Giving rock’s past a kick in the pants
21st Century Breakdown
* * * 1/2
One of the many very sticky songs from Green Day’s new opus, “21st Century Breakdown,” got stuck in my head the other day. It was “The Static Age,” a bouncy little number named after a rant by New Jersey punk elders the Misfits. Green Day’s ditty doesn’t sound at all like that other “Static Age.” Instead of being sludgy and hard, it’s peppy, with a big kick-drum beat, machine-gun guitars and a melody that . . . reminded me of something.
What was it? Perhaps one of the inspirations the band and its critical supporters have mentioned -- like Queen, Bruce Springsteen or the Who? Or maybe the original writers of the Green Day playbook, the Beatles?
No, it was Buddy Holly. The looping melody of “The Static Age” brought me back to the hiccup-prone rocker’s 1957 song “Everyday.”
This sonic link to the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll provides a useful corrective to the gravity with which some fans have greeted Green Day’s maturation into the concept-loving champions of album-oriented rock. When Holly was first crafting his relentlessly inventive songs, the divide hadn’t yet arisen between good-time music and stuff that qualified as art. Creativity was something that happened in your basement, it was a big plus if it sold, and it didn’t need to trumpet itself: Rock ‘n’ roll’s innovations were bright, shiny and easy to love.
Punk, the movement to which Green Day still claims fealty, had many agendas, but one was to strip away pretenses and get back to the snappy, confrontational fun of early rock. That attitude is what made Green Day a good band in the first place, and it’s still what puts it a cut above the rest with an album that will surely earn its spot among the top rock offerings of the year.
The story line that unites the 18 songs on “21st Century Breakdown” is easier to grasp than the one on “American Idiot,” the award-winning 2004 release that turned this trio of smart alecks into a bona-fide classic-punk band. It’s also less obtrusive.
On “Idiot,” Billie Joe Armstrong and his mates struggled to find the form that would suit their big ideas. The result was an album with some outstanding songs and some awkward, clunky ones. The general project hangs together much better on “Breakdown.” Its musical and lyrical themes recur without fuss, and each track has its own strong identity that speaks to but isn’t weighed down by the larger (and beneficially looser) narrative.
“Breakdown’s” action centers on two archetypal ragamuffins, Christian and Gloria, who respond to the hollowness of modern-day America the way kids do -- by shutting down, breaking out, taking off and fighting back -- but the plot seems more like an organizing device for Armstrong’s thoughts on religion, love, technology, oppression and revolution. If he needs to create this kind of framework to access his serious, ambitious side, then bring on the fiction workshops. Christian and Gloria’s journey matters less, ultimately, than the one Green Day itself makes -- and that one is dazzlingly musical.
Having a narrative concept is hardly a distinguishing mark in pop these days. Recent purveyors of concept albums have included bar band the Hold Steady, metalheads Mastodon, R&B; smartie Janelle Monae and, don’t forget, Eminem. “21st Century Breakdown” stands out in this crowd because it’s so damn masterful as music. This trio couldn’t be tighter or more flexible, and aided by the radio-smart but also headphones-sensitive Butch Vig on production duties, it confidently navigates a wide but cohesive stream of rock music, starting with Holly and his peers and extending through the British Invasion, glam, punk, power pop, emo and, of course, Green Day’s own catalog.
Oh, and did I mention gypsy music? “Peacemaker” has a party in the mosh pit by borrowing from Gogol Bordello. “Christian’s Inferno” lets drummer Tre Cool show his muscle with an opening rhythm reminiscent of industrial music.
“Horseshoes and Handgrenades” is sweet, vicious California popcore, and “Know Your Enemy” is revolution rock that’s making Joe Strummer dance in his corner of heaven right now.
Several luscious ballads allow Armstrong to show the softer side that’s given the band its biggest hits, but the best love song is “Last of the American Girls,” another sock hop number with lyrics about that New Wave sweetie for whom punk rockers always fall. Armstrong’s specifics are ripe here; he knows this kind of woman, since he’s been married to one for years.
Elsewhere, though, the lyrics prove to be a weak point. It’s not because the alienation they express is outdated in the age of Obama. This world is still plenty messed up, and besides, does the political mood of 1975 define how we hear “Born to Run” now? Armstrong’s problem is a typical punk one: He loves a good slogan, and too often his broadsides dip into cliche.
But the most common phrases can feel fresh when shouted out in an arena, and that’s exactly what thrilled rock fans will be doing all summer as Green Day reasserts its dominance. Every kid should rediscover the language of questioning and self-assertion that Armstrong mines. Everyone should have a chance to yell “Revolution!” while a rock band plays.
It’s wonderful that, after all this time, Green Day is still finding new ways to make that possible.