Album Review: 21st Century Breakdown by Green Day

I will freely admit, I selected this album to review because I wanted a trip down memory lane. I am completely serious: Green Day are one of the bands that I can honestly admit got me into rock music, and I still regard American Idiot very highly as a result. Sure, I can admit now that it is not a flawless album (I don’t think I’ve found anyone who has said “Are We The Waiting” was a highlight from the album for them and, as a rock opera, it does a horrible job at telling the story it is trying to tell), but, without it, I wouldn’t be writing this now.

But that’s not the album I want to talk about. The album I DO want to talk about is their 2009 follow up to it, 21st Century Breakdown. I’m not gonna lie, when I first picked up this album, I only knew Green Day for American Idiot, but I had just started listening to My Chemical Romance, Paramore and Metallica at the time I got it, so I was starting to get used to knowing what I liked in music and I was expecting 21st Century Breakdown to live up to that.

It didn’t. I didn’t hate it per se (it still had a few tracks I liked off of it), but it just didn’t click with me the way American Idiot did. It wasn’t the biggest disappointment I suffered with an album at the time (that honor would fall to My Chemical Romance’s Danger Days: The True Lives Of The Fabulous Killjoys, which I had ordered at the same time as 21st Century Breakdown, funnily enough…) and I would suffer FAR more crushing disappointments within the same year as this album (Brand New Eyes by Paramore and St. Anger and Lulu by Metallica all crossed my path in the same year as this album), but it is the disappointment that hit me the most because I actually expected it to be good (I hadn’t been completely sold on Danger Days: The True Lives Of The Fabulous Killjoys prior to getting it, I knew about St. Anger and Lulu’s awfulness prior to listening to them and Brand New Eyes…eh, OK, I’ve got no explanation for that one!).

So, why am I returning to this album now? Well, partially because I want to see if the album is really the disappointment I thought it was originally and partially because, after over a year of amateur music criticism (technically more if you count unpublished reviews) and several years of listening to metal music, I know my taste in music and perspective on what makes a good album are far more different than they were when I first heard this album, so I might be able to see something in 21st Century Breakdown now which, at the time, I wasn’t aware of. Much like how Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest doesn’t look like a bad game after you’ve played stuff like Dark Castle, Action 52 and Human Killing Machine, it can sometimes take hearing the truly awful stuff like Lulu, Dedicated To Chaos, Corporate America and Cold Lake to make you realise that simply not impressing you isn’t the worst thing an album can do.

…Yes, I have listened to all four of those albums. Let’s just say that I approve of their execution…and I hope the judge and the jury do as well.

Anyway, I doubt I need to sum up Green Day’s career (about the only things most people might be unaware of is that Dookie wasn’t their first album, Tre Cool wasn’t their first drummer and they originally formed under the name Sweet Children, but most of that is early stuff that has no real impact on their career, so it’s more interesting trivia than stuff you need to know), so I’ll skip that for once and just dig in!

Green Day on 21st Century Breakdown are arguably playing material that is more in line with punk-influenced rock music than their more recognisable brand of punk music (arguably, they were playing pop punk prior to pop punk being a major thing, but let’s leave that debate for another time). This is a fairly natural evolution from American Idiot, which wasn’t exactly a pure punk album by any measure, but I think Green Day overreached a bit on this album. Not quite to the extent of flying up to the sun and plummeting into the ocean when the wax in their wings proved unable to handle it (never thought I’d get to reference the legend of Icarus in a review…), but I do have to say that, if someone gave me this album without telling me it was by a punk band, I would NOT think it was by a band famous for playing punk music. It does have a lot of punk influence to the music, I should point out, and you do still spot a punk aesthetic to the message the band are trying to tell (bluntly telling you that their home country sucks), but, musically, punk is NOT the genre I would label the album under. It’s a bit too rock focused for me to feel it quite fits in with the punk genre, which should send out a warning sign to hardcore punk fans about what to expect from this album (although, really, if you’re a hardcore punk fan, chances are you stopped listening to Green Day after Dookie, let alone American Idiot!).

