MUSIC: John reviews “21st Century Breakdown” by Green Day

Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown

Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown

It’s been a while since I’ve donned my music critic hat, but thanks to several months of searching Rhapsody for new and exciting music, I have a few records I’d like to examine.  I’ll begin with the most recent (so recent it isn’t even available in stores until Tuesday,) 21st Century Breakdown by Green Day.

Depending on whether you consider the Millenium to have occurred in 2000 or 2001, this is either Green Day’s second or third album of the century (Warning was released in 2000 and American Idiot in 2004) and covers much of the same thematic material as American Idiot – dealing with the escalating paranoia, media overload and religion-fueled reactionary mania of a post-9/11 America and world.  It’s a “concept album” in the same sense that American Idiot is a “rock opera,”  as both stretch the definition of their respective terms to the limit.  It consists of three acts, or “sides” as the band refers to them, each featuring the two recurring main characters of Christian and Gloria (the young lovers depicted on the album’s cover.)  The final product is … 

… schizophrenic.  21st Century Breakdown is all over the map in terms of both style and quality.  There are great Green Day songs, there are dull Green Day songs, there are great songs that sound nothing like Green Day and there are songs that should have been left on the cutting room floor.  One thing is for certain: The story it tells (if it is indeed attempting to tell a single story) is not clear or cohesive, and makes American Idiot‘s narrative seem simple and straightforward by comparison.

STORY SYNOPSES

Since it is a bit difficult to determine exactly what is going on in the story of 21st Century Breakdown and judge the songs on their own merits at the same time, I will now provide what I believe to be the story synopsis (based on my own interpretation) as well as the synopsis of Green Day’s previous concept album, American Idiot, for comparison and contrast:

(MY INTERPRETATION OF) THE STORY OF 21ST CENTURY BREAKDOWN

Christian and Gloria are the 21st-century American everyman and everywoman, trying to hold on to their ideals in a culture of fear, inanity, mistrust and rampant consumption. (“Song of the Century,” “21st Century Breakdown”)

They recognize that the forces of Hollywood and Washington are using the media to manipulate the American public, keeping those who hold the most resources in power and out of the public eye. (“Know Your Enemy”)

Gloria is a morally-driven anarchic activist who believes in the power of love, both personal and societal. (“!Viva La Gloria!”)

She and Christian long for the days before 9/11, when America was not as driven by fear of other ways of life and did not give up civil liberty for the sake of safety.  (“Before the Lobotomy”)

Christian discovers a passion for anarchism, and decides to dedicate his life to tearing down the current regime (“Christian’s Inferno.”)

He travels to Washington, D.C. for a demonstration of some sort, and sends a heartfelt love/goodbye letter to Gloria (“Last Night on Earth”)

Christian and the other anarchists clash with the forces of the Establishment, and are defeated (“East Jesus Nowhere”)

A malevolent force known as Peacemaker (which could be anything/anyone from a particularly vicious riot guard to a personification of heroin) threatens to destroy Gloria and sabotage the anarchist movement. (“Peacemaker”)

Gloria has come to Christian’s aid, and fears for everything they believe in and everything they stand to lose by fighting. (“Murder City”)

She flees from Christian and takes drugs in downtown D.C., desperately trying to escape the misfortunes of her life (“?Viva La Gloria? [Little Girl],” “Restless Heart Syndrome”)

Christian redoubles his anarchist efforts, leading a stronger riot that begins to take hold in the city. (“Horseshoes and Handgrenades”)

He attempts to rescue Gloria, but communication is disabled as a result of the riot. (“The Static Age”)

Christian finally reunites with Gloria, who is ill from her addiction and asks him to abandon his pursuit of anarchy so that they might live together in peace and safety. (“21 Guns”) (NOTE: It is possible that Gloria dies during this song, in which case disregard all further mention of her in the synopsis.)

