As far as concept albums go, American Idiot was as loose as they come. Based around your typical suburban layabout, the Jesus of Suburbia, and his freaky girlfriend, whose name he unfortunately manages to forget, it gained a reputation as a political record on the strength of the title track and lead single, a searing indictment of the everyday uncritical stooge. Strongly influenced by the Who’s iconic pair of rock operas, Quadrophenia and Tommy, American Idiot proved that the group could tackle more serious topics without coming across as goofy or irreverent. The left-turn into stadium rock territory was a risk, but it was a risk that paid off in spades, driving the threesome to create some of their most inspired music to date.
Five years on, circumstances are radically different. Today, Green Day are probably the biggest rock band on the planet, and the expectation to one-up American Idiot has weighed heavily on their shoulders. On the evidence of 21st Century Breakdown, they don’t work too well under pressure. The album is, quite frankly, a mess. Lyrically, it takes itself very, very seriously- far too seriously. If you thought -American Idiot’ was clumsy, prepare for some of the least subtle party-political cheerleading you’ll ever hear. In place of the Jesus of Suburbia and Whatsername, we have Christian and his girlfriend Gloria (a.k.a. religion and humanism). The plot implications should be fairly obvious- i.e. a world sold out by religion and conservative politics- and this point is made fairly clear on -Before The Lobotomy’, when Billie Joe laments: ‘Christian’s lesson is what he’s been sold.’ Subtle, no? -Christian’s Inferno’ follows immediately afterward.
Musically, 21st Century Breakdown recycles entire passages from American Idiot and other albums. Green Day have always borrowed liberally from their influences, and their own back catalogue, but they always managed to put a unique spin on it. Never has it sounded so cynical as it does here. Like a Dan Brown book or an episode of Little Britain, it is an exercise in changing as little as possible in order to create the illusion you’ve made something substantially different. Spread over three acts, 18 songs and 70 minutes, 21st Century Breakdown could give the illusion of an ambitious work. It’s not. The Queen influence is more pronounced, and the odd song recalls the Green Day of old or their power pop side-projects Foxboro Hot Tubs and the Network, but essentially it’s American Idiot Redux, and it’s a chore to sit through.
-Know Your Enemy’ is the -American Idiot’ of the album, a brute-force anthem that doesn’t so much drum the message in as it beats you to death with it (‘do you know the enemy? You gotta know the enemy wa-hey!’). It’s a parade of three-line verses warning us against such nefarious evils as ‘the enemy’, and about 70 other things that rhyme with ‘the enemy’, and it’s every bit as tedious as it sounds. Future single ’21 Guns’ continues along much the same lines, very consciously recalling American Idiot’s -Boulevard Of Broken Dreams’ with violining synths and a downcast acoustic guitar verse. It’s a good song in its own right, but it’s very hard to escape the impression that: a) it was written to duplicate the success of -Boulevard’; and b) it won’t come close to duplicating the success of -Boulevard’. The one obvious difference is that ’21 Guns’ doesn’t obviously rip off an Oasis song (-Boulevard’ borrowed the chord sequence from -Wonderwall’), but don’t worry: the Tom Petty-aping -Last Of The American Girls’ cops the lead guitar melody from Oasis’s -The Hindu Times’ note for note.
That’s not to say that 21st Century Breakdown has nothing going for it. Aside from the passable ’21 Guns,’ -Last Night On Earth’ showcases everything that’s great about the latter-era Green Day. In contrast to just about every other song on the album, -Last Night On Earth’ resists the temptation to tack on some power chords and an anthemic chorus. Instead, it sticks with a mellow mood throughout the entire song. The cherubic vocals recall the Beatles’ early experimentations with psychedelia, particularly on tracks like -In My Life’, while the atmospheric slide guitar break recalls deceased Beatle George Harrison. Elsewhere, -Christian’s Inferno’ and -Peacemaker’ are solid pop-punk numbers, and -East Jesus Nowhere’ recalls the better Foxboro Hot Tubs numbers, but they’re few and far between. 21st Century Breakdown is the kind of album iTunes was invented to put an end to. Do yourself a favour: skip the CD and cherry-pick the best tracks.