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Playing God: Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown

By ; January 4, 2010 at 12:24 AM 


Green Day’s 2004 album American Idiot took the band to new heights, as they went from being a pop-punk outfit to a band that was selling out arenas. They now shared the stage with the likes of U2 and their music was heard everywhere. It would be fair to say the band hadn’t seen this kind of surge in success since their 1994 album Dookie.

In the age of the dying album, Green Day released a concept album that was a throwback to the ’60s/’70s rock operas. This was a bold move, especially considering that most mainstream artists now focus on only making singles. It was ballsy, to say the least, to write an album with two eight-minute-plus songs, and an album that required the listener to hear it front to back if they were to get the most out of it. Detractors will point out that they were barraged by radio singles (“Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends”) and the new wave of Hot Topic teen fans did not help either. But in the end, the band put out a concept album where the story wasn’t too convoluted and was accessible enough that anyone could hop in and listen. The songs were catchy, and it showed the band pushing themselves harder than they had before with interesting song arrangements and melody, considering their genre.

21st Century Breakdown was the logical follow-up to American Idiot. This time, however, the story is a bit more in-depth and not as literal in some ways as American Idiot was. The album also suffers by being too long and bloated, and being plagued by lackluster singles (that only serve as singles). In the end, the album flows much better as a 13-track opera (American Idiot-length). Not only musically, but also from a conceptual standpoint, the story flows better. If you don’t like Green Day, this will not make you change your mind about the band or album. But for those that fell in love with the band 20 years ago – and adored American Idiot – this will be an interesting experiment. If the concept is something you don’t care about, the album musically has a better flow to it when shortened and isn’t as time-consuming to listen to.

ACT I – Heroes and Cons

1. “Song of the Century”:

Very short intro, the album starts off with static and the sound of a ballad being played on the radio. The piece serves as an introduction to the themes of the album. “The era of static and contraband, leading us into the Promised Land…They’re playing the song of the century, of panic and promise and prosperity.”

2. “21st Century Breakdown”:

The song starts off with Who-influenced piano and builds up to this explosive sound of riffs and harmonies. The “oohs” by Mike Dirnt show that he is a great backing vocalist, and one of the best things about American Idiot-era Green Day. It’s a nice welcome that he is back as a supporting role; even something as simple as backing harmonies can go a long way. This track in some ways is a smaller version of “Jesus of Suburbia” – the harmonies, the progressive change in the riffs. The song is also divided into three parts in style, which help keep the song moving through its five minute length. Lyrically, it’s just a second part to the intro and it really just sets up the themes of the album, given from the perspective of the lead characters who feel that their generation has been lost in the decisions of the previous ones. A sense of hopelessness and despair is conveyed. It also briefly touches on the fact that they feel betrayed by their elders and religion – “We Are the desperate in the decline, raised by the bastards of 1969!”

3. “¡Viva la Gloria!”:

The song introduces one of our main protagonists – Gloria from the eyes of Christian. The song start off with a 50-second ballad with slow piano and Billie providing some of the best vocals he has ever done. The song then explodes into a transition and the song is extremely catchy. From a story standpoint, Christian is clearly in love with Gloria and really holds her in high regards. “She is the saint of all the sinners, the one that’s fallen through the cracks.” He not only is in love with her, but thinks she can provide a solution to many of the problems that people face.

4. “Before the Lobotomy”:

“Before the Lobotomy” plays off like a bad trip. The opening guitars move up and down slowly and it really conveys a dream-like state. This song – like the previous one – is split up, but this one more so is split into three parts. The track serves as a psychological piece for Christian, as we get to see how he ticks. The song is pretty somber in tone; it conveys a sense of being lost and hopelessness. “Dreaming, I was only dreaming of another place and time where my family’s from.” There is a real sense of yearning for past times that were better for Christian. The second half explodes into chugging guitar riffs (again, similar to songs from American Idiot). We also find out that Christian abuses drugs to deal with his problem. Unfortunately, I had to cut “Christian’s Inferno” which was the next track. The song is fantastic live, but in the studio they mucked it up, and musically it just isn’t up to par with the other tracks. However, that song dealt more with the split personality issues that Christian has (or rather, his problems with rage and abuse of drugs). But I feel this song does a good enough job letting the audience know he has issues.

