There’s no way of knowing whether Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong was battling personal demons during the making of his band’s ¡Uno! ¡Dos! ¡Tre! trilogy, though it’s difficult to think that his problems — so severe that he’s undergoing treatment for substance abuse — popped up overnight.
Which means that, in all likelihood, the outburst that preceded the announcement he’d seek help (an onstage rant at last week’s iHeartRadio Music Festival) was the final straw, the moment where he realized he’d truly lost control. It also means that his hospitalization earlier this month — for what his bandmates described at the time as “severe dehydration” — may have been much more serious than we’d been led to believe, a harbinger of trouble on the horizon.
All of this is, of course, pure speculation, and Armstong may never reveal the depths of his dependency or the severity of his struggle … nor should he ever have to. This is an intensely personal issue, and his health is the primary concern; if a few promotional events need be canceled to get him right, well, that seems a small price to pay. Still, the news of recent days certainly casts a pall over the release of ¡Uno! an album that, by all accounts, is supposed to be a party .
Though, at the same time, all of this also raises a rather interesting question: Is it possible for an album to exist in a vacuum? Surely the experience of listening to ¡Uno! last week (when it began streaming on Green Day’s Facebook page) is markedly different from listening to it today, and lyrics like “it won’t be long until I detonate” or “I’ve got an impulse so repulsive that it burns” now seem less like boasts as they do genuine cries for help — to say nothing of song titles like “Let Yourself Go” and “Loss of Control.” Within a matter of days, an album Green Day described as “a good time” suddenly became anything but.
In fact, given Armstrong’s personal issues, you could probably make the argument that ¡Uno! is the most serious thing Green Day have ever done. It’s difficult to interpret songs like “Fell For You” — where he bleats “I’m a mess” — or “Control” — when he documents all manner of depravity and dismisses those closest to him as “a bunch of sh–talking drama queens” — as anything other than admissions that he’s lost control. “Nuclear Family” mentions “drinking angel’s piss” and seems to hint at larger issues at home, as does “Troublemaker,” where he leers at a girl and drawls “I wanna get inside you.” There is no shortage of other, similarly bleary declarations on the album, the majority of which seem to take place very late at night, in very dark places. And more often than not, Armstrong writes from a perspective of isolation and alienation (like on “Sweet 16” or “Rusty James”), which suggest that he was going through this struggle alone.
Had Armstrong’s personal issues not come to light, would we view ¡Uno! differently? The answer is surely yes. But now that they have, we’re left to sift through its lyrics and discover that perhaps Armstrong was dealing with things way deeper than we ever could have imagined. And in ways that we never suspected. The fact that he’s hidden these dispatches of despair inside catchy, affect-free party punk is certainly sad, though it also paints a fascinating portrait of an artist attempting to wrestle his demons down. Was he afraid we’d all find out? Was he embarrassed by what his life had become? Did he ever think it would come to this? Suddenly, ¡Uno! becomes less of an album and more of a diary, one that’s painful — yet poignant — to read. A party it most certainly isn’t.
And I suspect his bandmates knew something was amiss. Bassist Mike Dirnt hinted at it last month in an interview with MTV News, when he admitted that the “there’s a lot … in these records,” then went on to describe a theme he noticed that ran through the discs, one that, in the days since Armstrong entered treatment, now seems oddly prophetic:
“It’s kind of like getting ready and charging to the party on the first record, and then getting to the party on the second record and having an absolute great time and overstaying your welcome and doing a lot of damage,” he said, “And then kind of looking for your car keys and doing some self-reflecting on the third record.”
Perhaps these three albums are, in some secret way, a conceptual piece about Armstrong’s descent. And if that truly is the case, then they automatically take on more import than American Idiot or Dookie! Then again, it’s possible I’m reading entirely too much into this … but I sort of doubt it. Either way, you’ll never be able listen to ¡Uno! in the same way. And who knows what ¡Dos! or ¡Tre! will bring, for better or worse. Though I’m certainly hoping for the former. Get well, Billie Joe.