The riots continue, and the anarchists succeed in a major victory. (“American Eulogy”)

The anarchists look to Christian and Gloria(?) for leadership and guidance, which they agree to provide in this brave new world. (“See the Light”)

(MY INTERPRETATION OF) THE STORY OF AMERICAN IDIOT

Jesus of Suburbia is the 21st-century everyman, a young man who is overstimulated and under-motivated.  He is observant enough to realize that the American propaganda machine is all too happy to do his thinking for him, and that he does not want to live the life dictated by TV personalities and corrupt politicians. (“American Idiot,” “Jesus of Suburbia”)

Seeking purpose, meaning and direction for his life, he strikes out on his own to find his way in the world. (“Holiday,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Are We the Waiting”)

He meets a nihilistic punk rock rebel named Saint Jimmy, who convinces him to head down the path of glorious self-destruction. (“Saint Jimmy”)

Jimmy convinces Jesus to take drugs, causing Jesus to become more detached and irrational.  (“Give Me Novocaine”)

Jesus then meets Whatsername, a “Rebel Girl” idealistic anarchist. (“She’s A Rebel”)  They fall in love.

Whatsername tries to convince Jesus to stand up for what he believes in, but Jesus’s addiction to drugs and nihilism (fueled by Saint Jimmy) threatens to tear him apart. (“Extraordinary Girl”)

Frustrated, Whatsername breaks up with Jesus, who undergoes a personal crisis and discovers that Saint Jimmy is not a real person at all, but a figment of his imagination. (“Letterbomb”)

Jesus, having abandoned both Jimmy’s and Whatsername’s causes, gets an office job and resigns himself to mediocrity. (“Homecoming”)

Years later, Jesus longs for the life he could have had with Whatsername, but finds that his memories of her are fading. (“Whatsername”)

Basically, 21st Century Breakdown is a slight re-working of American Idiot, where there are no tropes lifted from Fight Club and where the protagonists emerge victorious.

Now that you have some sense of the story, it’s time to take a look the individual songs.

ACT 1: HEROES AND CONS

The first seven tracks comprise 21st Century Breakdown‘s first act  – Heroes and Cons.  It begins with a mildly compelling intro track (“Song of the Century”) that sets up the premise of the album with  a lullaby for the post-9/11 climate of fear and consumption.  I’m a firm believer in starting albums with an attention-grabbing song (or a short intro that leads into one), and so was unimpressed with this beginning.  Sadly, only the song’s reprise near the end of the album lives up to my expectations.

The first real song of the album is the title track, and undoubtedly the first hit single (no, wait, first is “Know Your Enemy.”  Damn!)  In “21st Century Breakdown,” Billie Joe (as either Christian or Gloria or both, I can’t tell which) expresses his contempt for the preceding generation (cons, most notably Nixon) and laments the fact that his own generation feels lost and purposeless.  I do find it funny that the band is singing about being the bastard children of 1969, considering how much of their fanbase is comprised of the bastard children of 1996 (hey, do you suddenly feel old? I sure do!)    Musically, the song employs that all-too-familiar technique called “the ol’ switcheroo.”  The first half of the song unrolls at a slow, anthemic pace, then kicks in to more familiar punk rock territory around the 2:45 mark.  Lyrically, the message is conveyed quickly but belabors the point for far too long.  It’s not all bad, though.  I can’t hear the line “scream, America, scream!” without thinking of this and chuckling.

“Know Your Enemy” is the album’s first single (to my knowledge) and is eerily similar to “American Idiot” in simplicity and themes, yet lacks its predecessor’s attitude and memorability.  It makes good use of repetition and sticks in your head after hearing it, but I found myself wishing it wouldn’t.  The song recalls propagandist slogans (or sound-alikes) and turns them on their heads, calling for the good, honest free-thinking people to recognize that their way of life is threatened by mob mentality and a culture of fear.  I assume this is where the album’s protagonists enter the story, though this is all up to interpretation as far as I can tell.  It would make sense for this to be the spark that ignites the fires of Christian and Gloria’s love for one another and for anarchy/social activism/true democracy.

“¡Viva La Gloria!” is the female protagonist’s theme, and paints a picture of a young woman who is pure in heart and still young and idealistic enough to try to make a difference in the world.  Gloria is no shrinking violet, either, and the slow-paced first verse (accompanied by piano) gives way to a much more familiar Green Day punk rock chorus-through-conclusion.  According to interviews, this song is a drastic reworking of an earlier song called “Emily” (from the never-to-be-released Cigarettes and Valentines album,) and does sound more refined and complex than many of the other tracks on the album. At this point, though, Green Day’s penchant for startings songs slowly and having them kick in after the first verse is starting to wear thin.

