Green Day’s American Idiot was not a great album because in was a ‘(punk?) Rock Opera’; it was great in spite of that because it, quite simply, was the best collection of tunes the band has ever recorded. Virtually every song on that album was a viable ‘hit’. Green Day’s not-so-secret weapon is Billy Joe Armstrong, he has an uncanny gift for writing infectious melodies and addictive hooks. When I was in high school, I hung out with the cool kids who used to make fun of Green Day but, secretly, I thought “Basket Case” was one of the most perfect songs ever recorded. Lyrically, Armstrong is really a singer songwriter at heart and the line, “I read the graffiti on the bathroom stall like the holy scriptures of a shopping mall” from American Idiot’s “Jesus of Suburbia” is the 21st century version of “the words of the prophets were written on the subway wall.”
So, my expectations for their latest, 21st Century Breakdown were rather high; unfortunately, it falls a bit short. Allow me to emphasize the fact that it is by no means a ‘bad’ album; it’s just not as good as I was hoping it would be. The main problem, stated in the simplest possible terms, is that the songs on this album aren’t as good as the last album. Once again, this doesn’t mean they are bad; the grinding Clash-flavored first single “Know Your Enemy” is catchy as hell, but in comparison with its thematic predecessors “American Idiot” and “Holiday” (or “Warning” and “Minority” for that matter) it just doesn’t quite measure up.
Breakdown is far more ambitious than American Idiot but, as a result, it lacks some of the basic tunefulness of that record. In fact, I don’t really see any of these tracks ruling the radio the way that “American Idiot”, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (overplayed, yes, but still a great tune) and “Holiday” did a few years ago. Butch Vig’s production might also have something to do with that; it seems a bit muddy. I feel like there are a lot of layers to these tracks but, due to the production, I can’t hear everything as clearly as I would like.
Lyrically, this album also feels a lot preachier than American Idiot; now, American Idiot was probably quite preachy I just didn’t notice/mind so much because the songs were so good. Also, the verses feel too crowded; it’s as though Armstrong is giving the clarity of the idea priority over the meter… one of the advantages of all poetry, including lyrics, is that you’re allowed to sacrifice some clarity for the sake of sound.
Another problem might be that, at 18 tracks, the album seems a bit long. This makes it more of a chore to get through the whole album without skipping which, for a concept album/Rock Opera like this one, always seems a bit like cheating (at least the first few times through).
Still, it’s a very good album overall; the gorgeous “Restless Heart Syndrome” and the Flamenco-tinged “Peacemaker” are standout tracks and, while it doesn’t quite measure up to “Jesus of Suburbia”, “21st Century Breakdown” provides a suitably epic opening to the album. It's not without pleasant surprises either, Armstrong is rather underrated as a vocalist; he has a great instinct for how to use his voice. In the song chorus of the song "21 Guns" he effortlessly shifts his vocal into a falsetto halfway through the phrase "Twenty-One Guns" giving it this nifty little hiccup effect. This could be one of those albums that grows on me over time; in a month I may love it but, for the time being, I’m going to have to give it a solid ‘B’.