Let’s be fair, though: the material is not actually that bad if you approach it without the expectation of hearing purely punk music. I can still tell that effort has gone into a good amount of the album and, while there are still quite a few songs that haven’t got better with time, I do have to admit that the album isn’t quite the disappointment I remember it being. That isn’t to say the material has suddenly gone from being passable to being amazing, but I found it quite enjoyable and the skip button doesn’t feel as tempting to me now as it did when I was younger.

The performances on the album are what you’d expect from Green Day, just with a bit more technicality to them compared to on American Idiot. Not really a lot to say about that, I guess: it’s a punk band pushing into rock territory, nothing more to say.

I do still have criticisms of the album, though: the album just goes on for FAR too long, reaching nearly 70 minutes even without bonus tracks, and it really starts to wear itself out before it gets to the end as a result. I’m not going to say that a band cannot produce 70 minutes worth of material on an album and not make an enjoyable listen, but, in genres like punk, where the focus is on energy and noise over songwriting variety, you can’t afford to have your audience get tired of what you’re doing before you’re done. The best analogy I can think of is watching a party going on while you’re waiting to go home: you can see everyone else is having fun, but you just aren’t paying attention to it because you’re watching your phone for the text/call to let you know that your lift has arrived and can take you home.

In this case, I think the album really falls apart once they get to “Viva La Gloria (Little Girl)” (which, in fairness, is about two thirds of the way through the record) and they don’t completely recover until “American Eulogy” (although I will admit that “Static Age” is pretty good and my only major problem with “21 Guns” is that goes on a bit too long, so, on a good day, I would say it actually recovers at “Static Age”). There are a few weaker tracks prior to that point (I tend to alternate between liking and disliking “Before The Lobotomy” and I still find “East Jesus Nowhere” kind of dull from when I was younger), but, once you get to that one, it’s all pretty dull until the album recovers. A streak of five (three on a good day) dull songs in a row is NOT a good sign, guys: some bands have made entire EPs out of that many songs which are all excellent listens (see Queensryche’s self-titled EP)!

I also have to return to my old complaint and say that the production is FAR too loudly mastered. This has been a problem with Green Day since American Idiot (arguably a bit earlier, but they definitely hit that point around then), so people familiar with the band’s post-2000’s material will already know about this, but it definitely doesn’t make the album’s length feel better because the loudness can make listening to the album become a grueling experience if you’re losing interest in it already. It’s not the loudest mastered album I’ve heard to date, but you certainly shouldn’t put this album near your ears if they’re in a poor condition, as this is unlikely to make the problem any better.

Lastly, considering this album is a rock opera, I haven’t got a clue what on earth the story it is trying to tell is. Seriously, the best guess I’ve got is that it involves a guy named Christian and a girl named Gloria getting together and breaking up, and I’m pretty sure that’s NOT the main story that’s trying to be told in the album due to them not being introduced until halfway through the first act of the album and basically disappearing from it around the end of act 2! I know rock operas aren’t exactly MEANT to force feed you their stories, but, when you’ve got rock operas like Mercy Falls, Operation: Mindcrime and Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory which manage to be excellent albums while still making the stories fairly easy to follow, I can’t help getting frustrated that this rock opera seems so determined to make the story vague. In that aspect, it arguably fails as a rock opera: after all, if you make a rock opera and nobody knows what the actual story is, you’ve not told it very well! See, a rock opera is meant to be like telling a story through music, so it’s like a musical: what is in the lyrics should be all that you should need to work out what is going on in it (maybe with some stage directions to allow you to play about with the direction of your delivery, but that’s about it). Green Day don’t seem to have grasped this fact on this album (or their previous album), as I just feel like I’m trying to read a novel that keeps forgetting to tell me details or deliberately doesn’t give me the information I need to work out what is even going on. That’s bad storytelling, plain and simple: the fact the story is being told through a rock opera doesn’t make the story better, if anything, it makes it worse because you have to deal with it whenever you listen to this album!
Ultimately, I do have to say that, if you like punk and rock music, this isn’t a bad album. It’s not going to be one of your favorite albums, by any measure, and it fails as a rock opera somewhat spectacularly, but it’s certainly worth a listen if you’re able to accept that and just want a decent album. Unfortunately, it’s not an album that I recommend to a lot of people outside of that, so don’t expect this to be something to even slightly win you over if you’re not fond of this sort of music!

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