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Green Day's New Album 21st Century Breakdown Reviewed Track By Track
Toby Cook , April 24th, 2009 15:36

Part 1: Heroes And Cons

Song Of The Century / 21st Century Breakdown

So, here we go: a rock opera centred around a young couple — Christian and Gloria — as they make their way through the “mess and promise of the century so far”, in three parts. Should be interesting!

Radio static, accompanied by Billy Joe’s hushed distorted vocals, coalesces into a very un-Green Day harpsichord refrain, before more familiar power chords come in. This takes you out of ‘Song Of The Century’ and into ‘21st Century Breakdown’. Barring the introduction, this could have been lifted straight off American Idiot — but if it aint broke? Given their mastery of three-minute, fist-pumping pop punk, by the time the song is five and a half minutes long the last thing you’d expect to hear is Journey-esque, MOR soft rock. But that’s what happens. As clichéd as it is to say, this is a statement of intent — in recent interviews Armstrong went to great lengths to emphasise that 21st Century Breakdown would not be an out-and-out punk album. He wasn’t lying, and that’s a good thing, as this is a great start.

Know Your Enemy

The first single, and the initial feel is that that this is basically a less cynical ‘American Idiot’. One obvious hurdle for Green Day and their current socio-political commentary-based song writing is that, lets face it, the Bush administration were easy targets. The current regime are less so. (For how long though? Ed) But juxtaposed with the pomp and pretence of the preceding track it works well, and if you're 15 years old and pissed off at everybody you’ll love it. (What about if you're 37-years-old and pissed off at everybody? Ed)

!Viva La Gloria!

Allegedly, Bruce Springsteen was a major influence on Armstrong’s writing during the making of this record, and nowhere is the Boss’s influence felt more than in the opening bars of ‘!Viva La Gloria!’. It's almost an homage to ‘Jungleland’, piano and a lone violin augmenting Armstrong’s rasp before making way for a furious blast of classic three-chord punk. It’s repetitive, but so what? It works. It really, really works.

Before The Lobotomy

What the fuck is this? A ballad? Green Day, doing a ballad? I suppose an album whose whole concept revolves around a young couple’s struggles through life has to have at least one Kleenex moment — but I’m not sure this is the time or the place. Green Day have of course shown their softer side in the past, but ‘Time Of Your Life’ this aint. A lightly strummed steel guitar is soon overwhelmed as the track builds to a grandiose climax, reminiscent of ‘Are We The Waiting?’, but here Armstrong’s laments of working class life feel very forced.

Christian's Inferno

Or perhaps Green Day go Nine Inch Nails? The heavily compressed and distorted drum loop that precedes a more obviously punk track, could easily have been pilfered straight out of Trent Reznor’s collection of cast-offs. Without doubt, this is as angry as Green Day have been for a while, and whatever Billy Joe is pissed of about, it actually sounds genuine. Full of “whoa-oh’s”, jangling, overdriven guitars rev up the tempo before applying the breaks and propelling you through the windscreen.

Last Night On Earth

Thankfully, having gone through the windscreen, your battered torso and semi-detached limbs land in ‘Last Night On Earth’, which is like landing in a Radox bath run by Lennon and McCartney. Presumably Armstrong and co dug out a copy of Let It Be, and left it on repeat during the writing sessions for 21st Century Breakdown. Make no mistake, this is NOT punk (which probably makes it more punk?!). A gutsy piano opening and acoustic and slide guitars added to high register vocal harmonies . . . this is Beatles, Beatles, Beatles.

Part 2: Charlatans And Saints

East Jesus Nowhere

More radio static and station hopping — similar to that used throughout QOTSA’s Songs For The Deaf — signifies that we’ve now moved onto the topic of religion. (Although there are subtler ways to announce it that having a radio announcer state: “And we will see how godless a nation we have become”). Despite moving to solidify their status as a rock group, rather than a punk band, stylistically ‘East Jesus Nowhere’ harks way back to the days of Dookie. Again, religious institutions are a pretty easy target but this song has a specific audience in mind.


Or: Green Day go Mariachi. No: Green Day go Oompah. No: Mariachi Oompah. Ah, fuck it — I’m confused. Considering that for the most part Warning was the album that threatened to kill off Green Day’s career, why they would want to revisit its garbled collection of musical styles is beyond me. Having said that, as ‘Peacemaker’ progresses it morphs in a sort of sleazy desert rock number that wouldn’t look out of place covering a montage scene in a Tarantino movie.