5. “Last Night on Earth”:

If there ever was a love ballad for Green Day, this one is it. It leaves behind the angst/rock of their past ballads and simply plays out like a love letter. The song consists of piano and Billie crooning about the protagonist’s love for Gloria. There is a sense of peace that comes over Christian when he is with her – she basically calms him down – but at the same time, the character acknowledges that he has some destructive issues. “If I lose everything in the fire, I’m sending all my love to you.” Sure the song can come off a bit cheesy, but it really is one of most beautiful things the band has written. The backup vocals from Dirnt are amazing, and the song has a ’60s ballad vibe to it (especially the guitar slides). It shows how far Green Day has come in their sound. Love it or hate it, this is not your parents’ Green Day.

ACT II – Charlatans and Saints

6. “East Jesus Nowhere”:

Continuing the radio theme, Act II starts off with static and someone changing the radio – until it settles on a pastor saying “And we will see how godless a nation we have become.” “East Jesus Nowhere” is essentially “Holiday” 2.0. It has a similar driven guitar riff/drums and both songs are protest anthems. This go around, Green Day takes a shot at religion, specifically the right wing fanatics. Some might say this is too much like “Holiday,” but I believe it has a little more depth to the song structure (especially that rolling guitar around 3:30).

7. ” Peacemaker”:

This track has a Spanish-influenced sound to it and this rolling romp vibe. It calls back to their Warning-era songs, but is more refined. It literally sounds like a mariachi band spinning a tale of passion and murder at the hands of a pistol. Whereas “Last Night on Earth” was a ballad to Gloria, this is a ballad to a gun, and it’s clearly one of the more interesting songs on the album. As far as plot goes, this is probably the most ambiguous song on the album. Perhaps it’s just a metaphor for Christian wanting to go out and fuck things up – to actually do something instead of just talking about things. Or maybe he really went out and bought a gun. Whatever the case may be, this song is awesome musically, and serves as a great middle place for the album.

8. “Last of the American Girls”:

Another song about Gloria, this is like a continuation of the first “¡Viva la Gloria!” Christian is essentially gushing over Gloria and all the great attributes she has. Again, we see this recurring theme where he thinks she is the solution. “She’s on a hunger strike for the ones who won’t make it for dinner.” He almost portrays her as some kind of Martyr. The song itself is just pure pop bliss. It might be one of the catchiest things the band has ever written, and Dirnt gets my nod for having a great bassline on this one.

9. “Murder City”:

This song carries over from “Last of the American Girls” – where the Morse code sound repeats, loops and speeds up until Tre Cool comes in with his drums to build it up. Then the song just explodes. “Murder City” is in your face and has an extremely catch chorus. It is my personal favorite song on the album, as I think its simplicity and how it wears its heart on its sleeve really makes this song raw and emotional. Lyrically, the song talks about the hardships that Gloria and Christian are going through – their relationship is not perfect by any means. “We’ve come so far, we’ve been so wasted it’s written all over our faces.” We get this sense of fragility and tension that has built up between them. The song also deals with the fact that Christian is an emotional mess and Gloria doesn’t seem that sympathetic. “Christian’s crying in the bathroom, and I just want to bum a cigarette.” We really get this sense that they tried to take on more then they could handle, and the city is eating them alive.

