The standard narrative on Green Day goes something like this: The band members recorded some catchy pop-punk tunes in the ’90s, when their breakthrough album Dookie sold millions of copies, and then encountered diminishing returns into the early 2000s. Their career was reinvigorated with 2004’s political rock opera American Idiot, which brought both a resurgence in sales and a newfound level of critical respect. Following that logic, the band’s long-awaited official follow-up to Idiot, 21st Century Breakdown, should be the next step in solidifying Green Day’s status as a globally renowned Serious Rock Band.
An alternate narrative might take as its turning point the band’s underrated 2000 release Warning, a clever, diverse semi-concept album about the pains of adulthood, and give greater importance to the fun little garage-rock album recorded last year under the name Foxboro Hot Tubs. That story might not be as compelling, but as Breakdown points to, it’s potentially more rewarding.
Breakdown, another politically conscious rock opera, in some ways even more grandiose than Idiot, is a big album in every way, from its running time to its themes to its production (from ’90s alt-rock icon Butch Vig), and people looking for American Idiot, only more, will probably be pleased. But in that drive to create something important, Green Day seems to have left behind some of its best qualities. Even Idiot had a moment or two of goofiness and levity, but there’s not a single bit of humor (once the band’s strong suit) to be found on Breakdown. Even more disappointingly, despite the outsize arrangements (pianos, strings, walls of guitars) of many of the songs, the hooks are often lacking. There aren’t any Idiot-style nine-minute epics here, but songs like the title track are mini-suites nonetheless, and sound unfocused rather than engaging.
Still, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong remains a songwriting dynamo, and the album’s final “act” lives up to the preceding potential: “Horseshoes and Handgrenades” is an intense and loud classic-rock rave-up; “21 Guns” is one of the loveliest ballads the band has ever recorded; and “See the Light” ends the whole thing on a hopeful, anthemic note. These are songs that will dominate radio playlists and sound great blasted in giant arenas; it’s just a shame that they’re doing so at the expense of that alternate narrative.