Review Summary: Three-part symphony of insanity proves to be a game of two halves.
Few bands get to make a truly classic, era-defining record- only a tiny number have the skill or luck to craft two. Green Day’s 1994 album ‘Dookie’ is rightly regarded as a pop-punk pinnacle, helping along with albums by Weezer and the Offspring to fill the hole left by Nirvana’s implosion with balloons and party poppers, thus colouring everything a shade lighter and making hell-for-leather guitar pop the flavour of the hour. In the ensuing years Green Day fell ever deeper into creative and commercial irrelevance, culminating in 2000’s barely-a-blip-on-the-radar ‘Warning’ and an inevitable greatest hits collection.
But then came 2004’s ambitious but excellent ‘American Idiot’, a heart-shaped handgrenade of an album seemingly aimed at the Bush administration but instead landing at the tops of charts and into the stadiums of the world. Somehow, ‘Idiot’ scored a double blow in both making the concept album cool again and propelling its creators to even greater heights than previously. Once again though, following up such a milestone would prove impossible for a band that now had more money than self-control.
‘21st Century Breakdown’ is a mess. A bloated, overcomplicated, occasionally (and excruciatingly) brilliant mess. Taking the already grandiose themes of ‘Idiot’ and inflating them to skyscraper proportions caused several areas of the master-plan to simply collapse under the sheer scale of it all. From the radio crackle of prelude “Song of the Century” to the echoing piano motif of light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel closer “See the Light”, everything about this record screams of an overdose of time and ideas. Four chord punk reached its highest possible level of hugeness on ‘Idiot’, and now on 'Breakdown' the bubble bursts.
So the first song proper, the title track, apes previous album epic ‘Jesus of Suburbia’ for all it’s worth, from the huge distorted chords at the opening to the dreamy, arms-in-the-air conclusion. There’s a nice little Celtic riff in there that could have formed the basis of a great song, but here it’s loss under all the thunder and glitter. Then there’s the unspeakably awful ‘Know Your Enemy’, a mind-numbingly repetitive attempt at a revolutionary anthem that simply doesn’t get anything right. There really are some bad lyrics on this record, but ‘bringing on the fury, the choir infantry’ takes the cake (though the otherwise interesting punk throwback Christian’s Inferno comes close with ‘this diabolic state is gracing my existence, like a catastrophic baby.)
“Murder City”, “The Static Age” and “American Eulogy” are all by-the-numbers pop punk songs that all stand out as not being as good as “St. Jimmy” or “Letterbomb”. The pairing of “Viva La Gloria!” and “Before the Lobotomy is an awful ordering decision as both, despite being actually quite good songs, follow the same blueprint of big melodic intro followed by a cavalcade of distorted guitars. They’re too similar to work well together. There are ballads here as well, of course, and both “Last Night on Earth” and “21 Guns” try to be all earnest and emotive and instead end up coming over as melodramatic, soppy radio drivel for Glee to maul a few months after release.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. For though Billie Joe Armstrong seems to have become a bloated parody of himself in terms of songwriting, his vocals are easily the best he’s ever done, employing falsetto perfectly in some of the softer tracks and singing big melodic choruses as well as ever elsewhere. And though the rhythm section doesn’t stand out as much as on certain other releases, they provide a good groove to back up the songs and are occasionally allowed to shine.
There are a lot of quite bad songs here, but then there are also some rather good ones indeed, mostly around the album’s second third. “Restless Heart Syndrome” is possibly the best song this band have penned since “When I Come Around”, rising from shimmering piano and strings to an incendiary wah-wah solo and huge stomping final chorus, all laced in a dressing of paranoia. “Peacemaker” is another gem, Eastern-European acoustic guitars and a trotting bassline forming something surprisingly fresh and exciting sounding. Both “East Jesus Nowhere” and “Horseshoes and Handgrenades” are brash “Holiday”-esque ragers that hit hard in all the right places, and “Last of the American Girls” is a splendid power-pop peach.
There’s a fantastic mini-album’s worth of material in here. If the band had stopped consciously trying to follow-up ‘American Idiot’, taken a few more risks and kept this under an hour in length, ‘21st Century Breakdown’ could have been a good record. In fact, it could have been a great record, judging it on its finest songs. But including its weaker tracks this proves to be a disappointingly inconsistent follow up to a modern classic. Though perhaps it simply wasn’t to be. Dookie was released in 1994, American Idiot in 2004- maybe it will take Green Day until 2014 to finally release a third masterpiece.