Green Day: 21st Century Breakdown (Reprise)
There is much to praise about Green Day's eighth studio album and first with producer Butch Vig (who helmed, most notably, Nirvana's Nevermind). The album expands upon the pop-punk, rock-opera formula established with 2004's American Idiot. However, where American Idiot was conceptually a gospel of generalizations aimed at "President Gasman" and the American public, 21st Century Breakdown's commentary is particular and pointed, and deals primarily with the role of the individual in a disconnected, technologically globalized modern era.
This specific micro-focus results in the most personal and thought-provoking Green Day release to date. 21st Century Breakdown is divided into three acts ("Heroes and Cons," "Charlatans and Saints," and "Horseshoes and Handgrenades") and follows the relationship between protagonists Christian and Gloria in modern Detroit. "I look at Christian and Gloria," says Billie Joe Armstrong, "and it's me. Gloria is one side: this person trying to hold on to this sense of belief, still trying to do good. Whereas Christian is deep into his own demons and victimizing himself over that." Without interviews and forums to explicate this concept, however, it is impossible to discern the distinct movements and narrative complexities of the album as a whole. The record is like looking through a stack of photographs; whatever narrative may emerge from the disparate, puzzle-piece songs is subjective and completely at the mercy of the listener.
Conceptual ambiguity is the main flaw of 21st Century Breakdown, though perhaps such haziness is the underlying theme of the record (buzz words and aesthetically pleasing phrases sometimes obscure whatever Armstrong is trying to say). American Idiot was released at the height of political abuse and public apathy, and most finger-pointing on that album is aimed at the actions and inactions of America and the Bush administration. Five years later, in a seemingly polar political and socio-economical climate, Billie Joe is unable to find such an explicit figurehead for his semantic-punk onslaught. In the first single from 21st Century Breakdown ("Know Your Enemy," a catchy mirror-image of all Green Day lead-off singles), Armstrong repeatedly asks, "Do you know your enemy?" before expounding near the end of the song that "silence is the enemy."
Whereas American Idiot was a call to action, 21st Century Breakdown is a call to discussion. It shows ambition and great restraint that Billie Joe does not use the word "anarchy" a single time in "Know Your Enemy" (though it would have fit perfectly into the rhyme scheme of the song). Armstrong is a punk at heart, but his ideology has adapted and evolved to thrive in the modern world; his new punk-archaetype strives to fix the American system from the inside out.
With 21st Century Breakdown, Green Day defines the present by reconciling the three-chord pop-punk of the past with the ambitious and experimental song-structures of the future. Most ballads on the album are better than "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," especially stand-out "Last Night on Earth," where Armstrong channels Wings-era Paul McCartney. "Viva La Gloria (Little Girl)" begins with Billie Joe apparently accompanied only by harpsichord, before launching into more traditional instrumentation that would not be out of place on American Idiot or 2000's underrated Warning. On second single "21 Guns" (from the new Transformers soundtrack), Armstrong sings notable portions of the song in falsetto; this is the first time in the entire Green Day catalog that Armstrong does so (he does this twice on 21st Century Breakdown). Second Act highlight "Last of the American Girls" finds the band experimenting with counter-melodies and Beach Boys harmonies.
With so many highlights, it is easy to forgive and forget the few missteps. Lyrically, the album holds the most pointed social commentary of Billie Joe's twenty-two year career. Musically, the structures and arrangements of the songs are diverse without feeling disconnected. Conceptually, the album succeeds more in theory than in practice, though it expands in most every way on its predecessor's concept. 21st Century Breakdown is relevant, thought-provoking, and, at its heart, is a very fun, listenable record from the most mainstream punks in the world. - Adam Kritzer
Mr. Kritzer travels the globe -- or at least NYC -- looking for revelatory moments of musical bliss.