This is the 21st Century
Green Day Gives Us the Album of Their Lives

Have you noticed that the summer blockbusters come earlier and earlier each year?

We’re not even to Memorial Day yet, and we’ve had three – Wolverine, Star Trek and Angels & Demons. Used to be, you could go from September to the end of May without seeing a single movie in which expensive shit blows up, but now, the crowd-pleasers come early and often. These movies aren’t necessarily bad – Star Trek, in fact, is a lot of fun – but they do follow the same formula: action-packed scripts, filmed with visual flair and marketed as if they were cultural events.

It makes sense, then, that the year’s first musical blockbuster has just hit stores. Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown is almost a guaranteed success: it’s a sequel of sorts (to 2004’s American Idiot), and those always do well, plus it’s a massive, ambitious affair. The whole thing just feels important – not self-important, necessarily, but significant. Plus, this record is going to do very, very well at the box office, as it were.

But is it worth talking about? Most summer blockbusters ride in on a tsunami of hype, bust their blocks for two weeks, and then go away, leaving almost no sign of their passing. Is anyone still talking about last year’s big summer movies? Indiana Jones? The Hulk? Hancock? Even The Dark Knight has all but gone away, in a cultural sense.

The analogy is apt, because Green Day has structured Breakdown like a movie, or at least a play. It’s a 70-minute concept album divided into three acts, with characters and something of a plot. It’s the second time they have done this – Idiot was similarly ambitious, tracking half a dozen different characters as they made their way through George Bush’s America. But this time, the scope is even more cinematic – much of the music on Breakdown sounds made for the big screen.

It’s worth pausing here to remember that this is the same band who once wrote three-chord punk songs about becoming bored with masturbation. If anyone expected this kind of a third act surprise from Green Day, they weren’t talking. This trio faithfully aped Stiff Little Fingers on its first few releases, and hit big with an album actually titled Dookie, and a song that kicked off with the line, “Do you have the time to listen to me whine?”

Put simply, ambition was never their thing. Their follow-up, Insomniac, was so one-note that I couldn’t even name four songs off of it now, and while they did stretch out on 1997’s Nimrod and 2000’s Warning, they came off like a band without a direction. (And if I never hear “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” again, I will die happy.)

Which is why American Idiot was such a surprise. Here was a fully revitalized Green Day, embracing the very thing their punk idols were created to destroy: the prog-rock concept album. Here were nine-minute songs, with subsections denoted by Roman numerals. Here was huge, intense production that took their guitar-bass-drums aesthetic to new heights. Just when they should have started sucking in earnest, they embraced their inner Pete Townshends and delivered their masterpiece.

Except, you know, I didn’t really like American Idiot all that much. The trappings of art-rock were there, but the musical evolution was almost nonexistent. The lengthier suites were just half a dozen two-minute, two-chord punk songs jammed together with no connective tissue, and as much as I liked songs like “Holiday” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” they weren’t any Great Leap Forward.

Much to my surprise, though, I do like 21st Century Breakdown quite a lot.

This is what American Idiot should have been. It retains the essence of Green Day while maturing before our ears, and the ambition that floated on the surface of Idiot is suffused into this one’s bones. I decried Idiot for sticking to Green Day’s established template, but there’s so many different kinds of music on Breakdown that I lost count after a while. And unlike its predecessor, which sagged in the middle and collapsed at the end, this one’s solid all the way through.

Tellingly, the story Breakdown relates is simpler than Idiot’s convoluted tale. Where that one gave us St. Jimmy and Jesus of Suburbia in an attempt to craft a Defining Statement of an Era, this one just follows two kids in love.

Their names are Christian and Gloria. He is a hotheaded punk with a violent streak, she is a hopeful soul with dreams of harmony. The album is a series of impressions, with a faltering, dying world as a backdrop, and it becomes about holding on to the things you love while everything is crumbling around you. Cliched? Sure. Effective? You bet. Green Day clearly set out to make an iconic reflection of our times, and I think they have.

That doesn’t mean Breakdown is insightful. For the most part, it isn’t. But it is serious-minded, and its grand-scale music works in its favor. The first act (Heroes and Cons) is the weakest, but still remarkably strong – the album opens with the minute-long a cappella overture “Song of the Century” before slamming into the multi-part title track. In five minutes, we pass through a U2-ish piano-guitar opening, a three-chord singalong, a Who-esque breakdown, a nearly Celtic middle section reminiscent of the Dropkick Murphys, and a finale that reminds me of Mott the Hoople. It’s a tour-de-force call to arms.

