Green Day: Rebel Yell
"My generation is zeo / I never made it as a working-class hero."
This ambitious invocation of the rock pantheon might not work so well were it not turbocharged by Green Day's combined musical muscle. Armstrong has dialed in his guitar attack with deadly precision. He can switch from punk's agitprop, barre-chord chop to classic rock's chiming, power chord clangor at the turn of an eight-note rest, piling on richly melodic leads in all the right places. 21st Century Breakdown is artfully layered with neatly stacked tracks of electric and acoustic guitar.
Meanwhile, Dirnt and Cool remain one of the most formidable rhythm sections in current rock. The bass lines are unassailably solid, yet admirably fleet-footed, while the drumming is a dizzying amalgam of manic energy and tight control. Crazed snare rolls take off as if chased by the Evil One himself, yet land squarely and miraculously on the downbeat each time. As musicians and songwriters, the trio have evolved steadily since those heady days of the mid-Nineties when they ignited the pop-punk explosion with albums like Dookie and Nimrod and now-classic tracks like “Welcome to Paradise,” “Basket Case” and “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).”
No longer an icon of dysfunctional teenage rebellion, Armstrong, now in his late thirties, is wondering what kind of world his own sons, now entering adolescence, will inherit. 21st Century Breakdown is filled with ominous prognostications of the world to come, ripped from recent headlines: the environmental and governmental disaster that was Hurricane Katrina, the folly of the Iraq war, and an impending class war that undercuts the paranoid shriek of corporate media and the death throes of disaster capitalism.
But throughout the album, Armstrong tells his tale of recent world events in terms of their human cost and impact on our daily lives. “Last Night on Earth” is the love letter that every soldier in harm’s way wishes that he or she could write to a sweetheart back home. The album’s slashing first single, “Know Your Enemy,” could target any number of public figures. But instead Armstrong tells us that the ultimate enemy lies within—our own complacency, indifference or unwillingness to get involved and make the world a better place. So, when all is said and done, 21st Century Breakdown is a rallying cry for an inner revolution.
“For me, it’s about what I learned from punk rock,” Armstrong says, “which is sticking to your guns and trying to keep a spark of vitality alive. But it’s also about wanting to learn something new and not getting distracted by television addiction and trying to read between the lines of the lies that come at you. It says, ‘Rally up the demons of your soul’—just try to have a sense of urgency about yourself.”
GUITAR WORLD It seems that, whereas American Idiot was centered around the anger that a lot of people felt midway through the Bush administration’s reign, 21st Century Breakdown is centered around the problems that have come in the wake of that. Is that a fair contrast?
BILLIE JOE ARMSTRONG Yeah, it was almost like writing songs for the Depression era. And I do think the last record was more about rage and this one is more desperate sounding. But that was not intentional; it just started happening as the songs came together. I was just trying to photograph the moment for each one. And I wasn’t necessarily trying to be political. I mean, half the shit I write, I don’t even know what I’m writing about while I’m writing it. It just starts to come together.
GW Did you know from the outset that you were going to write another big rock opera/rock narrative album?
ARMSTRONG It was something that I knew I wanted to do in the future. I didn’t necessarily know that it was going to be the next Green Day album, but the album just started unfolding that way. I think the first song we wrote was “Mass Hysteria,” which is part of “American Eulogy.” Then “Know Your Enemy” came up a couple of songs later. So by that point you think, Okay, now I know where this is going, and you just start to follow the narrative, musically and lyrically.
GW A lot of the song structures are interesting. They’re not quite mini operas like some of the tracks on American Idiot, where you were combining five, six or seven different song fragments. But some of them, like “American Eulogy” and “21st Century Breakdown” seem like maybe two songs, or parts of songs, put together. Are you looking to get outside the normal, “three verses, a chorus and a bridge” song structure?
ARMSTRONG Yeah. I mean, I love British Invasion pop music—the Who, Creation and Beatles—and on to Cheap Trick…all that power pop kind of music. I love the two-and-a-half-minute single, and we’ve written plenty of songs in the past that have been in that “verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse chorus” format. But right now, for me, it’s more about trying to mess with arrangements and make them unpredictable.
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