also quite similar to “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” in its verse structure (both vocally and musically), but the bridge is original enough, and again Armstrong shows quite a surprising vocal range. It brings back the feeling of a rock opera. It’s a piece to sing along with in concert, lighter swinging in hand.
“American Eulogy” is another suite. It recalls a snippet of “Song of The Century” before jumping into another common Green Day number (which shows the continuity of a concept album that I have a soft spot for) for its first part. Suddenly the transition of an acoustic guitar and Armstrong singing leads into a third part, complete with a new voice (Christian?). Again, Green Day is now typecast to do these suites, but it’s clearly what they do best, so let’s let them. The track builds up with noise before leading into a reprise of the opening chords of “21st Century Breakdown” for the finale, “See the Light.” It’s another straightforward rocker you’d expect from them and it successfully feels like a closer. Melodically and lyrically, you can tell the story (however much of it there was) is over. The chords are powerful and the drums are definitive. The album fades out with the acoustic chords.
21st Century Breakdown is far from a bad album, and, like Idiot, will likely be the best release this year from such a popular band. It shows a level songwriting fluidity and maturity rarely seen these days, and it mostly flows cohesively and exhilaratingly. The songs are catchy and lyrically pretty clever and meaningful. That said, the problem with 21st is that it feels like a step backwards; the songs are also more generic and too alike (several people have said Green Day only have “their fast song and their slow song.”) There are many great moments but there’s also the constant feeling of familiarity, so while the songs are still good, they’ve been done before on Idiot (if not before that as well). If American Idiot was never made, 21st Century Breakdown would stand as the band’s best achievement, an astonishing comeback, and a nice reminder that music can be both popular and good. But American Idiot did precede this LP, and it’s simply a much, much better album all around, which is disappointing to fans who truly appreciated what a work of art it was and hoped this follow-up would measure up.