Who would have guessed that the band playing dopey pop-punk on an even-dopier-titled 1991 disc (1,039/Smooth Out Slappy Hours) would find its commercial peak a decade after breaking through—and with a punk “opera,” no less? And then follow it up with another concept album? Is this the same guy the world met in a video where he sat on a sofa singing about smoking pot and jerking off? The metamorphosis seems fantastic, except it isn’t real. Perhaps Green Day’s best trick has been fooling the world into dismissing singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, and drummer Tre Cool as brainless pop-punks. Among the “Why don’t girls like me?” songs that dominated the early years, Green Day hid ambition and emotional depth. Still, it isn’t as if the goofballs who wrote “Dominated Love Slave” turned into Frank Zappa. No one will mistake the new 21st Century Breakdown for anyone other than Green Day, but the band seems completely comfortable in its ability to try new ideas—and to own the concept album, the bloated beast its punk forefathers rebelled against.
Breakdown’s concept is harder to distill than 2004’s American Idiot, but the themes remain. Divided into three “acts”—“Heroes And Cons,” “Charlatans And Saints,” and “Horseshoes And Handgrenades”—the songs extend Idiot’s deep anxiety and exhaustion. That album epitomized the guilt and despair of the Bush era, but 21st Century Breakdown, which the band started writing in early 2006, wallows in its aftermath. A downer in the Obama age, it’s also a gloomy reminder that these issues remain.
Green Day took small steps out of its comfort zone on American Idiot, but Breakdown finds the band going bolder, mixing in elements of mariachi (“Peacemaker”) and klezmer (“¡Viva La Gloria!”). Still, the band members never spend too much time away from their bread and butter: heavily melodic punk. At this point, songs like “Know Your Enemy” and “East Jesus Nowhere” are de rigueur for Green Day, and consequently aren’t as memorable as something like the multi-part title track. On the other hand, no one does straight-up pop-punk better than the guys who blazed its dopey trail. But 21st Century Breakdown reinforces what American Idiot first revealed: Green Day should never be underestimated.