“Before the Lobotomy”  Begins slowly and softly, with a flashback/dream sequence that has the singer (whichever character it may be) longing for the days of old, when the world wasn’t constantly on the edge of panic and the government hadn’t been corrupted by corporate interests.  The song kicks in at about 1:20, where the tone turns from one of nostalgia to one of contempt for the current state of national and global affairs.  A call for self-destructive drug-addled action is made, and it all circles back to a reprise of the first verse (albeit with heavier guitars.)  An adequate song, but one that could have said just as much in one-third the time.  It’s hard not to yell “Hey!” at the appropriate points in this one, though.  I found myself doing it without even realizing!

“Christian’s Inferno” is presumably the male protagonist’s theme, in which the singer reaches his own personal breaking point and decides that the time has come to channel his rage into something that will actually change the world.  “Inferno” sounds more like traditional Green Day than every track that has come before it, but it suffers from intentional under-processing on the vocals during each verse (which sound like they’re being played back third-hand from tape, radio and some third source.)  It may serve a thematic or artistic effect, but I found it exceedingly difficult to hear anything Billie Joe was saying.

“Last Night on Earth” is the first slow track on the album, and is a rather touching love song.  I think the most interesting part about is that it works perfectly as a soldier’s love letter to his/her lover from the front lines, in addition to its purpose within the album’s narrative.  I normally believe that Green Day can put out one exceptionally good slow song per album (Time of Your Life, Macy’s Day Parade, Wake Me up When September Ends) and this is definitely the one for 21st Century Breakdown.  It also marks the conclusion of Act 1.

ACT II: CHARLATANS AND SAINTS

The second act opens with “East Jesus Nowhere,” which sounds great but lacks any real message (that I could find.) My guess is that it’s supposed to be the bad guys’ anthem, encouraging conformity and nationalism.  The rhythm is excellent, and the war drums  are particularly compelling, but the lyrics don’t seem to connect to one another at all.  It just seems like a string of political-punk cliches, almost an Anti-Flag Mad Lib.

“Peacemaker” may or may not introduce an antagonist to the story (is it physical or conceptual?), but it certainly is a breath of stylistic fresh air.  It has a Southwest flair, borrowing Old West elements and a touch of Latin flavor to make a very engaging and dark (in that fun sort of way) song.  The chorus is a blast to sing along to, and the ending is one of Green Day’s best ever.

“Last of the American Girls” is another Gloria anthem, and its lyrics are a bit too reminiscent of two Tom Petty songs: “The Last DJ” and “American Girl.”  Or maybe the title is giving me a false impression.  Either way, the song feels a bit too standard and phoned-in for my tastes, especially following”¡Viva La Gloria!” and coming only one album after “She’s A Rebel” and “Extraordinary Girl.”  The guitars are fun in that classic rock sort of way, but ultimately this song just feels out-of-place.  I’m also not sure what its narrative significance is.

“Murder City” earns points for moving the album’s plot forward, but is otherwise fairly mediocre.  Its chorus of “Desperate, but not hopeless” does not seem to fit with the rest of the song’s lyrics, which indicate that things really do seem quite hopeless for poor, beleaguered Gloria.  Musically it sounds like a mid-album Green Day song, one of those that you would normally skip to get to your favorite (if you’re as impatient as I often am.)

“¿Viva la Gloria? (Little Girl)” starts out with a very un-Green Day sound, one that is somewhat reminiscent of an old silent movie soundtrack.  It soon jumps into a darker, cabaret-punk style, and it all gives off the feeling of a haunted punk rock carnival, which fits nicely (albeit surreally) with the protagonist’s feelings of fear and confusion.  I will freely admit that while initially not a favorite of mine, this one has grown on me with subsequent listenings.

“Restless Heart Syndrome” sounds nothing like Green Day’s typical fare, and while it is dark and melodic with important use of piano, I’d hesitate to call it emo.  It conveys the guilt and pain of a junkie wrestling with her addiction and downwardly-spiraling life, and does so with surprising effectiveness.  It’s almost enough for me to reconsider my one-slow-song-per-album rule, and I think it should be a prime candidate for the next “Sad Kermit” video (Pet, don’t watch this one!  It’ll retroactively ruin your childhood!)  Thus Act II closes with a low-note that would make The Empire Strikes Back jealous.

