With 2004’s resounding, career-reviving smash American Idiot—and now, the superior 21st Century Breakdown—Green Day have not so much evolved as been completely reborn. Even their name seems to have transformed, from a J-smoking lazy-afternoon joke to maybe something environmental.
This is not simply because the zeitgeist changed, but because the band itself appears to have swapped affiliations: Billie Joe Armstrong may be 37, but on Breakdown, he sounds like a member of the current generation instead. The album, an epic, bombastic, narrative-rich treatise about young adults contending with the institutions of contemporary America, sounds younger and more naive than Dookie did 15 years ago. It’s not like Blink 182 cynically singing about being 16, either; whereas Tom DeLonge sounds creepy reminiscing about hitting on girls at the Warped Tour, Armstrong’s evocations “of forgotten hope and the class of ’13” sound almost prophetic.
More so, despite some occasionally vague lyrics, Breakdown is one of the most fervent and intense mainstream political rock statement in decades, dancing between mid-’70s self-annihilation punk and idealistic cause célèbre recruitment. The former finds voice on “Horseshoes and Handgrenades,” in which Armstrong sings, “Demolition, self-destruction/What to annihilate?” Later, he announces, “This is a standoff/A Molotov cocktail/On the house”: Green Day as C-4 poets.
Elsewhere, though, they play progressive recruiters. On the leadoff and title track, Armstrong opens with “Born into Nixon/I was raised in hell/A welfare child/Where the teamsters dwelled,” and then refracts John Lennon with the defiant (and momentarily heartbreaking) admission, “My generation is zero/I never made it as a working-class hero.” That sentiment transforms Breakdown from a simple re-enunciation of ’60s politics into something very contemporary and relevant. Whereas Lennon found dignity and revolution in the working-class experience—playing Karl Marx’s role of the enlightened bourgeois artist teaching the proletariat how to protest—Green Day only see alienation and disenchantment. Their lyrical persona is as trapped and desperate as they imagine their listeners to be. “We are the desperate in the decline/Raised by the bastards of 1969,” Armstrong cries out, and then challenges any musician who claims to lead the revolution: “Scream, America, scream/Believe what you see from heroes and cons?” They don’t trust anyone over 30—including themselves.
Remember, of course, that Green Day are as major-label as they come, and this will undoubtedly be one of 2009’s bestsellers—Breakdown is pure capitalism even as it repudiates it. They aren’t exactly pulling a Radiohead/Girl Talk trick and offering the album for free online, either. Yet despite the skepticism and self-derogation, I detect triumph and the kind of radical sentiment that pumps blood toward political engagement, not away from it. “She’s a runaway of the Establishment Incorporation/She won’t cooperate/She’s the last of the American girls,” is a reactionary statement, nostalgic in its dream of a pre-corporate moment. But it’s radical in its gender politics and sense of protest. Same with “She’s on a hunger strike/For the ones who won’t make it for dinner,” or the Beckett-esque “She will come in first/For the end of Western civilization/She’s a natural disaster.” If visualizing the destruction of civilization isn’t a form of resistance and protest, then what is?
Despite lacking the pretentious medieval conceits of Joanna Newsom or the Decemberists, Breakdown is also mindful of history, both literary and musical: “I walked for miles ’til I found you,” from the gorgeous ballad “Last Night on Earth,” speaks to U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for”; “She puts her makeup on/Like graffiti on the walls of the heartland” turns urban dystopia into prophecy just like Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” Most notably, “¡Viva la Gloria!,” with its Brechtian cadences, sympathizes with a “Runaway/From the river to the street . . . There is no place like home/When you got no place to go,” evoking some of the greatest rock songs in history, from Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” to the New York Dolls’ “Frankenstein.” There are too many echoes of the Boss, in chords and words alike, to count.
Considering 2001’s Warning as the preamble (with its own Brechtian “Misery,” as well as “Minority,” their first real flirtation with political consciousness), Green Day’s work on American Idiot and now Breakdown cements them as the greatest political rock band currently selling records. Considering Breakdown is not just politically conscious, but also catchy, assured, lyrically clever, and packed with hooks, we’re dealing with possibly the greatest rock album of the past decade. I don’t know if anyone (especially these guys) still believes a rock album has the power to change the world—we’ve been too often burnt by songs full of radical promise that never deliver. But this is pop culture that engages with the zeitgeist, and there’s power invested there, too. “What’s the latest way that a man can die/Screaming, ‘Hallelujah’/Singing out, ‘The dawn’s early light’/The silence of the rotten, forgotten/Screaming at you,” they cry out on “The Static Age.” I hope they sell a gazillion records, and everyone hears that scream: an anthem for nihilistic, downtrodden, alienated kids looking for heaven. It’s practically fucking Milton.
Green Day play Madison Square Garden July 27