“I fucking hate Green Day Now. They’re bunch [sic] of commercial cock suckers.
There [sic] old school shit was great though! ” – punkerchick411, via YouTube
Ah, Green Day.
I first encountered Green Day in the early nineties, when most of my free time was dedicated to Magic: The Gathering or Super Nintendo (hey, don’t you fucking judge me). In between CDs by our fellow geeks and nerds, the gang and I would occasionally spin a record by some amusingly unambitious stoners. They played simple, yet catchy, pseudo-punk: hard-rocking distorted guitars and raucous drums, but nothing so heavy that melodic, on-key vocals and classic pop song structures were lost in the blitz.
But Billie Joe Armstrong is no longer a twenty-something stoner jerking off in his bedroom. Nope, now he’s a thirty-something superstar jerking off in a recording studio (oh, and good luck cleaning the semen stains off your copy of Quadrophenia, Billie Joe). Oh, sure, his songs are still fast, melodic three chord pop-punk numbers. But they’ve somehow lost the charm they had fifteen years ago. I mean, he was never a great songwriter, no Lennon or McCartney, no Townshend; no Cobain, even.
Sorry, Billie. You just aren’t.
Still, he always had a sort of charm to him: he knew what he was doing (slightly polished poppish punk) and he did it well. One couldn’t blame him for not being great, because he never claimed to be great, and never pretended to be great. He was just a punk playing punk. What you see is what you get. Simple. Classic.
Now he doesn’t seem like he knows what the hell he wants to be. Ever since he inflicted that godawful acoustic ballad on us. All of a sudden it seemed he wanted to be great…or, at the very least, wanted to be better than he was. He still built songs around only three or four chords, still cranked out melodies that were simple, even predictable, but in his rush to seem serious and deep and whatever the hell else he was going for, he abandoned everything that made his work worthwhile, trading the distorted, kiddie-punk sound for acoustic guitar and a goddamn string quartet. Suddenly, in an apparent effort to make his songs seem more respectable, he instead inadvertently underlined their weaknesses.
And so it is with 21st Century Breakdown. Pianos and strings and gimmicky sound effects (“Hey! It sounds like old-timey radio!”) appear here and there, just as they might have been on any peak-period record by the Beatles or the Who or any of Armstrong’s other apparent heroes. But the other, more fundamental trademarks of these great bands (clever compositions, complex arrangements, spirited performances) are missing. The songs themselves are boring, forgettable, predictable. Vaguely political lyrics and slick (over) production can’t hide this from anyone inclined to listen. Armstrong has gotten so excited over his album concept and his elaborate production details that he’s forgotten to write any damn tunes.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against rock operas or concept albums or whatever. I like them. I’d like to see more of them. But not at the expense of the songs (you know, those things that albums are ostensibly composed of). Bands who venture into these waters generally have a songwriter who’s worth his salt (if I may mix my metaphors for a moment). 21st Century Breakdown feels like a cart trying to pull a horse, or a tail wagging a dog, or a…you know…metaphor…thing.
Which isn’t to say the album sounds bad, as such. It’s nice enough. But it doesn’t sound exciting or interesting or original. It doesn’t sound like the work of a band that’s been in this business for 15+ years (and has allegedly evolved in that time). It certainly doesn’t sound like punk (unless Avril Lavigne is punk). And it doesn’t sound like the four-and-a-half-star masterpiece that Rolling Stone has seen fit to declare it. What it does sound like is the sort of album Rolling Stone would give a great review to: ambitious and elaborate, music that sounds impressive on paper but just feels sort of pale and boring when actually listened to. Maybe that’s why the album bothers me: not because it’s not great. But because it’s trying to be great. And people are saying that it is, for no reason I can fathom.
I don’t have anything against you, Billie Joe. I still enjoy The stuff you did back when you were doing what you do well. Put out a simple, basic, rough sounding record instead of an over-polished piece of Grammy-bait, and I’ll be the first to enjoy it. Champion it, maybe. But as long as your reach exceeds your grasp, and you seem more interested in being fawned over by rock critics than in rocking out, I’m done with you.
Thanks for taking the time to listen to me whine, though.