East Bay Area natives Green Day have gotten a lot of criticism for “selling out.” Growing up in Northern California, surrounded by a thriving punk rock scene in Berkeley, it seemed that the band would follow suit in the same vein as the area’s Operation Ivy or Jawbreaker.
The future of guitarist and vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and former drummer John Kiffmeyer was directed to punk after gaining the attention of independent record label Lookout! Records.
But as Green Day’s success exploded, major label interest in its music also grew. Soon enough the band relented, introducing its three-chord brand of punk-pop to the masses under a major label — a punk rock no-no. Green Day’s old-school fans and friends felt betrayed, hurt and abandoned.
To Green Day, it didn’t matter.
“Dookie,” its major label debut, had five hit singles, sold over 15 million copies and even earned the band a Grammy award for Best Alternative Music Album.
That was the mid-1990s.
Fifteen years later, with the release of another new record, it’s obvious that Green Day has not looked back to its punk roots. Last Friday, the band released its anticipated follow-up to the experimental “American Idiot” with “21st Century Breakdown.”
The record starts with a lo-fi radio communiqué, which sounds like someone’s dying anthem: “Sing us a song of the century / That’s louder than bombs and eternity.” The song brings to mind “American Idiot” as it leads into the verse-chorus-verse of “21st Century Breakdown.” The song is nothing new, glittering with a different combination of the same three guitar chords and melodic hooks.
“Know your Enemy,” the band’s first single, calls its listeners to, well, do just that. As Armstrong repeats his question, “Do you know the enemy? / Do you know your enemy? / Well, gotta know the enemy,” he tries to wake the consciousness of the band’s inactive listeners. The repetition is evocative, filled with frustration and anger about the potential to change something, though Armstrong never alludes to what this something is. Its pop tendencies are bound to make the song a radio smash.
With slow ballads, or at least songs that briefly remain subdued, like “Viva La Gloria,” “Before the Lobotomy” or “Last Night on Earth,” Green Day tries to tone down its blistering speed. Armstrong even explores and expands his own vocal range. Listeners get to hear a side of him that is gentle, sincere and emotional.
Green Day later strips down its methodical songwriting and settles for unfiltered grime in “Christian Inferno.” Cool bangs on what sounds like a trash can for a snare, and Armstrong lazily slurs his words like Rancid’s Tim Armstrong (no relation). The verses are laced with Dirnt’s heavy bass picking, and sound like the boys listened to a Transplants album before they recorded the song. The song soon fizzles into something more ordinary than its beginning, making it apparent that “Inferno” is just another Green Day song.
Most records get lost in their centers, but it’s here that “21st Century Breakdown” peaks. “East Jesus Nowhere” crashes and explodes, with a sing-shout-sing combination that is still, surprisingly, enjoyable. The lyrics are even more stinging: “Don’t test me / Second guess me / Protest me / You will disappear.” This song seems to have been written with the live show in mind; the second verse marches along to handclaps and a steady, undulating bass line that will convince anyone listening to clap along.
“Peacemaker” hits the ground running and begins with hypnotizing acoustic guitar strumming. The track sounds like it was taken straight from a Western film, or at least one that Quentin Tarantino directed. The song’s Spanish flare gives “Peacemaker” its appeal, and Armstrong even rolls the “r” in serenade before the song screeches into an end.
Overall, “21st Century Breakdown” doesn’t stray from the Green Day sound that many have come to love. But it’s this reason that makes it seem that the band is stuck with its foot on the gas. However, this record shows that hitting the brakes with slower tracks is not enough. Without the flare of Green Day’s live show, it’s best to leave this album on the rewwcord store shelf.