Abel Tesfaye's dark, twisted album is at odds with the glossy pop world he's been thrust into
Album review: Green Day
21st Century Breakdown
Green Day: Grand Masters of the post-punk concept album, arch social satirists, counter-culture insurrectionists, a Who for g-g-g-generation zero. Duh, who’da thunk it? Three gonk-rock basketcases whose most political action in the 1990s was to catch each others’ flob in their mouths, reborn as the studded wristband against the throat of the capitalist pigdogs? You’d as likely believe that Iglu & Hartly might one day free Tibet. Yet here it is, Green Day’s second hour-long, multi-act, state-of-the-generation concept album in five years. And with the musical of 2004’s anti-conformist morality tale ‘American Idiot’ jazz-handing its way towards a stage near you soon, ‘21st Century Breakdown’ takes a broader swipe at our bloodthirsty decade. It’s badly timed – if ‘American Idiot’ was an uncertain jab to the solar plexus of Bush’s America, ‘21st Century Breakdown’ and its nihilistic talk of bombs, blood, guns, riots, revolution, desperation and despair seems out of touch with the current rush of Obama optimism. But as a metaphor and summation of the most fearful and troubled decade this side of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and of Bush’s devastating global legacy, the gonks might just have put their quintessential donk on it.
First, the story, or what we can gather of it. In Act I, ‘Heroes And Cons’, we’re introduced to Christian, a welfare child of the refineries, “born into Nixon… raised in hell”, and his scarred girlfriend Gloria, “the one that’s fallen through the cracks”. Are they disillusioned? Does the Pope’s stance on contraception shit on African AIDS babies? “I praise liberty/The freedom to obey” Billie Joe Armstrong snarls in opener ‘Song Of The Century/21st Century Breakdown’, “Scream, America scream/Believe what you see from heroes and cons?”. “Revolt against the honour to obey”, he chants on rabble-rousing first single ‘Know Your Enemy’, “Overthrow the effigy/The vast majority/Burning down the foreman of control”. Through the latter half of Act I and into ‘Charlatans And Saints’ we follow the pair through apocalyptic scenes resembling 9/11 (‘Christian’s Inferno’, ‘Last Night On Earth’) and the Iraqi war (‘Peacemaker’) before they wind up, in Act III ‘Horseshoes And Handgrenades’, medicated and self-destructive, bewailing the chaos and hysteria of 21st Century America in ‘The Static Age’ and ‘American Eulogy’. Christian and Gloria survive the nefarious noughties – just – and emerge beaten, broken and bent on revenge.
A bitter pill for flag-salutin’ numbskull America to swallow, for sure, and it’s to Green Day’s credit that they sugar it with every trick in the rock-opera book, from the crackling radio intro of ‘Song Of The Century’ to the chink of redemption in the finale ‘See The Light’. The 70-minute running time rarely drags with riff-rock repetition as they branch away from the punk-pop formula of ‘American Idiot’ to manhandle most of the obvious arena acts into the mix, with the help of producer Butch Vig’s up-to-11 crunch. The six-minute title track might have been ripped straight out of Prog Punk For Dummies, kicking in with Meat Loaf-doing-‘Tommy’ pianos before veering into a ska jig and finishing in a full-on ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ slow-down. ‘Know Your Enemy’ is pure Kiss/Mötley Crüe glam while both ‘¡Viva La Gloria!’ and ‘Before The Lobotomy’ preface their Weezer-meet-the-Manics thunderchug guitar bits with balladesque intros resembling Billy Joel and ‘Stairway To Heaven’ respectively.
Dumb? Uh-yuh. Obvious? H-yuck. Flagrantly mainstream? Oooh yes. But as ‘Last Night On Earth’ wraps its vision of Armageddon in the soothing blankets of a rather marvellous ELO ballad from 1976 and ‘Last Of The American Girls’ spins its Tom Petty college pop-style on its head by cooing Grease-ishly about a paranoid conspiracy theorist cheerleader for “the end of western civilisation”, the subversive power of the over-familiar becomes clear. Crass and stoopid it may sound, but that’s the point: ‘21st Century Breakdown’ is an important record in the same way that The Da Vinci Code was an important book. Let the squat punks yell anarchy as loudly as they can, let REM cloud their ‘subversive’ liberalism in intellectual puff – it’s only by couching simple social and political truths in the language of mass commercial consumerism that anyone’s mind gets changed. Dan Brown informed the world’s airport-novel-guzzling morons of the lies and hypocrisies at the core of Christianity; likewise Green Day have given us a revolutionary manifesto for
a nation of Bud-chugging jocks. And unlike ‘Born In The USA’, there’s no nationalist misreading to be found in ‘Know Your Enemy’’s “Violence is an energy/Silence is the enemy/So gimme gimme revolution”.
And so it continues, rebellion hand-in-hand with radio-friendly, massaging its message for the masses. ‘East Jesus Nowhere’ (hello Marilyn Manson) tackles the emptiness of religion and its effect on war and genocide. ‘Peacemaker’ (Ennio Morricone) references Gaza, Jihad and Molotov cocktails. ‘Restless Heart Syndrome’ (Oasis, Procul Harum, squeally Muse bit at the end) reflects the numbness of madness and medication and ‘Horseshoes And Handgrenades’ (The Hives’ ‘Main Offender’) advocates sheer, unrelenting annihilation.
Where Act III should descend into indulgent rock-opera pomp and half-hour goblin solos, it’s tight, flashy and full of gnashing pop hits – ‘The Static Age’ is a middle-ground between The Strokes and Blink 182 while ‘American Eulogy’, the concept album’s trademark Epic Wrap-Up, manages to crush its compulsory three songs and repeated refrains from previous tracks into a cracking four minutes. We’re left with
a sprawling, obvious, über-commercial, stoopid punk-pop album that might just stop five million American idiots from voting for a war-mongering Republican baby-slaughterer when they grow up. Works for me.
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