It only follows that a band whose breakthrough hit contemplated the virtues of lazing around on a couch and jerking off would go on to craft an apocalyptic concept album condemning institutionalized lethargy. In 1994, Billie Joe Armstrong whined, “I got no motivation”; in 2009, he’s shouting, “Gimme gimme revolution,” rallying a doomed generation to save themselves, or to at least put down the Wii long enough to acknowledge that they need saving.
For 20 years, Green Day have tried to navigate the chasm between their punker-than-thou Gilman Street roots and their everydude appeal. The band’s post-Dookie output yielded diminishing returns until 2004’s American Idiot married proggy architecture — it’s an opera! — and meaty pop-punk hooks to W.-bashing screeds for an unexpected blockbuster that, ironically, pushed Green Day from snarky navel-gazing toward a rancorous agitprop that even their most orthodox detractors might begrudgingly appreciate.
Conventional wisdom dictates that the follow-up, even one that comes five years later, should be a gritty grab for street cred. Instead, Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, and drummer Tré Cool push Idiot‘s conceits even further on 21st Century Breakdown, a slick, class-obsessed, 70-minute, 18-song, three-act cycle that trades Bush-era indignation for Obama-era resignation. So much for HOPE and CHANGE.
There’s some stretching stylistically: two different songs called “Viva la Gloria!” open with piano, while the lush, mid-tempo “Last Night on Earth” and “Restless Heart Syndrome” ape mid-period Beatles, or maybe just Oasis. (Armstrong has bemoaned the cultural ubiquity of “Good Riddance [Time of Your Life],” yet he keeps rewriting that song.) If the Cars did a tune about impending nuclear winter, it might sound like”Last of the American Girls.” Yet most tracks that start off on unfamiliar terrain generally return to barre-chord-and-bashing core, almost as if Green Day are antsy about not sounding like Green Day for too long. The quasi-mariachi rave-up “Peacemaker” is an argument for committing to that sense of abandon. But for an album-length rock opera about staving off the end of days, 21st Century Breakdown feels terribly comfortable.
The considerable sheen of Butch Vig’s production lightens the gloomy antimodernity, but no song here commands your attention like “American Idiot.” “Horseshoes and Handgrenades,” with Armstrong’s clarion call “I’m not fucking around!” comes closest, but the energy seems directionless. There was humor in Green Day’s vitriol last time around, and that’s sorely missed here. Maybe it’s just easier to write about anger than fatigue; Cormac McCarthy’s The Road didn’t have a lot of jokes in it, either. Certainly, any stick-it-to-the-man rhetoric runs the risk of being compromised when that rhetoric makes its national debut before the NCAA finals, as did sloganeering lead single “Know Your Enemy,” but Green Day are hardly the first well-intentioned megastars to rage within the machine.
Ultimately, the question isn’t whether multiplatinum success has cost Green Daythe right to protest, only whether that protest feels vital. It’s hard to know what to make of taunts like “You’re a sacrificial suicide / Like a dog that’s been sodomized.” As with many good punks before him, Armstrong is better at voicing gripes than offering solutions, which makes him a tricky choice to lead a revolution. If we’re gonna come with you, you gotta tell us where we’re goin’.
WATCH: Green Day, “Know Your Enemy”