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Green Day, ‘¡Uno!’ (Reprise)

Green Day / Photo via Getty
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: September 24, 2012
Label: Reprise

“Lights and action, I just can’t be satisfied,” Billie Joe Armstrong sings near the end of the new Green Day album, and the dude knows from whence he bitches. After blazing through the ’90s as pop’s No. 1 punks, Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool spent the 2000s knee-deep in the business of show, first recording a pair of Grammy-winning rock operas, then mounting an honest-to-goodness Broadway musical version of American Idiot, one in which Armstrong himself was known occasionally to take over the role of St. Jimmy. Lights, action, pancake makeup — they’ve been there, done that.

To ring in their third decade together, then, Green Day go back to garage-band basics on ¡Uno!, kicking out a dozen (relatively) no-frills power-pop jams in less time than it takes a union pit orchestra to tune up. Only, wait, hold on: As you’ve no doubt read by now, this is in fact the first of three separate full-lengths the trio is set to release over the next four months: ¡Dos! arrives on November 13, while ¡Tré! rounds out the package early next year. Cheap publicity stunt? Maybe, but as you’ve also no doubt read by now, the whole trilogy thing has been overshadowed by Armstrong’s breathtaking meltdown at the iHeartRadio festival in Las Vegas, where the frontman went ballistic over being told to cut the band’s set short. Shortly following that incident — which culminated in Armstrong smashing his guitar onstage after profanely announcing that he is not, in fact, Justin Bieber — an announcement appeared on Green Day’s Facebook page indicating that he was “seeking treatment for substance abuse.”

This is a lot of spectacle for ¡Uno! to live down (or up to), and that’s before the record’s actual publicity blitz: Earlier this month, the band teamed with Playboy to premiere a nudity-enhanced version of the video for “Oh Love,” the album’s very Dookie-reminiscent lead single. A meaty, mid-tempo chug å la “When I Come Around,” it isn’t the only cut here that flashes back to Green Day’s gazillion-selling 1994 breakthrough: Opener “Nuclear Family” neatly paraphrases the brat-pack punch of “Welcome to Paradise” (complete with a spritz of Armstrong’s Jesus-of-Suburbia sarcasm), while “Kill the DJ” feels constructed around the band’s rhythm section, just as “Longview” once was.

Throughout ¡Uno!, you can hear the effect of the trio’s return to producer Rob Cavallo (following a stint with Butch Vig). It seems like ages since a rock band has given their guitars so much sonic real estate. Lyrically, too, Armstrong spends plenty of time emphasizing the child half of his still-volatile, eternal-man-child vibe, as in the juvie-ready “Troublemaker” and “Fell for You,” which channels the wimpy-kid romance of “2,000 Light Years Away,” from 1992’s Kerplunk. “Had a dream that I kissed your lips, and it felt so true,” he sings over sweetly slashing power chords. “Then I woke up as a nervous wreck and I fell for you.” Awww.

Amid all the memories, ¡Uno! reveals traces of the older-and-wiser Bay Area bro Armstrong, 40, is trying to become. In the rabid rockabilly blast “Let Yourself Go,” he advocates abandon like only a guy with something to lose can, and though it’s hard to tell exactly what he’s on about in “Kill the DJ” — warmongers? religious fanatics? Swedish House Mafia? — you can practically taste the vinegary grown-up disgust that clearly still fuels him, for both better and worse. Indeed, as much as some of this music seems to long for the good old days, the frontman is bracingly dismissive of knee-jerk nostalgia, insisting in “Loss of Control,” “I’d rather go to a funeral than into this high school reunion.” Later, “Rusty James” finds him wondering, “Where the hell is the old gang at?” yet there’s nothing at all in his voice that suggests he misses those “death-wish kids among the living.”

And what father of two would? More than any stylistic flourishes, it’s the breadth of emotion on ¡Uno!, from first-date tenderness to pre-rehab rage, that makes the album feel like it’s supposed to be part of a trilogy: There aren’t any plinking pianos or Hollywood strings, but the music still goes big the way we’ve grown to expect from Green Day. Armstrong literalizes that sense of expansiveness in “Sweet 16,” one of the album’s most straightforward tunes, zooming “from the Midwest to the beach,” then “from California to Jane Street.” Even as his guitar longs for the basement, his troubled heart roams free.