In the years after their surprising but welcome multi-platinum breakthrough with "Dookie" (1994), it seemed as if Green Day eventually would follow one of two predestined paths, either going soft as bandleader Billie Joe Armstrong leaned ever more heavily on that acoustic guitar, or burning out on the gleeful charms of snotty pop-punk a la Blink-182, Sum-41 and so many others of that ilk. Amazingly, the group found another way, crafting a bona fide "adult" sound by taking a cue from one of its heroes, the Who, and delivering a musically ambitious and politically ferocious rock opera with "American Idiot" (2004), which sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.
It was a heck of a twist and a hard act to follow, as evidenced by the nearly five years the Berkeley, Calif.-based trio spent crafting its new album with producer Butch Vig (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage). Ultimately, the band tried to go back to draw up an even bigger and better concept epic. Bigger "21st Century Breakdown" certainly is; better... well, not so much.
As with Pete Townshend, Armstrong's plot lines aren't always easy to discern. This time, we sort of follow two characters named Gloria and Christian, intended to be an Every Man and Woman for Generation Y, as they navigate the post-Bush debris of two wars, economic collapse and the death of the punk underground, traumas made all the more difficult by their Baby Boomer parents boasting that everything was better--even the crises--back in those halcyon '60s. "We are the desperate in the decline/Raised by the bastards of 1969," Armstrong declares at one point, later referencing John Lennon while bemoaning, "My generation is zero/I never made it as a working class hero."
This lyrical turf certainly isn't new, but the biggest problem with "21st Century Breakdown" is that it's bloated. Songs such as "Before the Lobotomy," "Last Night on Earth" and "Restless Heart Syndrome" take pointless detours into Queen or late-era Guns N' Roses bombast and theatricality. They're cheesy and distracting--especially because the band has never sounded fresher or more inspiring than it does during the more pared-down, propulsive and straightforwardly tuneful moments, on songs such as "Horseshoes and Handgrenades," "The Static Age" and the title track.
At nine songs instead of eighteen, "21st Century Breakdown" might have been even better than "American Idiot." Of course, that's why we have program buttons on our CD players and a delete function on the iPod.