Review Summary: American Idiot was the album that saw Green Day 'grow up' a little bit, and begin to write pop-rock songs that genuinely had something new, and immensely enjoyable, to offer.
Green Day are a tricky subject for me. They were arguably my 'gateway band;' the artist that bridged the gap between the generic pop music of my youth and the metal, indie and various other genres that make up my taste now. If they were the band that did this, American Idiot was most definitely the album. While it boasts only a 3.2 average rating on this here site, American Idiot manages to rise so far above the comparative rubble that makes up the rest of Green Day's discography, that it still stands up today as being genuinely excellent in its own right, gateway album or not.
The key difference between American Idiot and all of Green Day's previous albums is the simple fact that they'd matured. Admittedly, it's not hard to mature from writing songs about marijuana and masturbation, but this album does present a marked step up in lyricism from frontman Billie Joe Armstrong. Sure, the whole concept of this album is a little contrived; it's a fairly typical 'boy-meets-girl' story, with some fairly cringey moments, but if you ignore the fairly lame overriding concept and just focus on the individual lyrics of the songs, then there's a lot of good stuff to be found here.
That's not to say that the immaturity is gone; I suppose without it, 'hardcore' Green Day fans would have disowned the album, which, even though it is a bad thing, was basically inevitable. The title track opens the album with what is probably the most one-dimensional anti-Bush parade that the former President suffered in his whole career, but it at least works nicely as a setup for the rest of the album. St. Jimmy, too, is gleefully childish, but for once this immaturity works in Green Day's favour, lending the song the kind of insane, overly-energetic and ADD vibe that makes it such a fun listen.
But other than a few hiccups, this album consists of surprisingly great tracks, coming from a band whose last release before this one was a B-Sides collection that reinforced how close to burning out the group was. The second track, Jesus Of Suburbia, is where the album really picks up, and is probably actually the high point of the band's entire career. This nine minute pop-rock epic showcases everything great about American Idiot as an album, featuring some interesting musical ideas (only some, but that's still an improvement), some superb lyrics and some of the best sing along sections from a band renowned for their ability at crafting anthemic hits. I say there's 'only some' musical improvements, as it's still firmly inside the confines of pop rock, but Green Day manage, here, to do with the genre what few others before them have been able to do; create a genuinely fresh-sounding piece of work, that more than justifies its considerable length. They manage to mix up the tried and tested formula of 'power chord riffs, rinse and repeat' to make some interesting new sounds out of it, which makes it even more impressive.
The other high point of the album is, fittingly, the penultimate track Homecoming, which is also nine minutes long. Whilst featuring a few weak sections (unlike Jesus Of Suburbia) Homecoming still serves as a great close to the album proper, before Whatsername wraps things up in a suitably epic manner. Jesus Of Suburbia and Homecoming are the two Green Day tracks that I often see haters citing as the two songs that they genuinely love, and with good reason; they're pop-rock epics, written by a newly rejuvenated pop-rock band at the top of their game.
Whilst the two 'long songs' are the clear centerpieces of American Idiot, that's not to say that the rest of the album is filler. On the contrary, Holiday is a rousing punky number that doesn't reinvent the wheel, but is a definite crowd pleaser that always makes for an enjoyable listen. The aforementioned St. Jimmy is basically the 'old Green Day' style, but with added finesse and focus, manages to cram one of the band's most breakneck series of riffs into a mini-epic that leaves the listener both exhausted and grinning. The tenth track, Letterbomb, seems to be the most overlooked song on the album by fans, but is another great energetic song that combines the supposed 'anger' and urgency of pre-American Idiot Green Day with their newfound restraint and lyrical prowess. Sure, for every Letterbomb there's a Wake Me Up When September Ends, but even that is fairly good at what it does; a pop ballad that doesn't aspire to do anything new, just consolidate Green Day's position as premier teenage-anthem-makers of the world.
And frankly, on American Idiot, I'm inclined to let Green Day off for the obligatory inclusion of at least a few songs written specifically for radio success, because, on the whole, American Idiot sees Green Day genuinely trying to reinvent themselves, if not a huge amount musically, into a band that had 'grown up' a little, and were capable of more than their critics derided them for. And on a more personal note, I'll always have to thank American Idiot for being the album that truly expanded my horizons, and made me into the music fanatic that I am today. But the best thing about this album is, even after I've taken off my rose-tinted glasses, American Idiot still stands up as being in the top of its crowded field, and it manages to be that rarest of things; a pop-rock album with genuine brains.