Green Day Dawns Again

Part rock opera mixed with a generous helping of pop-punk, Green Day’s American Idiot is a strange release. There is little new music here; indeed, much of the enjoyment listeners receive are the twists on familiar riffs and voicings. Like any good epic work, there is a story and repetition of themes whose placement and frequency would be standard in any Mozart and Beethoven long work. But heaven help me, every time I listen to American Idiot, my mind conjures visions of a Broadway spectacle.

If American Idiot is not Cats, then Green Day hasn’t recorded a modern Tommy either. Every roll of the drums or galloping guitar is matched by homage to classic rock. There are nods to top 40, ballads, anthem rock and a little Beatles harmony number that sounds like the faster follow-up to If I Fell.

American Idiot is like an Elvis Costello concept album. The listener is never quite sure what type of style will be played next, but the music will sound good, have a hook and feature acerbic, witty and mature songwriting.  And that mature songwriting is what marks the biggest growth for Green Day given that they’ve been writing hit choruses for more than a decade.

Listeners can follow the story arc of St. Jimmy and Whats-er-name, listen to the ranting on Jesus of Suburbia or Holiday or search for hidden meanings throughout the album. Green Day has been notoriously coy in talking about either the story or the meanings behind the anti-Bush/anti-war rhetoric that lashes listeners throughout the album.  The band apparently likes being demure, admitted front man Billie Joe Armstrong to Dr. Drew (of Dr. Drew and Adam fame) in 2001.

I sort of enjoy the fact that I’m misunderstood most of the time,” Armstrong said.  “That’s fine. That’s what keeps people guessing.

That guessing is what keeps the boards humming. Is Wake Me Up When September Ends about 9/11 or the death of a band member’s father or both or neither? The band hasn’t said so, but at a festival in Ireland, Armstrong blew away an audience of tens of thousands when he spoke about the London subway bombings.  “Two days ago there was a tragedy. This is for the all the innocents,” he said as the band began the song’s arpeggio intro.

Despite musical influences ranging from early Queen to experimental McCartney, American Idiot is one of the freshest sounding albums in recent years.  Green Day isn’t playing a Beatles-like song. They’re playing an updated version of a Beatles song and throwing a thrash or two into the mix. Tracks like Whatsername that feature a drum machine instead of the rock steady Tre Cool, and sound like 80’s pop a la Duran Duran or Wang Chung.

As teenagers breaking into the California punk scene, they were too inexperienced to try mixing styles.  As twenty-somethings riding the crest of selling ten million copies of Dookie, they would have been too scared to abandon their core audience. Now in their thirties, the boys have grown and said to the world, “Listen up. We have a message, and we’ll give it to you in familiar form so you’ll hopefully take to it.”

American Idiot is the most ubiquitous album of 2004-2005. The singles have swept mainstream and modern rock radio, dominated awards ceremonies and the title track even made it into the best-selling Madden Football game, albeit with some critical words bleeped out.

As that title track (which launches the album) gives way to the 9 minute plus epic Jesus of Suburbia,  listeners quickly learn this is a different album. Quick progressing through the angry Holiday and the hook-laden Boulevard of Broken Dreams, American Idiot bombards listeners with messages.

Armstrong won’t hit those money notes you hear in a pop song’s bridge right before the key change, but his voice is strong and sustains well. New elasticity suggests a vocal coach because he hasn’t sounded this good in, well, ever.  I’m partial to the cuts here and the stripped-down She’s A Rebel and Give Me Novocain.  The latter’s lyrics are inventive while the song’s hooks burn into your brain like a novelty song stuck on repeat.

Green Day’s sun is once again dawning. A decade has gone by since the band occupied the limelight, and when they last had this chance, they released the tepid Insomniac. Older, stronger musicians now, their next release won’t be boring, and it certainly won’t be another decade before the band sells millions of copies of a new album.

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American Idiot
American Idiot
Written by: George Bounacos
Date Published: 05/05/2009
5 / 5 stars