Washington politics, schmolitics. When this country votes incompetent presidents into office, Bay Area punk bands get sworn into leadership positions.
It's impossible to mention the Reagan years without hearing Jello Biafra's nasal rants against Republican values with the Dead Kennedys. And Green Day cranked up the Bush backlash with American Idiot, the trio's wildly successful pop opera about our box-o'-rocks boss that sold more than 12 million copies worldwide and will be turned into a musical this fall at Berkeley Rep. Northern California is well known for its liberal values and myriad protests, and our musical hot shots have some fun with their fighting words, churning out anthems that are appropriately cynical yet widely entertaining — creating a lasting impact far beyond our Left Coast borders.
After Bush's 2004 re-election, Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong wanted a respite from the Republican way of doing things: "Wake Me Up When September Ends," he asked on Idiot. Now that we've traded the great hoax for the great hope in the Oval Office, Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, and drummer Tré Cool snap to attention with new fervor, and Green Day followers should be pleased that this preaching choir still has plenty to sing about.
With its new album, 21st Century Breakdown, the Oakland act retains its political consciousness but trades a specific enemy for a bit of levity, creating an ebullient mix of theatrical pop, peppy punk, and a couple of subtle surprises. It's a strong album that shows Green Day protesting not only the mess left behind by our country's infamous Fortunate Son, but also the assumption that bigger can't possibly mean better when it comes to a stadium-sized act that cut its teeth at Gilman.
Like American Idiot, Breakdown is an ambitious album from the start. Produced by Butch Vig, the man behind Nirvana's Nevermind, it's loosely grouped into a three-part rock opera: "Heroes and Cons," "Charlatans and Saints," and "Horseshoes and Handgrenades." The main characters threaded throughout the narrative are a pair of activists — Gloria, who has kept the faith despite smashing "her knuckles into winter" on "¡Viva la Gloria!" and Christian, who lives in a humorless underground where the disillusioned youth turn to "whiskey shots and cheap cigarettes" in "Before the Lobotomy."
But you don't have to stick to the storyline in the supertitles to follow along. The record is also a story of surging hooks and sonic plot twists, which should help further the group's crowd-pleaser status. Breakdown's best songs don't stop to catch their breath: the standouts are "Murder City," an homage to feeling "desperate but not helpless" living in Oakland, and "Eat Jesus Nowhere." The latter is a punchy, anti-religious-right screed warning, "Don't test me/Second-guess me," set against manic handclaps and aggressive call and response chants — if only there were more shout-alongs like this on this disc. "Horseshoes and Handgrenades" is another winner, despite (or perhaps because of) its striking resemblance to the Hives' "Hate to Say I Told You So." With Armstrong unleashing wild howls around claims that he's "not fucking around," the song is an uplifting example that the band can, in fact, fuck around and still sound its most energized. The title track is the album's grand opus, full of Who and Queen allusions and plenty of tempo twists. It doesn't really get kicking until halfway through, though, and lyrics like "Dream, America, dream" sound more cloying than cheeky against the wailing guitars.
Of course, with any rock opera, you'll need a little dramatic, romantic angst. In Green Day's world, that translates into a big ol' cigarette-lighters-skyward ballad. "Last Night on Earth" is Breakdown's triple-cream fondue ("You are the moonlight of my life every night/Giving all my love to you/My beating heart belongs to you"). But the overwrought sentimentality becomes almost forgivable by the end, as the song sounds more McCartney than maudlin (plus, as soon as the tune's over, the album returns to the addictive panic pacing).
More than anything, 21st Century Breakdown proves that Green Day still has the power to rally the troops, even without a specific enemy to fight against. The band has been vaulted to mainstream punk's socially conscious mouthpiece, and the trio's Bay Area lefty ideals are as lofty as its songwriting gestures.