American Idiot felt like such an audacious over-achievement from what had heretofore been a strong but not particularly original post-punk band, is it any wonder that expectations for Green Day’s follow-up to that epic ran high? 21st Century Breakdown doesn’t disappoint, either, though I think it’s fair to say that it lacks the element of surprise. Even the first time through, I could predict some of the formulas the band employs (albeit always effectively)—such as starting out a song as a plaintive ballad (occasionally with a compressed vocal and a single guitar in the center), then kicking the song into gear, widening the stereo spread and letting the wall of buzz-saw guitars carry the day. This band loves dynamic contrasts, and they execute them as well as anyone. And then there are cool, weird moments, like in “Peacemaker,” a speedy little number with a slightly Spanish feeling, that stops abruptly for, like, three random-sounding squonked guitar notes before returning to a fast assault.
That song is one of a few here that features the effective use of a string section, but mostly it’s the three guys—guitarist/singer/mastermind Billy Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool—along with co-producer Butch Vig and mixer Chris Lord-Alge, who are responsible for the big sound of this CD. There are layers upon layers of guitars worthy of a classic Queen album, and the bass always provides a solid underpinning that locks in beautifully with the propulsive and explosive drum sound. Piano (by Armstrong and Jason Freese) adds a nice touch to a few songs, as well. Armstrong doesn’t get enough credit for his vocals, which suit both the band’s big power ballads and their punkish numbers equally well; he can sound sweet, or snarl with the best of ’em. It’s quite amazing that they can lay down a song like “Murder City” in their classic punk mode, or the Sex Pistols-ish “Horseshoes and Hand Grenades,” and then turn around and be completely convincing on a ballad like “Restless Heart” or the pop-rock “Last of the American Girls.” By this point, throwing around the names of influences (The Who, The Clash, et al) is beside the point, as everything they touch becomes unmistakably Green Day.
There’s a loose story running through this three-“act” mini rock opera about a pair of disaffected outsiders named Christian and Gloria, but to be honest I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what the hell is going on there—it’s going to take many more listenings for it to all seep in, just as the details of American Idiot took me months to truly absorb. The good news, though, is that the songs stand on their own just fine apart from any over-arching concept. But it’s also nice to know that there is still much to be revealed over time—and it’s a compelling enough work to invite that sort of scrutiny and involvement.
Producers: Butch Vig and Green Day. Main Engineer: Chris Dugan. Mixer: Chris-Lord Alge. Principal Studios: Ocean Way (Hollywood), Studio 880 (Oakland), Mix L.A. Mastering: Ted Jensen/Sterling.