10.”¿Viva la Gloria? (Little Girl)”:

With as much praise that Christian gives Gloria, the listener at this point expects her to be this great heroine and saint. But what we end up finding out is that she has her own problems, and that she is in fact abusing drugs as well. The song sort of recalls a similar sound to My Chemical Romance’s “Mama” – it has this up-and-down piano and explosive guitar riffs. The narrator almost speaks of Gloria in this song with disgust. “Little girl, little girl, you dirty liar, you’re just a junkie preaching to the choir.” This really serves as the main twist in the album, as we find out that Gloria herself is a mess.

11. “Restless Heart Syndrome”:

This song has the most serious themes out of any other song on the entire album. It deals with the abuse of prescription drugs, and how the pharmaceutical companies don’t really care and are just trying to push these out on people. It also deals with how people who have pain and suffering get roped into taking these, because it’s such an easy solution to get lost in the high of these drugs. Musically, this song is simply fantastic. Billie is hitting high notes that many had no idea he could. It has this great string intro and the song is rather beautiful. The song picks up at the end as it climaxes into this wall of sound and the drumming outro is great. As far as plot goes, this one isn’t very specific to which character the song is about. It could be about either Gloria or Christian. Based on the art of the album, it almost suggests the song is about Gloria. One of the more interesting parts of the album is the self-realization that the protagonist is his/her own worst enemy – that while the world has problems, at the end of the day we have to make our own and take responsibility instead of blaming others.

ACT III – Horseshoes and Handgrenades

12. “The Static Age:

The catchiest song on the album, “Static Age” is used to really come back to the earlier themes the album introduced us to. It talks about how bloated the media has become in our lives. It uses this metaphor of no longer being able to hear music on the radio because all the protagonist is hearing is media and processed opinions. It has this sense of yearning for a freedom from all that and from being suffocated by the overload of media. “All I want to do is a I want to breathe, batteries are not included.” Musically, the song has this great drum pattern and guitar riff that really has a nice bounce to it. There is also a nice breakdown 2:15 in, where a little saxophone solo can be heard. It’s pretty obvious how influenced this bit is from Bruce Springsteen. It’s a nice little nod.

12. American Eulogy (A. “Mass Hysteria” / B. “Modern World”):

This song was actually written closest to the American Idiot era, and it’s pretty obvious how much it sounds like it could have been on that album. In some ways, the song really sounds like “Homecoming.” In particular, I really think this song works as an album closer. For one, the little “Song of the Century” reprise in the beginning of the track kind of ties up the album; it brings it back full circle. Secondly, the song has a no-holds-barred vibe to it. It’s basically this fuck off, send off to all the things that the protagonist struggled against. This can either be seen as a good thing or a bad thing. However, even with “See the Light” there were never really any resolution or answers. Basically you have these characters that highlight the problems of society, and they essentially deliver no answers or solutions. “American Eulogy” reads as them giving up, giving one last push back and taking off – “I don’t want to live in a modern world.” The song is split into two sections, and it has this progressive sound to it with the riffs and drumming changing up back and forth. The last half of the song sees Dirnt singing lead vocals as he professes, “I don’t give a shit about the modern age!”

Total Time: 49:42

For some, the story might be too convoluted. It might ask too much from the listener without giving back enough. The protagonists ask a lot of questions, and don’t really have any answers. Perhaps this is the point of the album. But at the end of the day, it’s pretty easy to see why this is such a frustrating listening experience compared to American Idiot. Even with that story, there was a sense of resolution. “Whatsername” was this fantastic album closer that really tied the whole album together. It was from the perspective of the main character, and it was him looking back on this journey and story, and it made the listener sympathize and also reflect with him. And even though there might not have been clear answers in that one, there was a sense of resolution with the character – that he had learned a lot from his life and taken away something from it, even if he had come out of the journey scarred. This album shows two protagonists that are frustrated, and it certainly leaves the listener frustrated. In the end, American Idiot will always overshadow 21st Century Breakdown. The album itself is too bloated, especially considering how convoluted the story is. However, cut down to 13 tracks (20+ minutes being shaved off), the album flows much better and is a much more enjoyable listening experience.





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