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Green Day Builds on Past with ’21st Century’

600px-21st_century_breakdown_album_coverFor a band named after time wasted in a cannabis fog, Green Day sure is lame at vegging out.

"We worked (hard) on this album," says singer, guitarist and lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong of the band's new "21st Century Breakdown," out Friday. "If we're one of the biggest bands, it's not because we got lucky or are the most talented. The hard work is what I'm most proud of. Nothing comes easy for us."

If so, it's hard to tell.

"Breakdown" follows 2004's critically lauded American Idiot, which will open as a musical at the Berkeley (Calif.) Repertory Theatre in September. If Idiot was largely an angry critique of the former president's effect on the nation, the new album whisks listeners through a bleak but not hopeless landscape with an epic sonic palette.

Echoes of The Who ("21st Century Breakdown"), The Clash ("Know Your Enemy") and even The Beatles ("Last Night on Earth") reverberate through an aural triptych that screams "concept album."

Not that Armstrong knew he was headed into that pre-iTunes territory when he was conjuring words.

"I wasn't thinking of this grand scheme or anything, but I come from an era when records were an event," he says. "Today's kids are sold short. They want something meaningful."

Drummer Tre Cool, who along with bassist Mike Dirnt rounds out the trio, says the band shot for "a fun ride, from headbanging to quieter moments."

But for the three Bay Area friends, who bonded 20 years ago in their teens, there was also a sense of destiny.

"We did for a moment wonder, 'Should we kick (butt)? Or phone it in and do 'Kerplunk' part two?' " Cool says. "In the end, we thought, 'If this is our time, let's seize the day.' "

Breakdown was born when the band gathered in a Costa Mesa, Calif., studio with veteran producer Butch Vig (Nirvana's "Nevermind") and sifted through dozens of songs until a theme emerged.

Two characters, Christian and Gloria, quickly took center stage in a journey that reflects on a post-Bush America that, in the words of the album's coda, "See the Light," needs to cross "the desert, reaching higher ground."

The bandmates are unabashed fans of President Obama. But don't confuse that for relief. "It took eight years to get into this mess, and it's going to take more than 130 days to get out of it," Dirnt says.

Green Day hopes to lend a hand with its pop-punk, emphasis on the latter's roots in prodding authority. While much of "Breakdown" revels in three-chord simplicity, its authors are complex.

"These guys are all very well-read," says Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke, who spent time with the band in the studio. "Whether it's their social views or their music, they take everything in and compact that into ambitious rock 'n' roll. They love bands like The Ramones, The Doors, and they're just trying to be as good as their heroes."

Where many groups get caught up in personality and business clashes over time, Green Day's bond translates into musical unity, Fricke says. "They don't think the same, but they act as one."

Helping carry the band's political message is a loyal fan base.

"In the beginning, they'd sing about alienation through romance," says Robert "Eggplant" Burnett, a longtime volunteer at Berkeley's famed all-ages club, 924 Gilman Street, where he saw the band debut as Sweet Children. "Now, they're singing about alienation through politics. There's a progression, and we (fans) happily go along with it."

One question always shadows an underground band thriving in the mainstream: Are they still punk?

"Punk means questioning the mold society shoves us into," says Ross Haenfler, sociologist at the University of Mississippi and author of "Straight Edge: Clean Living Youth, Hardcore Punk and Social Change." ''So Green Day might be at awards shows and on TV, but they have always fit that definition."

For Armstrong, the pressure that accompanies success is just channeled back into the music.

"We use all that to push us harder," says Armstrong, who taught himself piano for "Breakdown" so he could expand the number of keys he could compose in. "If we have an Achilles' heel, it's patience. But we knew we had to lay back a bit and let it all come together."

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