For all the power chords and protests, the snot-caked anthems and shout-'em-out hits, the main reason Green Day has become the biggest band on the planet is altogether simple: the trio has made growing older look cool.
Better yet, the Berkeley scruffs, now in their late 30s, have made growing older and cooler look feasible. And who doesn't want to believe in that? Two decades on, Green Day has never been more popular, more vital to an audience that spans Hot Topic teens to vinyl-spinning gray hairs.
And that, in essence, is what the band's new album, 21st Century Breakdown, is really about. At the same time a paunchy patriarchal government has soured the populace, the former couch-surfing nose pickers (oh, how they've grown!) have proved that trading in youth doesn't mean trading in hope, as well.
Arriving in stores today, the sprawling, genre-bouncing 21st Century Breakdown tells the rock-operatic story of Christian and Gloria, headstrong lovers traversing a nation frayed by war, religion and hysteria. It's 18 tracks of romance, ready-to-eat harmonies and nods to '70s glam-rockers Queen and T. Rex.
I don't know if Breakdown is better than American Idiot, but it's a lot more fun. Whereas the bitter Idiot was about staying afloat while being manipulated, Breakdown is almost a revenge fantasy, a Tarantino flick, with edgy heroes capable of taking matters into their own hands.
Band leader Billie Joe Armstrong is 37 now, far removed from his slothful Dookie daze. He's a parent, a millionaire. Yet he still speaks that universal language, that voice in our head that never gets old — even as we do. His poetry remains plain but impassioned. On one Clashian cut, he plainly asks, "Do you know your enemy?" an anarchic rallying cry that's so simple it's almost sweet.
Unlike the droopy poetry of U2 or Coldplay, Green Day always makes sure the message gets through, from the "lay down your arms" ballad 21 Guns to unlikely prom night ballad Last Night on Earth, both of which feature Billie Joe hitting angelic notes. On the slippery hippy-shake of Last of the American Girls, the singer gets his snarl back: "She's a sucker for all the criminals breaking the laws." On the middle-finger ire of Horseshoes and Handgrenades, things get rough: "Everything that you employ / Was meant for me to destroy."
In the five years between Idiot and Breakdown, Green Day blew off cheeky steam with the not-so-secret side project, Foxboro Hot Tubs, a swarthy '60s confection of three chords and a cloud of laughs. That album, Stop Drop and Roll!!!, was about strut and raw thrills. It seemed whimsical at the time, but it obviously allowed Green Day to get something simple out of their system — and then strive for grandiose.
For a wild taste of the record's scope and spin, try Before the Lobotomy. "Laughter, there is no more laughter," Billie Joe laments over a mournful guitar. And then … KABLAMMO! Bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool crash in with Bohemian Rhapsody 'splosions and fist-raising rage. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, the aging punks demand. Maturing doesn't mean giving up, giving in. Now get to work, both young and old, and bang your bleepin' head.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467.