21st Century Breakdown: Green Day Gives Us A Soundtrack For The Summer

Music Green DayJust to cement my standing of being a tributary along the pop culture mainstream, I don’t have a thing to say about last night’s celebrated American Idol finale (a yawn and a scratch doesn’t count).  I’d rather check in on a more ambitious and less manufactured development in the music world: the return of Green Day and the arrival of a true soundtrack for the summer of 2009.

21st Century Breakdown, the new CD from the punk-pop veterans, is a rock opera filled with angst, heart, and hope.  It begs comparison to Green Day’s stunning 2004 return to form American Idiot, but “21st Century Breakdown” is a much more polished and linear work.  “Idiot” was driven by anger at America under the Bush White House … “Breakdown” is fueled by frustration over lowered expectations.  “Breakdown” is a character study, the romance of Christian and Gloria, rather than a cathartic screed.

That said, some of the jaw dropping originality of “Idiot” is missing in “Breakdown.”  The cover art for “Idiot” has a heart-shape grenade clenched in a fist … for “Breakdown” that heart clearly winds up on the sleeve of Green Day leader Billie Joe Armstrong.  He’s a storyteller at his core, and this time he gives us a punk rock romance packed with everything from fist-pumping choruses to tender ballads.

In rock opera Armstrong has clearly discovered a form he excels at.  It fits his musical style perfectly … big themes, big chords, big ambitions.  He knows how to weave a hook out of the most basic of power chords, and you can tell he listens to a lot of music by other artists … and I’m talking everything from Kurt Weill to Kurt Cobain.

There’s a Threepenny Opera feel to “Little Girl” … “Peacemaker” sounds like production number from a Broadway rock musical … “Horseshoes and Handgrenades” rocks as hard as vintage Nirvana.  Somehow, Armstrong manages to piece everything together into a sonic tour de force.  “Breakdown” never slows down, you can listen closely or just play it in the background and it stays with you.

If you’d just rather pick a few tracks off of iTunes you’ve got plenty to choose from … the title track is terrific, so is “Know Your Enemy.”  Of the sweeter stuff “Viva La Gloria”, “Last Of The American Girls”, and “21 Guns” hit the mark.  For bratty punk “East Jesus Nowhere” will do the job.

Green Day has come so far since that free show on the Esplanade in 1994 that ended in a turf-throwing riot, but the spirit of this unconventional trio (the contributions of bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool cannot be underestimated) remains strong.  More mature, but also more vital, they got off their Dookie-era couch, and found something more lasting to say.

“21st Century Breakdown” wraps a rock beat around these challenging times … and keeps us moving forward.

Green Day plays the TD Banknorth Garden on July 20.  Tickets are on sale now.

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