In mid-1970, a year after the groundbreaking (and career-defining) rock opera Tommy, The Who ran the other way and issued the equally groundbreaking (and career-defining) Live At Leeds, a searing, raw set of greatest hits, jagged Tommy jams and bluesy covers that set an impossibly high standard for anybody hoping to release a live album.
It was also their way of saying, "OK, we did Tommy. Clear your heads until we think up something new, all right?"
Forty years later, Green Day (Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool) are following their own grandiose masterstroke, American Idiot, but instead of changing directions and becoming a full-time Foxboro Hot Tubs (which is what lesser bands would have done), rather than going smaller, they're flooring it and delivering a big-ass sequel, a Godfather Part II of sorts. Hell, they might be entering David Lean territory.
An audacious album
21st Century Breakdown is audacious all right, and that's probably the idea; it's even a little messy at times, which I'm sure was also no mistake. Overreaching is forgivable when you're covering a canvas this large, because the myriad of wonders you can uncover is too great to resist.
The pay-off is incalculable. Risk is the only way to go. Play it safe and you die. Green Day bet the farm here, and they come up aces.
Producer Butch Vig, assuming the role usually played by Rob Cavallo, has beefed up Green Day's already brash and muscular sound to a degree that borders on the sumptuous.
More importantly, and it probably felt like like a thankless, hopeless task at times, he helped stitch their multiple patchwork squares of a storyline, that of a young couple, Christian and Gloria, facing the "mess and promise of the century so far," into a magnificent narrative quilt.
Not a recommended manuever for every band out there (I could name 100 outfits that wouldn't know where to start, even if handed written instructions), but Green Day have the lofty ideals and insatiable hunger to pull off the near-impossible. (By the way, I bet they have one hell of a live album in their future.)
Want to follow along to our track-by-track review? No problem. Rhapsody is offering a free stream of 21st Century Breakdown in its entirety right here.
Part 1: Heroes And Cons
Song Of The Century / 21st Century Breakdown
The first sound is that of a crackly radio zeroing in on a frequency, as if we're listening to a broadcast from the 1930s. Armstrong's scratchy vocals are yearning, forelorn - funny that a track called Song Of The Century sounds like it came from the Depression-era American Dustbowl.
A Townshend-esque Baba O'Reilly piano progression gives way to the crashing power chords of the title track, and we're off in classic Green Day fashion. As a whole, the song is a bit familiar (love the galloping toms, though), but we segue into a Styx/Journey lighter-in-the-air outro. Surprisingly, it works - a brilliant save.
Know Your Enemy
A walloping drum intro announces the first single, a crash-and-bash Clash-like call to arms that takes aim at past (and possibly easy) targets. Still, as a cautionary tale, a reminder to keep your guard up, it does the job. Zippy, straight-ahead and insanely fun.
!Viva La Gloria!
Face it, if you're going to nick Springsteen, you steer clear of Glory Days and go for the gusto. Which means Jungleland, the piano-and-violin backing, the whole bit. After the heartfelt opening bars, we're jolted into glorious, majestic, bare-knuckled punk. A great 'Gloria' to add to the others that bear her name.
Before The Lobotomy
Over a delicately strummed acoustic guitar, Armstrong sings a lyric that sounds eerily close to Bobby Vinton's Mr. Lonely (let's not even consider Akon's insipid mauling of the lovey ballad). As usual, this potential tearjerker is merely a prelude moment before we're off to the races with three-chord punk-rock that builds to an overwhelming crescendo.
Wow, did Trent Reznor push Vig out of the chair for this one? The verses feature a heavily processed drum loop and a compressed, distorted vocal, but like most Green Day cuts, the curtain drops, the lights go up and we rev into a good-time rave-up that casts all cares away.
Last Night On Earth
The band at their dreamiest, glossiest and most Beatles-esque. "I'm here to honor you/ If I lose everything in the fire/ I'm sending all my love to you," Armstrong sings in what is perhaps his most naked and vulnerable vocal performance.
