First Listen: Green Day's '21st Century Breakdown'

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Green Day
WRITTEN BY
William Goodman

UPDATE: Read the magazine review here.

Green Day's 21st Century Breakdown, one of 2009's most-anticipated records, releases in May. Yesterday, reps from the band's label, Warner Bros., swung by SPIN's lower Manhattan office to play us six of the album's 16 tracks and feed us a bucket of fried chicken.

Our verdict? We love it. (The chicken was pretty good, too.)

In the six songs, Green Day keep their punk urgency and lyrical angst, but expand their ambition. They use dramatic musical shifts reminiscent of Queen, and Who-like classic rock guitars. There's even a poignant piano ballad that Fiona Apple could love.

Billie Joe Armstrong's vocals push towards falsetto, adding a new level of emotion to his singing.

And his lyrics mix the political with the social, depicting marginal characters betrayed by church and state. Focusing on greed, corrupted religion, and war, the conceptual album is broken into three parts: Heroes and Cons, Charlatans and Saints, and Horseshoes and Handgrenades.

21st Century Breakdown, the follow-up to 2004's Grammy-winning American Idiot, took Armstrong three years to write. The band has been in the studio with producer Butch Vig (Nirvana, Against Me!) since last fall.

Here are some highlights from the six tracks we heard:

"21st Century Breakdown" Green Day's most epic song yet. With the quiet-verse, loud-chorus dynamics of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," this five-minute cut builds from harpsichord and Edge-like guitar fills to assaultive drums and arena-filling barre chords. Armstrong's lyrics about his peers are as urgent as the music: "My generation is zero / I never made it as a working class hero. Dream America, dream / Scream America, scream."

"Know Your Enemy"
The song's fast pace and feverish guitar make this track sound like an outtake from the Dookie sessions. And Armstrong continues his political screed: "Do you know the enemy / "Silence is the enemy so give me revolution."

"Before the Lobotomy"
Armstrong sings like you've never heard him before. Strumming an acoustic guitar, he hits all the high notes, as his lyrics lament a character in such pain his "misery [is] drenched in gasoline."

"March of the Dogs"
Handclaps, surf guitar, lyrics about sodomized dogs -- all accompanying a scathing indictment of contemporary religion. Hard and fast from start to finish, this spiky four-and-a-half-minute tune finds Armstrong ranting, "I threw my conscience in the river in the shadow of doubt," referencing the famous Biblical passage, Psalm 23:4, which reads, "I will walk through the valley of the shadow of death... I will fear no evil."

"Restless Heart Syndrome"
Green Day's largest sonic departure yet. With quiet piano and confessional lyrics ("I've got a really bad disease / Its got me on my hands and knees") Armstrong channels Fiona Apple. Until the Linkin Park-style guitars kick in.

"21 Guns"
The catchiest of the new songs. This track covers a lot of territory in its five minutes, from a solo acoustic guitar (reminiscent of "Boulevard of Broken Dreams") to Brian May-worthy electric riffage. But the chorus holds the killer hook, as Armstrong hits never-before-reached highs with his voice in a thrilling moment that reminds us of Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes."

Well done, guys.

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