- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Green Day
21st Century Breakdown

Green Day burst on the national scene 15 years ago with its major-label debut, “Dookie,” as an anodyne interpreter of classic three-chord punk rock. The music preserved the bouncy ska beats of punk’s heyday, but the group’s distortion-heavy guitar lines had a sugared feel to them — as if to signal to the listener not to take things too seriously.

This grunge-era pose represented a radical departure from the traditional punk ethos, which demanded that fans adopt an almost cultish attitude toward the music and the anarchic politics it represented lest one suffer the ultimate indignity of poseur-hood. Punk demanded fashion concessions that gave it a separatist character. Green Day was punk rock for the charts, punk rock without homework.

That all changed with the release in 2004 of “American Idiot,” an ambitious (some would say overweening) rock opera that parodied the post-Sept. 11 American mind-set as paranoid, parochial and blind to reason. Green Day’s new album, “21st Century Breakdown,” picks up where “Idiot” left off — it’s an 18-track song cycle with an introduction that’s reprised at the end.

There are recurring characters — Christian and Gloria — who occupy a dangerous, hardscrabble landscape full of rakes and charlatans that feels almost apocalyptic at times. But the end of an era of conservative political domination finds the Berkeley, Calif.-bred band without a handy villain, so the politics here are a little vague. The result is a kind of retreat into a catchall anti-establishment anarchism that, curiously, feels more like punk rock than much of Green Day’s previous catalog.

The band does an admirable job sustaining the quality over the 18 tracks — a double album by vinyl-era measures. Despite the abundance of references to less intense musical forms, a punk energy dominates. Songs including “Murder City,” “Horseshoes and Hand Grenades” and “Know Your Enemy” are unremittingly aggressive, with drummer Tre Cool and bassist Mike Dirnt creating a wall of rhythm to counterpoint the nasal, upbeat voice of Billie Joe Armstrong.

Mr. Armstrong, who writes the songs while shouldering vocal and guitar duties, delves into the history of the protest song. There are references to John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” (which the trio previously recorded) and the 1960s staple “Eve of Destruction.” Mr. Armstrong’s allusions are all over the map, ranging from rhythmic piano riffs that resemble passages from Kurt Weill compositions to a shout-out to Van Morrison.

While the signature Green Day sound of fuzzy and distorted guitars permeates nearly every song, Mr. Armstrong makes a virtue of veering into unexpected territory. The title track leads in with a keyboard and guitar line that sounds like “Sgt. Pepper”-era Beatles as filtered through the soft-rock sensibility of Billy Joel.

After an arpeggiated intro that plays like an Andrew Lloyd Webber lament, “Viva La Gloria” blends a rollicking klezmer-style rhythm with driving guitars. “Peacemaker” adapts the acoustic strumming of an old-fashioned Mexican murder ballad to a Clash-era punk song, complete with a backing vocal part that sounds like a hooligan chorus. The louder it is played the better it sounds; it’s not just the best song on the album, but among the best of Mr. Armstrong’s career.

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