Skipping to the conclusion before the qualifying: ‘21st Century Breakdown’ is an abject failure, a hollow-sounding shadow of the zeitgeist riding, multi-platinum ‘American Idiot’. This is an album that will, given its makers’ status, sell by the million; but on a critical level it falls a long way short of matching the pre-listen hyperbole surrounding its conceptual depth and prolonged gestation. Three years’ work, for this? We’ve been had.
But, before we go any further, please do know that the following words – and, indeed, those you’ve already read – are based on one listen… At the record label headquarters of the band… To one of maybe three copies of this album currently in the country. It could well be that, maybe, ‘21st Century Breakdown’ is a record that’ll click when I least expect it; suddenly, everything here will be struck from the record and I’ll fall over myself to apologise to all involved for tearing this tiresome, preaching-to-the-choir piece of undercooked horseshit the new arsehole it so richly deserves. Yeah, maybe. But I fucking doubt it.
Actually, there’s no way time’s gonna heal this abomination – try to polish it all you want, you’ll just be spreading the same shit around the page in a slightly different shape.
Things do not begin well: we’ve a prologue (and, much later, a reprise of said piece in the album’s penultimate ‘American Eulogy’) which finds frontman Billie Joe Armstrong ditching the shout-along shtick of Green Day old for, y’know, proper emoting. He does this a couple of times across ‘21st Century Breakdown’ – at best it’s a rough impersonation of Elliott Smith, albeit stripped of the sincerity of the late songwriter; at worst, like a really bad singer singing really badly. Soon enough the guitars kick in and everything shifts gears to the traditional minimal-chords chugga pop-punk dust cloud of blinding indifference – while there is a lyrical narrative that progresses across the course of this album, which I’ll come to shortly, musically the record begins as it means to go on: mediocre strum-along middle-road punk for baggy-shorted pimpled kids whose idea of a good time is bull’s-eyeing pixellated hostiles on violent video games.
That said, it’s precisely these kids who made ‘American Idiot’ the amazing success it was back in 2004. For the first time since their 1994 breakthrough album ‘Dookie’, the Californian punks attracted a genuinely new audience, a crowd of fresh-faced recruits who were charmed by the band’s fuck-you-Bush political angle and easy-to-follow electioneering. The band’s high-profile campaigning for change in their homeland - well, the world - endeared them to adult audiences, too, many of whom had forgotten about the group after a series of so-so long-players that lacked any real spark of originality. But, fired by political unrest and a countrywide desire to witness a real revolution, ‘American Idiot’ surpassed all expectations, welcoming a new critical and commercial dawn for Green Day.
Which they’ve been basking in ever since and, if the sound of ‘21st Century Breakdown’ is anything to go by, they’ve been rather reluctant to step back from, into the shade of a slate-cleansed starting-from-scratch policy, preferring instead to sing the same old songs to the same old(er) crowd. The difference is that here minutiae is explored, the grandest of issue shrunk into a sharp focus, via the following of two central characters, Gloria and Christian. We’re introduced to the young couple during the record’s first suite… Sorry, I neglected to mention this album's divided into three key sections, or acts, namely ‘Heroes and Cons’, ‘Charlatans and Saints’, and ‘Horseshoes and Handgrenades’. It is. So there. Where were we?
Oh yes: the characters. Some songs clearly focus upon the trials and tribulations of our two lovers, with direct lyrical (and titular) references; other songs set their sights wider but, in the context of the whole record, serve to aid the narrative flow ‘til the climactic ‘See The Light’. Ultimately it’s your choice whether or not you invest your full attention in this story, and there’s no doubt that having a lyric sheet before you will assist this connection; without one, it becomes laborious to feign the slightest interest in the fortunes of our twin protagonists, as the rattle of raucous repetition sinks into the system with depressing bluntness.
Regarding the song structures on show, as alluded to mere moments ago the most part of ‘21st Century Breakdown’ is made up of well-used and purely basic pop-punk arrangements, the kind Green Day had built their career on prior to ‘American Idiot’ and the sea change that followed in its wake; what it lacks, completely, is a single spark of compositional flair to complement the ambition expressed in its laid-out lyrical scheme. Certain pieces begin in fashions that stir optimism for a left-of-centre stylistic shift – ‘Christian’s Inferno’ opens with a real sinister air, and ‘?Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl)’ initially plays out like an unsettlingly ugly nursery rhyme – but every time a semblance of creative side-stepping comes into view, it’s immediately snatched back by the band and battered into a typical thrash-about offering that we’ve all heard hundreds of times before, by these exact people. It doesn’t hang together brilliantly, to say the least – where there could sit tidy segue moments, tracks end abruptly, seriously damaging the cohesiveness of what’s intended as a record that necessitates listening to from beginning to end. Ambition is one thing, but the elementary requirement for accomplished execution clearly quite another.
Green Day’s previous reputation for potty-mouth observations, be they puerile or potent of politicised vitriol, doesn’t really rear its head ‘til the final act, as ‘The Static Age’ ruins its singles chart potential with an unnecessary expletive; ‘Horseshoes And Handgrenades’ (the track itself) also throws a handful of “fuck”s into the mix which, given Armstrong’s age (37) and personal security and comfort in his career and quality of life (very secure and comfortable), just sounds embarrassing – he’s like your dad covering a Sex Pistols song down the local boozer’s karaoke night after too many bitter shandies. Elsewhere, parallels with bands past can be made, as ‘Peacemaker’ bops to a not-so-Sweet ‘Ballroom Blitz’ backbeat and ‘See The Light’ can easily be held up against KISS’s ‘Rock And Roll All Nite’ so far as its melodic superstructure goes. Lead single ‘Know Your Enemy’ is an obvious introduction, as light as Weezer but packing a little of the bite that characterised Green Day’s previous long-player. It’s among the best songs here, but in no way does it represent any sort of progress.
And it’s that feeling that we’ve been here before, five years ago, that’s the biggest problem with ‘21st Century Breakdown’. I take back some of the earlier nastiness – an abomination it’s not; a turd, nah. It’s just a dull follow-up to a genuinely vital album of its era, and it’s sad that Green Day’s mindset is still so firmly rooted in said time. Granted, this has taken its time to reach release, and during the record’s gestation much has changed, but as Armstrong hollers “I don’t wanna live in the modern world” over and over during ‘American Eulogy’, you can’t help but think: please, change the fucking record already.
This modern world you hate so much has facilitated your success. Dissecting its ills as you perceive them to be has brought you millions of dollars, ensuring that your loved ones need never engage with the problems facing the everyman. Last time out, the public – who wade through the shit you can soar above every day – bought into your clarion calls for change; now, with optimism coursing through the veins of America, much of this album sounds like too little, too late. War is nearly over, one at least; peace and love and understanding is rampant like never before this side of the millennium, in spite of the continued hatred and misunderstanding that serves exclusively to sell tabloid trash. And this you’d realise if you only pulled your head out of your backside for five minutes to smell the roses rather than filling your lungs with the same shit you’ve already had a substantial fill of. Spitting it out now, well, it’s just rude. Breathe in the air, guys: it’s far sweeter than you’re making it out to be. Cheer up. Sing a song about masturbating again.
I mean, at this rate, what’s next: Green Day’s Credit Crunch Rock Opera? Can’t. Fucking. Wait.
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But, hell, you’re allowed to disagree (and this critique is based on one listen only) – click HERE to register with ClashMusic.com and post any comments below (if you’re already signed in, just go for it). For a sneak peek of the new Green Day video for ‘Know Your Enemy’, click HERE.