ACT III: HORSESHOES AND HAND GRENADES

My first words upon hearing the opening of “Horseshoes and Handgrenades” were “Welcome back, Green Day, I’ve missed you.”  This song is a return to the kick-ass, profanity-laced, unapologetic punk rock that helped put Green Day on the map back in the early ’90s.  Even better, it stands completely on its own as a great song independent of the album’s narrative.  If you miss the days when Green Day were taken seriously in the punk scene, this may be one of the few tracks on the album worth your time.  It is without a doubt my favorite track on the album, and I highly recommend at least previewing it.

“The Static Age” sounds like it’s trying a little too hard to be a radio-friendly hit, and is definitely on the pop side of pop-punk.  It’s bouncier than “Horseshoes and Handgrenades,” and sounds distinctly reminiscent of “Deadbeat Holiday” on more than one occasion.  Its lyrics are potentially interesting. If you take their meaning of “static” to mean unchanging and stagnant, then it’s a commentary on the lack of innovation and originality in 21st-century art.  I’m not sure of interpretations beyond that, though (except the narrative connection, which has to do with the damage caused by a riot and the inability of people to communicate.)

“21 Guns” is the album’s third slow song, and while I understand it’s story significance I feel that it does not stand well on its own.  The song is about knowing when to give up your convictions, and realizing what is most important in life.  UNLESS… I just thought of another meaning that could change the game altogether!  If the song is a plea by the victorious anarchist forces, asking the Army to lay down its arms and surrender so that the fighting can end, then it’s rather amusing (and the “21 guns” reference becomes more significant.)  Musically it bores me, but I have a notoriously short attention span, so your mileage may vary.

“American Eulogy” is cut from the same cloth as “Horseshoes and Handgrenades,” and is only slightly less spectacular.  It is a return to glory for the band, and even features vocals by Mike Dirnt in its second half.  It’s full of catchy choruses, delicious riffs, and meaty hooks.  It is everything I was looking for in a finale, and greatly improves my overall opinion of the album.  I’d say more, but I can’t really do it justice.  Do yourself a favor and find a way to listen to it for yourself.

“See the Light” is the album’s finale, and again uses the slow-intro-then-fast technique.  It’s lyrically positive and hopeful, but fairly forgettable compared to its preceding tracks.  It distills the band’s message of hope for a brighter future down to its essence, and helps to end the story of 21st Century Breakdown on a high note.  As a stand-alone song, though, it unfortunately doesn’t live up to my notoriously high standards.

For those thinking of purchasing only individual tracks, here’s my breakdown of songs:

Old-School Green Day songs (in the vein of When I Come Around, Basket Case, Nice Guys Finish Last, etc.):

“Horseshoes and Handgrenades”

“American Eulogy”

“Christian’s Inferno”

“The Static Age”

The Softer Side of Green Day (in the vein of Time of Your Life, Macy’s Day Parade, Wake Me up When September Ends, etc.):

“Last Night on Earth”

“?Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl)”

“Restless Heart Syndrome”

“21 Guns”

“See the Light”

Successful experimental songs:

“Peacemaker”

“¡Viva La Gloria!”

“East Jesus Nowhere” (music only)

And the rest… :

“Song of the Century”

“21st Century Breakdown”

“Know Your Enemy”

“Before the Lobotomy”

“Murder City”

That’s all, folks!  now you know far more than you ever cared to about 21st Century Breakdown, and are either more or less inclined to give it a listen yourself.  If you’re looking to hear it for free, Rhapsody is offering it (and “Know Your Enemy” for free download), as is Comcast On Demand (for its digital cable subscribers) and MTV’s The Leak.  By all means, listen to and enjoy it.  And if you think my interpretations of the songs are entirely off-base, let me know!  I’m entirely open to differing opinions, and would love to hear what others think.

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One Response

  1. I realize this is a late reply – but I’m pretty sure that St. Jimmy is Jesus of Suburbia’s alter ego. In the song Letterbomb, Whatsername is saying “St. Jimmy is a figment of you’re father’s rage and your mother’s love,” implying that St. Jimmy is part of Jesus.

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