Green Day Album Preview: Breaking Down 21st Century Breakdown

American Idiot is followed up by an album about nothing ... and everything, in Bigger Than the Sound.

To contextualize is to criticize, that much is certain. And no album released this decade has been contextualized quite as much as [artist id="988"]Green Day's[/artist]

American Idiot, a fierce and fiery punk opera that (so the rhetoric generally goes) summed up the fears and frustrations of a nation — and a world — living in the dog days of George W. Bush.

This may or may not actually be the case (though it probably is), and it might not be fair (though, again, it probably is), but like it or not, Idiot has come to be identified with a moment in time — and a generally awful and hopeless one at that. It is impossible to listen to it or write about it and not hearken back to stuff like "Mission Accomplished" and "WMDs" and "Threat Level: Orange."

This is the way these things happen. Art is not created, nor does it exist, in a vacuum, and so, we contextualize. We cannot help it.

So if we accept the inevitable, how, then, do we contextualize Green Day's 21st Century Breakdown, the album that draws the unenviable task of following the globe-uniting, career-reviving American Idiot? It is certainly every bit as angry and inspired as its predecessor — if not, in some cases, more so — full of manic swings in tempo and mood, big, windmilled guitars, stomping drums, whomping bass, arena-filling crescendos, some strings and even a piano ballad or two. It is ambitious and challenging almost to a fault (the third act does lag a bit), packed with emotions and characters that contradict one another at every turn. And perhaps, therein lies the context.

Because 21st Century Breakdown doesn't really have a plot, which is fine, because it's not supposed to. In theory, Billie Joe Armstrong's lyrics tell the story of two characters (evil, nihilistic Christian and sweet, sentimental Gloria) on a zig-zagging trek through this young century. Only, you know, the characters might not actually be real — more like the Punch and Judy act slugging it out inside Armstrong's brain — and their trek might actually be of the metaphoric variety. And none of this may or may not actually be happening right now.

For every step forward, there is one back. For every point, a counter. Big, nasty "burn it to the ground" tunes like "Christian's Inferno" are balanced by pretty, optimistic numbers like "Viva la Gloria!" Straightforward, dreamy love songs like "Last Night on Earth" and "Restless Heart Syndrome" dissolve directly into burners like "East Jesus Nowhere" or "American Eulogy." And for an album about the 21st century, there sure is a whole lot of old-timey radio static to be heard throughout.

And taking all that contradiction into consideration, you arrive at one very interesting thought: 21st Century Breakdown just might be the most brilliant, spot-on summation of a decade you'll ever hear. Say what you will about the '00s, but darned if they weren't possibly the most contradictory 10 years in this nation's history. We had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, great leaps forward and tremendous stumbles in the opposite direction. We built bridges to the future and lost cities to the past. We went from optimism to pessimism to skepticism, and now we hover somewhere in between all three (or perhaps even nihilism). The rich got richer, the poor poorer, and the middle seemed to all but disappear.

And 21st Century Breakdown encompasses all that: the confusion, the skepticism, the horror and the hope. That it makes no judgments is its — and Armstrong's — greatest accomplishment. Because, really, how can anyone judge the past 10 years?

Which is why, perhaps the best thing you can say about the album is that it's not American Idiot — it's better. Idiot was too easy ... the sentiments too simple, the targets not that difficult to sniff out. Breakdown is subtle and smart, an album with the brains and the wherewithal to realize that there isn't just one enemy, there are hundreds of them, and they're hiding everywhere. It catalogs the hopes and fears and the optimism and the pessimism and does not, for one second, make comment on any of them. And there's where the art lies. American Idiot was about something. 21st Century Breakdown is about everything. And nothing.

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