As great as it can be as an art form, punk rock is not a genre conducive to growth. In fact, the words "punk" and "evolution" seem almost antithetical. The Clash brilliantly demonstrated how far a band could successfully take the form with London Calling (basically a classic rock 'n' roll album when push comes to shove) — but then quickly lost the plot with misguided ambition on Sandinista! and Combat Rock.
And yet the members of Green Day have never been anything but ambitious. Of course, many would argue the trio hasn't been a "punk" band in years, even if they've remained essentially true to the ethos of Gilman Street, which was almost like a latter-day Northern California hippie scene in its sense of community and the way the kids there tried to take care of one another (which is one of the major themes on the band's latest release). There are still many elements of an exciting classic punk sound in their music — which is why they remain one of the most thrilling live rock bands of our time. But Green Day is also a great power-pop and classic rock band in 2009. There are melodic poppy elements of the former ("Viva La Gloria" is absolutely beautiful, both as a piano-driven ballad during its opening and then as a Ramones-like rocker) and tons of examples of the latter — anthem-like guitar finales, Beach Boys-like backing harmonies, an occasional touch of Queen ... hell, "East Jesus Nowhere" nicks from the Rascals' paranoiac "You Better Run," later a hit for Pat Benatar — throughout the disc. Purists will surely sneer at the strings featured here and there — but purists have been doing that at least since the band's "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)," which, punk rock or not, is one terrific song. And Glen Campbell, who covered it this year, doesn't disagree.
Speaking of ambition, 21st Century Breakdown is the band's second rock opera in a row; it's not just their live shows that have critics comparing them to classic Who, after all. But where American Idiot was primarily ambitious, 21st Century Breakdown is both ambitious and remarkably successful. Divided into three acts, dealing with doom 'n' gloom, religion and love (not necessarily in that order), it's the tale of two punk lovers — Christian and Gloria — stranded in an insane U.S. following nearly a decade of that true American idiot. Always a superb, if limited, guitarist, Billie Joe Armstrong is one of his generation's best songwriters. People in San Francisco were comparing him to Lennon and Brian Wilson before he ever recorded a note for a major label. Overkill? Perhaps. But we live in an era of overkill and exaggeration. (Just this week, Sheryl Crow compared the achievements of Michael Jackson to finding a cure for polio. One has saved millions of lives; the other, um, invented the Moonwalk ... Gee, which do you think was more important?)
Comparisons aside, he's a wonderful song craftsman. And beyond the superb music, Armstrong has come up with some of the best "teenage wasteland" lyrics ("We are the desperate in decline/ Raised by the bastards of 1969") since Paul Westerberg was writing and the Replacements were recording songs like "Bastards of Young" in the '80s. And "Know Your Enemy" isn't just a song title but a recurring warning throughout the storyline. Wise words, indeed, especially for this millennium. It's refreshing to see not just ambition but also passion and social commentary this far over the top — and, yes, actually successful — in our time. Great band. Great album.
Green Day plays Tuesday, July 14, at the Palace of Auburn Hills, 6 Championship Dr., Auburn Hills; 248-377-0100.
Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to [email protected].