It was ten years ago last month when punk popsters Green Day flung some mud at Woodstock '94, and in doing so, they became America's newest musical sweethearts, signaling a new age of punk where experimentation and catchiness weren't dirty words, at least in the minds of the so-called "grunge" generation who were still swallowing the personal musical pills of bands like Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam. The band's major label debut, Dookie, scored diamond status. But things became not so rosy for Green Day.
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The follow up to Dookie, Insomniac, sold two million copies, but was considered a sales disappointment after the breakaway success of Dookie. The next record, Nimrod, provided Green Day with the biggest fight of their lives. Considered "sell-outs" and "faux" punk by old friends in the California punk scene, the band included an acoustic ballad titled Good Riddance (Time of Your Life), a song that became arguably the band's biggest hit to date. The band wavered on including the track, but ultimately, decided they didn't care about labels anymore. While Nimrod was a uneven mess of an album, thanks to Good Riddance it also sold two million copies. In 2000, the band released one of the best albums of the year in Warning, which featured the band experimenting even further with acoustic instruments and different sounds, incorporating English folk into the hit Minority and writing a tremendous mid tempo acoustic number in Hold On. In 2002, the band issued a greatest hits set, as well as a b-sides/rarities set in order to tide fans over.
And now, here in 2004, Green Day has finally released an album of new material. And not just any old album either. Nope, Green Day has done the "rock opera" thing, titling their opus American Idiot. Scanning the band's 3 main influences, from the political side of The Clash, to the Ramones three minute pop song done in 90 seconds, to the bombast and chaos of The Who (the band did cover My Generation back on their second independent disc).
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the first single, title track, and opening salvo is talking about a certain Commander in Chief. The song is a raw, refreshing blast that works well as a kind of prologue to the story, which centers on characters with goofy names like Whatsername, Jesus of Suburbia and Saint Jimmy. In 3 solid minutes, the band sums up the atmosphere:
Maybe I am the fa*got America,
I'm not part of a redneck agenda
now everybody do the propaganda
and sing along to the age of paranoia!
We then hit one of the two centerpieces of the album and the social commentary at the heart of this work. Jesus of Suburbia is broken into five parts, and the song is a monster at over 9 minutes. The band manages to move from mid tempo rock, to piano tinged rock, to anthemic pop punk, to a Beach Boys inspired bit, and back to rocking again. What's most impressive about this five part suite is that the song moves through its various parts with complete smoothness, something that isn't easy to pull off. Armstrong keeps up the social commentary in his lyrics throughout these suites, cases in point:
From Suite 2, City of the Damned:
City of the dead,
at the end of another lost highway
signs misleading to nowhere
city of the damned
From Suite 3, I Don't Care:
From the cradle to the grave
we are the kids of war and peace
from Anaheim to the Middle East
Perhaps most impressive about this disc is the band's continued willingness to experiment with their sound while never straying too far from a signature sound. They also never lose their rawness when they do rev things up, and that's what sets Green Day apart from current bands of the same ilk. While those bands have every bit the production that Green Day has, they also polish their songs up so they have no edge. Green Day's songs still have an edge.
The group also shows a certain panache for theatrics, penning the ringing melodic number Are We the Waiting, which employs something akin to the Spector "Wall of Sound" technique in its production values.
So if their political songwriting takes care of the Clash influence, and the penchant for theatrics takes care of the Who influence, then there must be some blazing catchy numbers for the Ramones influence, right? Damn straight.
St. Jimmy is almost three minutes long, but it doesn't feel like it, and it even features some nifty guitar work from Armstrong during the short bridge. She's a Rebel wouldn't have sounded out of place on Dookie, thanks to its punchy rhythm and anthemic lyrics.
The band hasn't left their acoustic guitars behind either, though. Wake Me Up When September Ends has a gorgeous guitar melody punctuated with some nice percussion work from Tre Cool.
Tre Cool. That would be another star on this record. As a drummer, I've always thought he was a bit under-rated, but this record proves it. His work on this record is extraordinary, from his rolls (of which, many are reminiscent of Keith Moon himself) to his fills to his aforementioned percussion work.
The only mis-step comes in the form of the other nine minute, five part suite, and even that is a bit unfair to the band. To me, this song is their full blown tribute song to the Who, at least structurally. The second suite, East 12th Street, for example, has parts which sound much like early Who material like I Can't Explain, as well as having a short acoustic strumming section that is similar in idea to Pinball Wizard. The reason the song doesn't work as well as the previous five part suite is because the song doesn't flow nearly as well.
American Idiot is far and away the best rock record (and probably by extension, best record period) of the year. It probably won't even go multi-platinum, but sales aren't important with a record like this. For those who thought politics was dead in music, that political protest songs now consisted of calling people "idiots" or "texas leaguers," this entire album is the reaffirmation of music as political protest, while never sacrificing how enjoyable the music is. It's a refreshing bit of rock and roll that never lets up and never really lets you down. I'll say it again: album of the year. Hands down. Sorry U2.
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