Amped up once more
Green Day tells stories amid sound and fury on 'Breakdown'
It would have been hard in 1994, when Green Day was deliriously celebrating/lamenting apathy and aimless rage on its stellar and snotty breakthrough, "Dookie," to imagine where the Berkeley, Calif., punk revivalists would be a decade later. But there the band was in 2004, hailed for capturing the national mood with the blisteringly political "American Idiot."
That singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, drummer Tre Cool, and bassist Mike Dirnt were able to illuminate two points in the art of growing up - the rootless malaise of youth on the first CD and the sober-yet-still-angry adult on the last - says a lot about how musicians can carry their skills forward as they age.
After shaking out the sillies with last year's Foxboro Hot Tubs side project, the punk trio is back in the ambition business. And on "21st Century Breakdown," out next Friday, business is good.
Now one of the few surviving - and thriving - members of the alt-rock generation, Green Day remains inspired by those who came earlier, especially such conceptual storytellers as the Beatles, the Kinks, the Clash, and the Who. Like "American Idiot," "Breakdown" is something of a concept album, but the concept, again, isn't necessarily a linear narrative.
The work unfolds in three acts; publicity notes tell us that we're following young lovers Christian and Gloria - presumably the smoochy cover couple - as they try to bring order to today's desperate and chaotic world. Reading the lyrics stem to stern won't make this immediately apparent, although there are recurring names, places, and ideas.
What is apparent, however, is that the group's members and producer Butch Vig clearly challenged themselves to go even further in expanding the boundaries of the band's sound.
As on "American Idiot," and all of the group's past releases, the hitching attack riffs of punk rock remain the foundation. But with 18 tracks and a story to tell - complete with familiar political, religious, and romantic drama - the band stretches way, way out.
For every "Know Your Enemy," the first single and a terrific blast of classic Green Day sting-and-swing, there's a "¡Viva La Gloria!," a dynamic track that begins with a lone Springsteen-esque piano pattern, speeds to a gallop, and is drenched in multitrack harmonies. Strings are sprung, Armstrong unveils a surprising falsetto, and there are flirtations with Latin and country flourishes.
The whoosh of power-pop keyboards suits the record-playing, bad-boy-loving, conspiracy theorist at the heart of the deceptively sunny "Last of the American Girls." Even in the guise of a character, "Last Night on Earth" is the most unabashed love song in the Green Day canon, as Armstrong croons with gauzy tenderness, "You are the moonlight of my life every night."
Lyrically, "Breakdown" continues themes from "American Idiot." Christian and Gloria are wondering what war is good for and why religion can feel so oppressive. They try to understand the complicated situations that give birth to corruption and deceit on a global scale. They're also seeking ways to medicate away the anguish this self-awareness creates.
If anyone thought the age of Obama would lighten the Green Day worldview, well, they don't know Billie Joe. At a cultural moment when many of us - the president included - wants to get beyond harsh divisions, Green Day still believes in taking sides. And when you're looking for Green Day at its musical best - on the new "Horseshoes and Handgrenades," say - fury helps.
As a thinker, Armstrong isn't always comprehensible or original, but he knows how to communicate his frenzied thoughts enjoyably. It's not crystal clear what he means when he announces, "A fire burns today for blasphemy and genocide/ the sirens of decay will infiltrate the faith fanatics," but it sure sounds good inside the raging rhythms of "East Jesus Nowhere."
Perhaps understanding the need for relief, Green Day ends "Breakdown" with the protagonists' desire to find peace and clarity on "See the Light," with its closing lyric, "I need to know what's worth the fight." Green Day may not provide Christian and Gloria, or listeners, with a clear-cut answer. Asking the question, the band reminds us, is what some of the best rock 'n' roll has been about.
Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.