Review Summary: Not Dookie, Not American Idiot either. Unambitious, but quite good fun.
Since 2004, the Green Day star has risen beyond basically any other punk band (and most bands of any other genre) on the planet. 'American Idiot' was, in short, a lyrical and musical masterpiece. It is therefore quite difficult to see how Billie Joe Armstrong could go beyond gems like 'Letterbomb' or 'Jesus of Suburbia' without alienating, embarrassing or changing what fans of Green Day associate with the band.
And so it proved on !UNO!, which predictably falls short of 'American Idiot' musically and creatively. It lacks the effort even of '21st Century Breakdown', in which Green Day served up a lofty attempt at 'American Idiot 2.0' and failed - but still got points for trying. Their latest offering is 12 tracks which never dazzle or amaze either as a step forward in the way that American Idiot was, or a return to a sound that was last seen properly around 1997 with 'Nimrod'. !UNO! is reminiscent of 2000's 'Warning', which effectively saw Billie Joe pack up his Les Paul and get out the acoustic guitar full-time for 40 minutes of superficially enjoyable but ultimately unexciting radio-pop. !UNO! is far more upbeat and loud, but is far from the 'roots' that Billie Joe talked of returning to when announcing the trilogy of albums last year. It's not 'Dookie', it's not even 'Insomniac'.
Nevertheless, !UNO! is an album that undoubtedly feels easy on the ear and isn't actively bad. It's not going anywhere definite, and there's no statement of intent, but it's a good time all the same. 'Nuclear Family' is a promising opener, and is as close to 1994 as Green Day get on this one. It's simple, it's bouncy and it's incredibly catchy in a faux-punk sort of way. 'Let Yourself Go' is similar, but the unimaginative and frankly childish lyrics about 'not giving a damn' are a poor imitation of Armstrong's former lyrical self. These two are about the only tracks on the record that justify the 'punk' genre that iTunes charitably gave to !UNO!.
Though, given the transition that the 2000s have seen in Green Day, this isn't much of a surprise, and in fact isn't such a bad thing anyway. The album's best tracks have shades of American Idiot, and are better for it. The pop sensibilities show through in sweet backing vocals, predictably easy chords and vocal honesty. 'Stay the Night' is arguably the album's best moment, as it maintains Green Day's trademark four-chord buoyant tone, while adding a memorable and simplistic melody about unrequited love. It's classic Armstrong, and it sees him near, but not quite at, his best. 'Fell For You' and 'Sweet 16' are along the same vein, and channel sickly-sweet 60s grooves. The latter does especially, floating cheerily through the verses into a nonchalant solo that leaves a smile but isn't necessarily inspiring.
Several of !UNO!'s sections are frankly weird and unnecessary. 'Kill the DJ' seems to be paying strange homage to the Clash's reggae/ska leanings, while 'Troublemaker' represents some of Armstrong's most bizarre and disappointing lyricism to date ('I like your BMW/I like your BM-excellent tits/With a tattoo of a pig sniffing glue'). Though it would be nice to think that these, along with the cringeworthy, faux-inspirational lyrics of 'Carpe Diem' were an exploration or musical progression from Armstrong, it's more likely that the frontman has either run out of things to write about, or is just trying too hard.
Overall, !UNO! is about what one could expect from a band still coming down from the heights of what could be called a near-perfect 2004 comeback. It lacks the same effort, intensity and enthusiasm that their previous two records possessed in droves, but it must be remembered that rock operas aren't actually the normal way to put out albums. !UNO! reminds us that there is such a thing as a standard 12 song record, and it's actually pretty enjoyable. Disappointment at the lack of ambition or direction abounds, but if you're after an accessible collection of songs, you'll probably be pretty happy.
'Stay the Night'