Things even out from there – the punky stomp of “Know Your Enemy” sets the tone for two songs with false beginnings. You’re going to think “Before the Lobotomy” is this album’s sickly acoustic ballad, until the splendid guitar riff cranks up. (Spoiler: there is no sickly acoustic ballad on this album. Hurrah!) “Last Night on Earth” is actually the slow one, but this tune goes full John Lennon (or at least Julian Lennon), all pretty pianos and wondrous melodies.

It’s the second act, Charlatans and Heroes, that really catches fire. “East Jesus Nowhere” may be the best rock song in this band’s catalog, its lyrics a diatribe against organized religion: “Bless me Lord, for I have sinned, it’s been a lifetime since I last confessed, I threw my crutches in the river of a shadow of doubt, and I’ll be dressed up in my Sunday best.” But hang on, because next we get Mariachi rockabilly (“Peacemaker”), Weezer-esque pop (“Last of the American Girls”), Klezmer-punk (“Viva La Gloria”) and an absolutely awesome slice of ELO balladry (“Restless Heart Syndrome”).

The third act (Horseshoes and Handgrenades) may be less diverse, but it is the most consistent, and most important. It is here that Billie Joe Armstrong ties his disparate threads together – where American Idiot fell apart in its final moments, 21st Century Breakdown coalesces, and the weaving together of themes makes all the difference. “21 Guns” is, musically, the closest Green Day come to re-writing “Boulevard” here, but lyrically, it brings into focus the album’s central question – what is worth fighting for? “Lay down your arms, give up the fight,” Armstrong sings, his characters tired of taking on the world.

The two-part “American Eulogy” starts with a reprise of “Song of the Century,” then explodes, as Christian and Gloria bid the modern world goodbye in a thunderous four and a half minutes. It all ends in an explosion, and then the piano part that kicked off the title track shimmies back in for the final song, “See the Light.” A simple singalong, this tune ends things on a hopeful note, our two characters clinging on to each other and looking for reasons to keep going. “I just want to see the light, I need to know what’s worth the fight,” Armstrong sings, over the thing his band does best after all – a three-chord rock stomp. You almost want more of a finale, but since it’s not really the end for our characters, it feels right.

Breakdown is an extremely quick 70 minutes, practically exploding with creative fire and energy. It will also be remembered as the moment when this band completed its transformation from college goofballs to full-fledged icons. American Idiot found Green Day clinging to their past, and dressing up in Pete Townshend’s clothes, but Breakdown finds those clothes a perfect, lived-in fit.

Is it an important album? I find it hard to classify 21st Century Breakdown as a pop cultural watershed moment, but I think people will be talking about it long after the summer of 2009. While this album is not as immediate (and may not be as overwhelmingly popular) as American Idiot, it represents the giant step forward its predecessor merely promised. Far from a Breakdown, this album fully solidifies Green Day’s place as a band finally (finally!) worth paying attention to.

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From a summer blockbuster perspective, I should be excited about the next couple of weeks in music. But I’m not.

This week, we got Tori Amos’ Abnormally Attracted to Sin, an album title I can barely even type without retching. It’s not good. I will talk about it next week, but let’s just say right now that American Doll Posse was a fluke. Also, we got Eminem’s comeback album, Relapse, which is… interesting. More on that once I’ve fully absorbed it. And we got former Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle’s first solo album, which sounds an awful lot like Grandaddy. That’s not a bad thing, but it is a predictable one.

Next week, Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest hits. The internet’s in a tizzy about this one, but what I’ve heard hasn’t been too inspiring. And Marilyn Manson returns from wherever he’s been with The High End of Low. The week after that, it’s Elvis Costello doing bluegrass, the Eels getting back to fuzzy rock, Franz Ferdinand doing dub versions of the songs from their new album, and “supergroup” Chickenfoot rocking like it’s 1989. Lots of stuff, none of it very exciting. I’m most looking forward to the new Dave Matthews Band, actually.

I’m also still processing the fifth-season finale of Lost. Thoughts on that next week, I believe, coupled with a look at Tori’s still-declining career. Is there anything coming out soon that’s thrilling you guys out there? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Meanwhile, I’m off to listen to Green Day again.

See you in line Tuesday morning.