What's fascinating is that, while the group are certainly tipping their hats to Let it Be, Armstrong has dropped his adopted British accent. All in all, a beautiful piece of work.
Part 2: Charlatans And Saints
East Jesus Nowhere
After more radio station twiddling, we land in Christian territory as this stomping number explores religious hypocrisy. Armstrong's lyrics are as subtle as feeding time at the zoo: "Say a prayer for the family/ Drop a coin for humanity/ Ain't this uniform so flattering?/ I never asked you a god damned thing." It might not go over in the red states - no, strike that; American Idiot was a smash all over - but when you're trying to knock off BIG TOPICS, boulders work much better than stones.
Whoa! Green Day moonlighting as The Gypsy Kings. It's Mariachi, something Robert Rodriquez would drool over, and while at first it's unsettling in a what-the-fuck-are-these-guys-doing? way, this is exactly what The Clash would have done (and did do) on their greatest triumphs. Rock out to Mariachi, everybody!
Last Of The American Girls
Pop-punk odes to the girl-next-door always work for me. They don't have to do much, (and this might be one of Green Day's most minimal efforts), they just have to rock along and conjure up images like this one: "She's a runaway of the Establishment Incorporated/ She won't cooperate/ She's the last of the American girls." A great car-driving song, and perfect for girl-watching.
Tre Cool's snare roll busts this rocker right out of the cage. The band don't reinvent the wheel here - it's a just-shy-of-three minutes jolt of power-pop-punk, with all the muted power chords one would associate with it - but it jumps and shouts and does all the things it needs to do.
?Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl)
Like a 40-years-later update of The Doors' Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar), this song is decadent, delicious fun. A honky-tonk piano riff folds into a waltz-time power chord cut that is both melancholy and uplifting. I played this track three times in a row - it's that good!
Restless Heart Syndrome
The arrangement and orchestration (piano, strings, acoustic guitars punctuated by heavily chorused electrics) recall the mini-suite that closes Abbey Road. But the expansiveness of the operation is the point here - and by the time the band lets loose with a wah-driven wallop of rock goodness, you'll be glad they went all the way.
Part 3: Horseshoes And Handgrenades
Horseshoes And Handgrenades
"I'm not fucking around!" Billie Joe Armstrong shouts over lashing guitars. As a third-act opener, this song is a beauty - lean, mean, rip-roaring, with some rebel yells that hit you where it counts. And in splendid rock tradition, Armstrong spells out "G-L-O-R-I-A" - the mark of any truly great band.
The Static Age
Possibly the weakest track. "All I want to do is, I want to breathe/ Batteries are not included," Armstrong sings over "whoa-whoas" and a fairly generic pop-punk arrangement. As an attack of media glut ("I can't see a thing in the video/I can't hear a sound on the radio"), we've heard it before. This one could've seen the editing room floor.
Here's a true stand-out, a stick-in-your-head mid-tempo super single that establishes Armstrong as a major vocalist. Oh, you think he did that already on (Good Riddance) Time Of Your Life? That was singing, sure, but here he digs down deep. And those gorgeous guitar volume swells? A fantastic touch.
This one is broken up into two parts: a) Mass Hysteria and b) The Modern World. Truth be told, it's a bit of a blur, and as the a penultimate performance piece, that might be expected - it's the big number before the big number. Major rocking ensues, wildly in fact, and when Armstrong lets loose with the "I don't wanna live in the modern world" refrain, well, how can you resist singing along?
See The Light
If you find it in your heart to hate a song that mixes a reprise of Baba O'Reilly piano chords with the sweep of Springsteen's Thunder Road, well, brother, I really can't help you. Or maybe this isn't the album for you.
But if you can get down the concept, the final track of Green Day's latest installment of musical odysseys won't disappoint. Rather, it just might make you believe once again, not just in the level of greatness that Green Day have risen to, but in the hope that rock music is alive and well and thriving.
Yes, it trips, it falls, it lies down in the dirt, but every once in a while, a band comes along, grabs it, dusts it off and says, "Hey, you've shown me the way plenty of times. Now it's my turn."