In the wake of expectations raised by the massive critical and commercial success of American Idiot, Green Day ducked the pressure last year by coyly releasing a fun garage rock album under the name Foxboro Hottubs. That release valve may have been just the ticket for the band, for 21st Century Breakdown finds them back in full-on epic, rock opera mode having created an album that is no less an equal to its predecessor. In fact, in some ways, Breakdown surpasses American Idiot--its narrative works better this time, while still not sacrificing the music, and the music is broader too, incorporating a wider variety of styles. Although it isn't yet clear whether the album will generate a hit on par with "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," there's certainly a lot to like--and a lot to choose from over the course of 18 tracks.
Let's start with the story. This time our heroes are Christian and Gloria, a young couple struggling in modern-day America, railing against the various structures that get them down (politics, religion, corporate America, etc.). Ultimately though, this story leads not to failure (as American Idiot did), but to hope. The theme of closing track "See the Light" seems to be that while we can't change the past, it's never too late to change in general. As a narrative, this one is much looser, which frankly makes it easier to swallow, for it did get rather confusing keeping track of American Idiot's Jesus of Suburbia and St. Jimmy and whether or not they were the same person. Perhaps conscious of how Breakdown might play out as an actual opera (a possibility, given that American Idiot is currently being given the stage treatment), the album is structured in three acts.
The crackling radio effect of "Song of the Century" is the brief introduction before Heroes and Cons, the first act. It opens dramatically with the strong title track, a buoyantly upbeat rant that establishes the background of our first character, Christian, a member of "generation zero" who "never made it as a working class hero." The piano chords and distant-but-approaching guitar opening evoke U2, before slamming into the first segment of the song. About halfway through, it shifts gears, amping up the guitars into punkier and faster territory. Then in the last minute, the song shifts again, slowing the tempo with sustained guitar flourishes. The multi-movement track evokes Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" more than the multi-part songs on American Idiot, for rather than stretching on for nine minutes, it's over in five and holds together without sounding disjointed. It's followed by the comparatively simple, but enjoyable first single "Know Your Enemy," a call to arms for the protest-minded.
"¡Viva La Gloria!" introduces Gloria, beginning sweetly with piano and strings before switching into rock mode. Meditative "Before the Lobotomy" takes longer to makes its switch, but is similarly structured with a quiet first third followed by the hard-hitting middle section, and then a final also hard-hitting section that picks up the melody from the first. It reminds me of American Idiot's "Wake Me Up When September Ends," which similarly, and also effectively, channeled the same melody through different arrangements. The overlapping acoustic guitars come through crystal clear, thanks to the crisp, clean Bruce Vig production (Nirvana's Nevermind). Those who like their punk rock rough around the edges be warned: 21st Century Breakdown is recorded and processed to perfection. Both of these songs are also highlights, particularly the lovely "Before the Lobotomy," told from Gloria's point of view.
"Christian's Inferno" is an angry punk rant; it's probably the least interesting song so far, but it's followed by the piano-based love ballad "Last Night on Earth." I'm gonna go out on a limb (and probably get in trouble for it), but I believe these two songs are related and meant to show the contrasting temperaments of these characters. Both songs include fire references, presumably to represent the struggles they face, however in "Christian's Inferno" (the Christian song) he responds with anger, while in "Last Night on Earth" (assuming it's from Gloria's POV), she reacts by finding a glimmer of hope in knowing that she still has Christian. Aww.
Another radio effect announces the beginning of Act II, Charlatans and Saints, which kicks off with "East Jesus Nowhere," a good old-fashioned guitar rocker with a march-like snare beat. It takes its aim against organized religion. Next up is "Peacemaker," which is very cool song. It's upbeat and fast with a delicious Latin guitar and strings flavor. "The Last of the American Girls" is a bit of a break from these hard-hitting songs, a breezier pop affair that sounds like a nice summer rocker. However, its lyrics still remind us of the album's dark themes ("she wears her overcoat for the coming of the nuclear winter"). Warm melody, chilly lyrics.
"Murder City" is a tight little guitar rocker in the punk indie vein. "¿Viva la Gloria? (Little Girl)" starts with a jaunty yet foreboding piano melody, retaining its dark feel once it shifts to guitar rock mode. It also has a bit of a Latin vibe to it. "Restless Heart Syndrome" is another piano and strings ballad, but this time the band sounds remarkably like Oasis. Clearly, this album doesn't hide its varied influences.
Act III, Horseshoes and Handgrenades, begins without the radio interlude jumping right into the song of the same name, another angry punk track with a repetitive guitar chord progression. "The Static Age" is lighter, radio-friendly pop rock. At this point, the album does seem to be dragging a bit, showing its over 70-minute running length. Thankfully, there's a big finish ahead though. "21 Guns" is the epic put-down-your-guns rocker I'd hoped would be here, the closest thing to a "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." That crackling radio song returns to kick off "American Eulogy," a rollicking two-part summation of the album's themes--"Mass Hysteria" followed by "Modern World." "See the Light" closes the whole package with a final note of uplift.
Green Day's new album is certainly ambitious--an 18-track concept album, multiple concepts really--a 3-part rock opera, a modern political rant, a journey through 4 decades of musical styles, even a love story. With all that thrown in, it can't help but be a little bloated, but the fact that there's so many good songs here makes it worthwhile.
Best: 21st Century Breakdown, Before the Lobotomy, 21 Guns, Peacemaker, Know Your Enemy, Viva la Gloria, Last of the American Girls, Last Night on Earth, Murder City