Friday, August 14, 2009

21st Century Letdown

Green Day is playing in Salt Lake City this Sunday, and a couple of years ago, I'd have been jumping all over the chance to see them live. That was when they were still riding the high of American Idiot, an album that had a profound impact on me regarding the world and how the political climate stood at the time.

After five years, Green Day readied their latest album, 21st Century Breakdown. Here is what I had to say about that album after listening to it:

First things first: I like Green Day. I think they are a tremendously talented band, and are an influence in music that will be felt for years and years to come. Their songs have spoken to me, motivated me, and moved me. That, in part, makes this review hard to write.

Nine years ago, Green Day released Warning:, and after some setbacks and a side project, released American Idiot four years later. It was loud, political, and in-your-face. Green Day rode their new wave of popularity high for another several years, releasing another side-project album in between, and are readying the release of 21st Century Breakdown, an album which "chronicl[es] the life of a young couple as they deal with the mess our 43rd president left behind."

Herein lies the first problem: the album is still rooted in the politics of old. When Idiot hit, everything that Green Day had to say was relevant to the times. Since the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency, it seems to me that most people just want to move forward. The theme of this album comes nearly seven months too late.

However, the real problem lies in the songs themselves. They don't sound bad, but the problem is that it sounds like I've heard each of them before. Some new things are nice, such as a piano intro and Billie Joe singing falsetto, but quickly things change, and it's the old familiar sound. Before the Lobotomy and 21 Guns each sound like a hybrid of Give Me Novocaine and Letterbomb, while Restless Heart Syndrome has an ending that reminded me of Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Last of the American Girls, thematically, is like a carbon copy of the songs regarding Whatsername on the Idiot opera. The title track sounds like Green Day's version of Working Class Hero, the John Lennon song they covered a couple of years ago; they even use that title in this song. Musically, the song is alright, until the Queen-like breakdown, which just doesn't fit the song. It's almost like an afterthought tacked on to the end of it.

Similarly, the piano intro and band entrances are used more than once, and sound too similar to one another to stand out. A little piano intro, and boom!, it's into the swing of things, but each time, it's done too similarly to the other to stand out. A piano filled bridge may have done better.

Like American Idiot had two "suites," a song composed of five shorter songs, complete with transitions, Breakdown features one--American Eulogy--composed of two shorter songs. It's about half the length of either of Idiot's suites, but the transition is reminiscent. It even starts like Idiot's latter suite, Homecoming, just Billie Joe and a guitar, though his voice is slightly distorted this time, then we get the whole band coming in. Mike Dirnt even sings lead vocals on one part...just like he did in the Homecoming suite. Each member of Green Day has a good singing voice; why not alternate whole songs? Why not trade off lead vocals with Mike singing verses, Billie Joe singing choruses, and Tre singing the bridge?

American Eulogy is divided into two parts: Mass Hysteria and Modern World. Almost immediately into Hysteria, the vocal melody reminded me of an older song. I had to check it out, and while not identical, the melody to Hysteria and Warning:'s Deadbeat Holiday are quite similar. Likewise, while remaining its own song, 21st Century Breakdown has transitional pieces into a guitar solo that sound like something heard on Idiot.

The lyrics are available online, and I've read them all. I know like Idiot, Breakdown is a rock opera, nonetheless, the conventions of repeating themes and phrases don't seem to work here, they just seem like Idiot revisited. There's not much new here, which is what kills the album.

Warning:, while not commercially viable, was strikingly different from what Green Day had done in the past and was critically acclaimed. Idiot was relevant to our times, and set a new standard for Green Day. I would have like to see that standard met, but unfortunately, thus far, it hasn't been. I would have liked to see something different. The lone song that stood out was the closer, See the Light. I enjoyed it, but it came seventeen songs (literally) too late. After four years--and a LOT has happened in that time--it would have been nice to hear something new. Green Day has proven they can do it; their side project Foxboro Hot Tubs was unlike anything they've done before. I realize it takes a lot of talent and skill to write an album, and maybe it's not my place to call this like I see it and be so critical, however, it just feels like they've rehashed their last album and released it under a different name. It feels like I've wasted my anticipation on nothing.

After hearing the album, I've changed my rating: 1/4 stars. And that one star is pushing it. Sorry to anyone who disagrees, but this is one of the most disappointing albums I've heard in recent memory.

I stand by every word I said then today. If I could change one thing, I would probably rate the album lower than I already did; a half-star would probably suffice, as a whole star feels much too generous for Idiot on replay.

Perhaps the worst part about Breakdown is the fact that it entirely killed my desire to see Green Day live. Of course they'll play a selection of songs from their back catalogue, but Breakdown is the album they're touring behind, and I really have no desire to listen to them play a majority of--if not the whole--album, filled with songs I feel are pale shadows and shallow retreads of those released on its erstwhile brother.

And so Green Day will come and go, and I don't even mind.

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