Music Review: Green Day's 21st Century Breakdown

by Rick Rockwell

With the release of 21st Century Breakdown from Green Day, a year with a bumper crop of wonderful music just became notably stronger. Green Day’s eighth studio release is that good. The album not only solidifies Green Day’s place as the most significant punk band of this new century but this new release could likely end up as the best album of 2009.

Certainly, Green Day doesn’t explore any new ground on 21st Century Breakdown; some will likely criticize that. If you’ve heard the band’s other classics, you’ll know what to expect. However, if Dookie (1994) or American Idiot (2004) did not exist, 21st Century Breakdown would still come charging out of your speakers and capture your heart with its fine, enthusiastic songcraft and seem fresh. (“American Eulogy: Mass Hysteria/Modern World” actually plays not only as this album’s climax but as a completing couplet to American Idiot. Some might actually argue that 21st Century Breakdown is the intended sequel and bookend to American Idiot, but this new release stands on its own.) 21st Century Breakdown is a worthy successor to those other Green Day successes, if not the band’s entire catalogue.

This is an album filled with adrenaline and testosterone. The arrangements are mostly slashing guitars, sledgehammer power chords and marching Ramones-style blitzkrieg bops. (Despite its title, “Before the Lobotomy” is not a Ramones homage but rather a pop song infused with critical commentary. Check the lyrics: “Everyone’s reminded / Hearts are washed in misery / Drenched in gasoline.”) Yes, the band includes some ballads and quieter interludes, but mostly this is accelerator to the floor modern rock at its best. The album ranges from superbly crafted power pop (“21 Guns”) to blistering punk protests (“Horseshoes and Hand Grenades”).

“Horseshoes and Handgrenades” not only tops the anger meter but it announces Green Day’s intentions. Guitarist/singer/composer Billie Joe Armstrong spits out “I’m not fuckin’ around….” over a barrage of crunching guitars. Who says the spirit of the Sex Pistols is gone? The song also neatly genuflects not only to Patti Smith, but also to Van Morrison & Them. Several of the album’s songs actually point directly to Morrison’s “Gloria” for inspiration, partially because one of the album's recurring characters in its cycle of love songs has that name.

The bonus version of the album with its two additional tracks (the regular album has 18 tracks and clocks in at more than an hour and nine minutes of music) points to additional inspirations. Green Day’s cover of The Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away” plays like a seven-minute mini-rock opera and tops the original. Although 21st Century Breakdown is less of an obvious concept album as was American Idiot, the songs blend together, many using the technique of searching an old radio dial; something that is lost in the modern age. Much of the album is at turns a deft commentary about modern media (the radio especially) or a bludgeoning rant (see “The Static Age,” which has a title that tells it all). While appropriating The Who’s sense for the dramatic album-long story arc or commentary (along with a sense for turning pop hooks into sturdy rock songs) Green Day also nods to its punk roots with a cover of Social Distortion’s “Another State of Mind.” There’s something to be said for keeping a solid foundation of hardcore punk that Social Distortion (of the 1980s California punk wing) represents.

Get ready because this album is worth every bit of the five-year wait since American Idiot. There are at least a handful of potential hits on 21st Century Breakdown (“Know Your Enemy” is the first single), and Green Day is ready to hijack your radio with as many of them as possible. Your part: turn up the volume.

(The promotional photo of Green Day is from Warner Brothers Records. Green Day will open its world tour in New York City on May 18. To see Green Day play an R-rated version of the title track from 21st Century Breakdown at a club date in Oakland, CA, please check below.)


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