2009’s Most Disappointing: 21st Century Breakdown

Was going to leave this til later, but I thought that might put a dampener on things so I’ll whack it in before I get into the 10 proper. The most disappointing release of 2009… Not even a close contest, this was taken out with aplomb by Green Day with 21st Century Breakdown.

It isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, if pushed, I’d have to describe it as “good”. But that’s all I can stretch to, and having seen what this band is capable of that’s just not quite good enough.

American Idiot, as maligned as it is by 15 year olds with a knowledge of punk rock history that begins and ends with Blink 182, is one of my favourite records of all time. The perfect combination of political anger, personal anguish and pop punk sensibilities, released at exactly the time when the world needed it, the record resurrected Green Day’s career and in an instant added inspiration to a movement for change that eventually saw a global power shift from the right. I honestly don’t believe that is overstating American Idiot’s influence. For a period in the mid 2000s it became the touchstone of a generation. In hindsight, it was impossible to follow up.

The genius of American Idiot was that it tackled massive issues but was grounded in a very humble, everykid setting. It was a story told from a very working class place. It gave a voice to the disaffected. There was desperation laced through every song. On 21st Century Breakdown, Green Day seem to have forgotten how to do this. Maybe it was the fact that they became the biggest band in the world. Maybe it was because they made friends with U2 (never a good move, surely). Maybe it was because the world in 2009 wasn’t falling apart quite as much as it was when American Idiot was written. Or maybe the band just overcooked the meal. Whatever it was, while American Idiot sounded like it came straight from desperate punk kids screaming to be heard, 21st Century Breakdown sounds like the biggest band
in the world trying to stay important.

21st Century Breakdown is hugely ambitious. It is a story told in three acts, with a subtle thread holding everything together. It aims to tell the story of two disaffected young lovers trying to exist in a society they don’t fit into. So far, so good. First impressions, too, are good. Tracks such as the title track, East Jesus Nowhere, Murder City and American Eulogy are instantly impressive. Last Of The American Girls sounds (and reads) like an American Idiot outtake that, if left in, would have been a highlight of the album. After a few listens, though, it dawns on you. The record is far too long. Songs such as Last Night On Earth, a low-rent Beatles homage complete with swelling strings and sickly love song lyrics, could easily have been jettisoned. It adds nothing and slows the momentum. Similarly The Static Age, which never comes close to living up to its title.

The greatest criticism I have of the record, though, is that after all the promise of a cutting critique of modern society wrapped up in a cinematic storyline, it goes nowhere. American Eulogy, the penultimate song, is brilliant and sets things up for a huge finale to tie everything together and send things off with a bang. Instead, all we get is a toothless piece of nothing in See The Light. It leaves the listener with the impression that Green Day didn’t quite know what they were trying to say.

Again, this is not a bad record. It is has a few great moments – moments that stand shoulder to shoulder with just about anything Green Day has done. I read a comment somewhere, though, that called 21st Century Breakdown “…a collection of American Idiot outtakes thrown together and completely stripped of context”. I’ll defer to the greater reviewing talent of the person who wrote that, as I couldn’t describe it any better.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s