You know a Green Day song when you hear one. In their day, the three-chord three-piece were arguably punk’s great gateway drug. Through Dookie and Nimrod in particular, Billie Joe Armstrong and co walked a fine line: accessible yet regularly ragged; bolshy yet melodic. They were able to talk bitter politics and chuck in affected ballads, and had their laugh-along liberal moments focusing on cross dressing or firing at society.
It’s been a long time, though, since the band produced a track that truly felt punk. Instead, charged-up by the success of angst-pop slow burners like ‘Wake Me Up (When September Ends)’ and ‘American Idiot’, Green Day have become somewhat formulaic rock. When there are broad political strokes to be sung about, they’ll hit them, and generally do a solid job on it. When these are less clear, such as on albums like 2012’s ill-advised trio or 2000’s weird misstep Warning, things fire rapidly down hill.
With the farcical politics of Trump and issues-led areas like Black Lives Matter to work with, then, Revolution Radio potentially had the external factors needed to bring Green Day back to their latter-career best.
Let’s start with the better corners. ‘Still Breathing’ whilst obvious, has the tragi-drama and lifted, volume-up chorus of the classic Green Day ballad. Single ‘Bang Bang’ – another strong twist on old Green Day – is heavy on the internalised angst and pulses through densely layered choruses, smashing into jarring chords and strange instrumental asides.
‘Ordinary World’ is a mellow take, a catchy, lightly punked-up country ballad on hunting down dreams. ‘Youngblood’ reminds of Fenix*Tx, complete with obliquely sexualised lyrics and gorgeous pop melodies, but is rarely better than sparkly but throwaway.
At times the band can be wafer thin. Opener ‘Somewhere Now’ is one such moment, reedy despite progressing into a middle of the road rock song having started out like a tame album corner; a forgettable almost-country interlude.
What’s most disappointing after a few listens, though, is the dawning of the obvious: there’s very little in amongst the melancholy undertones that actually speaks directly to anything. While ‘American Idiot’ and ‘Wake Me Up’ didn’t take a huge amount of interpretation, ‘Revolution Radio’ deals in the banal and general.
There are references to shootings and protests, and there are depression anthems, but delivered in cartoonish abstract: what are we protesting? Why are we sad? Aside from being a snappy soundbite, what do lines like “legalise the truth” actually mean, aside from being a catchy soundbite that’s all but impossible to argue with?
If you liked the Green Day of American Idiot era, the nicest thing you could say for Revolution Radio is that minus the cleverly oblique connection to the politics of the era of the 2004 album – released under similar ‘comeback’ circumstances – this is a decent approximation. Lyrically, and its capacity to link pop music to culture, it’s a very poor approximation.
You know a Green Day song when you hear one. Sadly, if you haven’t heard these ones, you’ll probably feel like you have.