Green Day Break Down 21st Century Breakdown

'It's like giving your emotions flesh and blood,' frontman Billie Joe Armstrong says of the characters on the album.

Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown is now on the racks (and in the download queues) of stores around the world. It’s been nearly five years since there’s been a new album from the guys — and the last time out, we were talking about American Idiot — so clearly, this is a big deal.

And, in celebration of that, we’ve spent all week rolling out our favorite moments from our Green Day archives. We’ve shown you the guys talking about the making of Breakdown and finding reasons to rage even in Barack Obama’s America , and we’ve taken you back, to our first-ever interview with them (aboard their Book Mobile tour bus in 1994) and the 10th anniversary of their landmark Dookie album , in 2004.

To wrap up the week — and, as an aid to your listening — we’re bringing you Green Day’s guide to 21st Century Breakdown. It’s the ins and outs of the story behind the album … a tale of two polar-opposite protagonists — nihilistic Christian and idealistic Gloria — broken down into three acts (“Heroes and Cons,” “Charlatans and Saints” and “Horseshoes and Hand Grenades”) and stretching across the entire decade … and beyond.

It’s complex, to be sure. So let’s take it step by step. First, those characters, who flit in and out of songs and make up the moral yin and yang of the Breakdown story.

“Gloria is sort of this torch-bearer. She’s the person who’s trying to hold on to her beliefs. Christian is sort of this nihilist. He wants to burn everything down,” frontman Billie Joe Armstrong explained. “Fire gets brought up a lot in the record. And, like, in one aspect, it can be very purifying, and the other it can be reckless and damaging. And I think that’s what they represent. I don’t think there’s a story, per se, between them, on the record — it’s what they represent on the record. It’s like giving your emotions flesh and blood.”

Secondly, those acts — which, on the surface, might just seem like a bit of concept-album largesse, but actually came together after the album was already written — serve as a way of focusing the listener on the central themes that run throughout the album.

“When we were going through the lyrics, we rented a small studio down in Costa Mesa [California], and Billie was kind of taking us through the lyrics, and we were looking at things and really started to see a correlation that just naturally formed different sections,” bassist Mike Dirnt explained. “Like, ‘Heroes and Cons,’ we all fight with our own demons and have our own heroes, and sometimes they’re the same thing. ‘Charlatans and Saints,’ well, there’s similar themes running through the record, and there are some that stand closer to each other, so, in that section, we have a song like ‘East Jesus Nowhere.’ ”

And finally, though it might be far-reaching and long-playing, at its core, Breakdown is about a few simple themes — or, as the band call them, “passions.” And those passions, by design or divine intervention, repeat themselves throughout the course of the album.

“And, all along, each one of these [acts] is bound by the same passions,” Dirnt said. “The passion for knowing, or for challenging yourself, or for hope. And I think those threads sort of go through the entire album.”