Three and a half stars
What a difference a year — and an onstage outburst — make.
Near the beginning of 2012, the commercial rock world was abuzz with news of Green Day's forthcoming trio of studio albums. On a winning streak that included the hit Broadway musical "American Idiot" and the double whammy of studio albums "American Idiot" and "21st Century Breakdown," the band had announced that the records, called "Uno!" "Dos!" and "Tre!," would arrive over a four-month period at the end of the year.
Video teasers and carefully timed press releases arrived, part of a keen marketing plan that blanketed America with pasteboard posters and Web images of the band's Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool virtually jumping out of the screen. Then, mere days before "Uno!" came out, Armstrong threw a tantrum at a Clear Channel-sponsored Las Vegas promotional concert, bad-mouthed set time restrictions, smashed his guitar and stormed offstage.
The band quickly apologized to Clear Channel and its fans, and soon thereafter announced Armstrong's entry into rehab — where he remains. Two weeks ago Green Day canceled its scheduled live performances, postponed its 2013 tour and pushed up the release date of "Tre!" by nearly a month, to Dec. 11. What once felt like the beginning of a new Green Day now seems like something it just wants to get over with.
Into this chaos comes "Dos!," which is being released Tuesday. The good news is that it's a far better record than "Uno!" In fact, it's an excellent Green Day album — one of its best — a catchy, revealing work that surprises with its willingness to explore ideas that the band members may not have invented, but which, fed through Green Day's filter, become theirs. Like its predecessor, "Dos!" was recorded by the band with longtime producer (and Warner Bros. Records CEO) Rob Cavallo. Unlike it, "Dos!" contains a rap song.
The adventure on "Dos!" is great news, considering that when "Uno!" was released on Sept. 25, it landed with a thud. The record felt like a bottle rocket when we were promised Roman candles, a work whose biggest surprise was how unsurprising it felt.
What's worse, its biggest gamble, "Kill the DJ," which burned with energy during a small live gig at the Echoplex earlier in the year, fell flat once the lyrics were discernible. "Uno!" currently sits at No. 58 on the album charts, where it's being outpaced by, among others, Michael Bublé and Jackie Evancho.
If "Uno!" seemed to be a closed system, with Green Day working to flex its '90s punk muscles, on No. 2 the group has gone open-source, allowing in a much wider range of sounds and styles.
"Dos!" opens and closes with Armstrong-sung solo guitar numbers, and in between travels all over. In a recent interview with Guitar World magazine, Armstrong, who is the band's principal songwriter, explained that the intent of "Dos!" was different than that of the first. "It's a real 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' kind of death-trip vibe," said Armstrong, "like a party out of control."
Like all essential artists, Green Day members have always been master thieves, sneaking into others' songs to make off with riffs, basslines and conceits, which they fence by tweaking just enough to confidently claim ownership. This trait is all over "Dos!," a record whose closest cousin in Green Day's repertoire is the Foxboro Hot Tubs project, the band's garage rock alter ego. On that as this, Armstrong and company borrow techniques and sounds that suggest everything from the Kinks and the Creation to Eddie Cochran, Joan Jett, Cheap Trick and the Strokes. There's joy here, and inspiration.
Not that "Dos!" is rocket science. It's just way more impressive than the rudimentary math of "Uno!" Songs such as "Wild One" are immediately hummable, basic slabs of rock impressive in both weight and delivery. Armstrong's guitar solo is loose and wobbly, and the falsetto moans of "... wild one" glow in the background. "Lady Cobra" sounds like Motorhead if singer Lemmy Kilmister were sucking helium.
"Nightlife" is the outlier, and the most daring song on "Dos!" A funky, slow-rolling rap track with an off-beat reggae guitar strum and a funky Dirnt bassline, it's one of the weirdest songs the band has ever recorded. You read that right: Green Day recorded a rap song. It features a rapper named Lady Cobra. And it's not terrible.
That it can jump from that to the British Invasion-suggestive "Wow! That's Loud" is a measure of the breadth of work here. All the songs might sound a little like something else, and the result is a record that jumps around like a mixtape of undiscovered hits. And unlike its predecessor, which just wasn't all that fun, the chords on "Dos!" levitate Armstrong's personality while pushing Dirnt and Cool in surprising directions. "Makeout Party" has a big-midsong break. "Baby Eyes" flies effortlessly on the wings of rock 'n' roll momentum. "Lazy Bones" has the feel of a Strokes song, with a tinny drum sound and a dancey beat.
Then there's the context. Because of the headlines, we know that the writer behind "Lazy Bones" means it when he sings, "I'm so tired. I can't take it anymore," adding later that "I don't want your sympathy, I don't want your honesty, I just want to get some peace of mind." It resonates because we know the suffering is based in reality. With this knowledge, even jokes and barbs contain more edge.
The temptation, in fact, is to romanticize the imbalanced or addicted artist. Given the knowledge that the lyricist has been struggling through darkness changes the context of listening. Would Syd Barrett's records be as admired if he'd ended up an accountant?
But these questions only add to the allure of "Dos!" — and make the impending release of "Tre!" all the more anticipated.