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Sullen Rock Opera

 

Green Day: American Idiot

Reprise, 2004

Rating: 4.3

 

 

Posted: October 10, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

When it was announced that the California-based punk-pop trio Green Day was getting set to release a concept album that addressed the current political zeitgeist, there was good reason to be intrigued -- and perhaps a little worried. This is a band, after all, that first came to national prominence a decade ago with an album named Dookie, and a crunchy, pithy single ("Longview") about apathy and masturbation. Green Day has remarkably evolved over the years into a tight, smart purveyor of punk-ish, radio-friendly anthems ("Basket Case," "Brain Stew," "Walking Contradiction"), but that kind of resume doesn't necessarily suggest itself as a solid foundation for an excursion into the murky conceptual waters of the "rock opera."

The good news, then, is that American Idiot -- the band's first proper album of new material since 2000's Warning -- isn't the mess it could have been (and, at times, seems to want to become). In fact, it's a bracing, eye-opening and even -- dare we say it? -- fun record. Given that Idiot is built around the perennial punk themes of political discontent and personal and social isolation, "fun" might sound like an odd description. But singer, lyricist and bandleader Billie Joe Armstrong keeps those themes largely abstract, which actually helps immensely. By wrapping itself in such familiar trappings, American Idiot avoids the topical speechifying of, say, late Roger Waters-era Pink Floyd, or even Steve Earle's last couple of records.

And that's a good thing, because American Idiot works best not as some grand, self-important "statement" record a la Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, but as an energetic, musically ambitious pop-rock record that employs its expanded vistas in the service of animating punk's well-worn thematic underpinnings. The rousing power ballad "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" traffics in clichés so threadbare ("I walk this empty street / On the boulevard of broken dreams / Where the city sleeps / And I'm the only one / And I walk alone") they'd be distracting, if we didn't know they were meant to help paint a larger picture, rather than as sincere self-expression.

This is best exemplified by "Jesus of Suburbia," an adventurous, constantly shifting nine-minute suite full of hairpin musical turns that allows Armstrong to voice classic punk motifs ("Everyone is so full of shit / Born and raised by hypocrites;" "I lost my faith in this / This town that don't exist") quickly and efficiently, before they become grating. Just on the sheer amount of riffs and lyrical ground covered, it's by far Idiot's standout track. And it solidly anchors Idiot's aggressive, agreeable first half, from the anti-anthem title track to the power chord-and-chorus-drenched "Are We the Waiting," up through "St. Jimmy," a slice of Green Day's punk-pop at its scruffiest, complete with some surprisingly effective "ooooh" backing vocals toward the end.

The precision engineering, musical scope and sheer determination of the album's first six songs help to sugarcoat the somewhat medicinal taste of the concept itself -- the necessary evil of the concept album. The story of American Idiot isn't spelled out too clearly, but suffice it to say that it revolves around characters with improbable names straight out of a Who or Genesis album: Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy and Whatsername, who's both a rebel ("She's a Rebel") and, well, an "Extraordinary Girl."

After "St. Jimmy," however, Idiot loses a good deal of its engrossing momentum. "Give Me Novacaine" (sp) is a perfectly serviceable Green Day ballad touching on feelings of numbness and isolation -- a candidate for the "Comfortably Numb" of the Warped Tour generation. "Extraordinary Girl" and "Letter Bomb" are melodic enough but unremarkable, and the likeable "Wake Me Up When September Ends" is another stab at radio-saturation balladry, although it lacks the finely calculated impact of "Boulevard of Broken Dreams."

And then there's "Homecoming," another five-part suite, which more or less wraps up what there is of the album's central plot. This is much closer to the traditional, anticlimactic grand finales of many concept records. It's not bad, per se, but it's nowhere near as exhilarating as "Jesus of Suburbia," and only serves to remind us that there's a story going on that we're not too clear about. "Whatsername" ties things up on an agreeable enough note, helped by the fact that it could easily be shipped to radio and MTV as just another lost-girlfriend number.

In fact, most of the more accessible numbers ("Boulevard," "American Idiot," "Holiday") work best because they can be enjoyed outside of the larger, ambiguous narrative. And that's as it should be, perhaps: It's debatable whether Green Day's core audience would know exactly what to do with its own Zen Arcade. American Idiot's conceptual shortcomings ultimately don't sabotage the record beyond repair, thanks to the sheer zest and inventiveness of its deftly maneuvered first half. And that's a story worth telling.

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