Last Of The American Girls

Considering what came immediately before, ‘Last Of The American Girls’ feels more than a little throwaway. It’s simplistic, up-beat pop-punk that does what it says on the tin. Which is to say it wedges in as many times as possible, in the space of three minutes, the phrase “last of the American girls”.

Murder City

Thwack! I’m not sure if it’s Tré Cool or Giant Haystacks battering out the opening snare roll here; that's how powerful and penetrating it is. Annoyingly, despite an opening that suggests great things, the track soon sinks into being the most obviously pop-punk number so far. As palm-muted power chords lead the verse, only to be un-muted for the chorus, I can’t help but think this is Blink 182 rather than Green Day. However, we should be beholden to Armstrong for not complimenting the music with lyrics about farting or not being able to behave properly at the cinema with your girlfriend because you’re a fucking moron.

?Viva La Gloria?

A heavy Beatles influence is again felt as ‘?Viva La Gloria?’ opens, but incredibly the main source of inspiration here seems to be ‘Rocky Racoon’. The honky-tonk piano riff that starts the track is nothing short of inspired — the fact that somehow the band manage to assimilate that into more power chord pop-rock is absolute genius. Once again, parts of the number could be pilfered for use in a Tarantino soundtrack, as this is undeniably the most, well, fun song Green Day have produced in a long time. The fact that it's so refreshingly different to anything on American Idiot only makes me like it more.

Restless Heart Syndrome

More Abbey Road/Let It Be-era Beatles-tinged orchestration and piano chords open things, before Armstrong cracks out the acoustic for what is for the most part a pretty cheesy number. Upon the release of American Idiot Noel ‘I need some attention as my band is about to release another cack album’ Gallagher lambasted Green Day for ripping off ‘Wonderwall’ on the track ‘Boulevard Of Broken Dream’; I can’t help but think this is, in part, an attempt to wind him up again. A truly epic string arrangement fades in and out towards the close, backing up frenetic Wah Wah lead guitars.

Part 3: Horseshoes And Handgrenades

Horseshoes And Handgrenades

And so we enter the home-straight. The sound of soldiers marching builds to the moment that Armstrong declares: “I’m not fucking around!” And clearly he isn’t. Reminiscent in style of Nimrod's ‘Reject’, ‘Horseshoes And Handgrenades’ is simply fast, frantic, unrelenting punk — with added screaming just for good measure.

The Static Age

Another track that could have come from American Idiot, ‘The Static Age’ overdoses you on ‘hey heys’ and ‘woah woahs’ before pummelling you with that standard of pop-punk guitar playing: the route and octave riff. “I can’t see a thing in the video, I can’t hear a sound on the radio” bemoans Armstrong, though considering the barrage of media attention that the group received post American Idiot, taking a pop at media institutions seems both unwise and insincere.

21 Guns

'21 Guns’, given its subject matter, bears little, if any, resemblance to the rather turgid ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’. In fact, soft sustained synth notes start things off as the unmistakable twang of an Hawaiian slide guitar hovers low in the mix. For the first time, well, pretty much ever, Billy Joe actually seems to be pushing himself a vocalist and, dare I say it, singer. His range is as striking as it is impressive and while I doubt that he’ll ever reach a high C, his Thom Yorke-style wail during parts of the chorus is immaculate. Don’t be surprised if this is released as a single.

American Eulogy

As we hit the penultimate fable it's an unfortunate discovery that the ghosts of Warning are again surfacing. ‘American Eulogy’ is essentially a revamped ‘Minority’ sans the acoustic intro. It’s fast, fist-pumping and will go down a storm live with its “I don’t wanna live in the modern world” chant.

See The Light

Springsteen's ‘Thunder Road’. I know it sounds stupid, but that’s what comes to mind about a bar and a half into the closing track of Green Day's rock opera odyssey. The honky-tonk piano rears its head and, although it's not the best choice for an album closer, the surprisingly melancholic feel provides a nice bookend, complementing the album's opening, radio static-led ‘Song of the Century’.

It’s fair to say that Green Day have pushed themselves with 21st Century Breakdown. If you'd been plagued by visions of some Warner exec waving a wad of dollar bills in their direction, shouting: “Look, look, just re-hash American Idiot and all this can be yours!” thankfully, for the most part, you can rest reassured that Green Day have ignored this temptation. And 21st Century Breakdown is all the better for it.