Like its predecessor, 21st Century Breakdown is characterized most obviously by its lofty aspirations. Musically, the arrangements are all over the place. Songs jump from part to part with reckless abandon: piano ballads turn into blistering, palm-muted punk rock (“Viva La Gloria!”); jangly acoustic songs eventually feature squealing guitar solos (“Peacemaker”). There are hints of mid-era Beatles, nods to 70s-style arena rock, and to the poppier new-wave of the 80s.
Yet for all its style hopping, they manage to keep each individual idea relatively concise, which isn’t something they were particularly successful with on American Idiot. Most of the songs here are under four minutes, so, combined with the fact that they have about a dozen parts each, it’s not likely you’ll ever find yourself bored. They’ve also perfected this clever little move recently, where drummer Tre Cool starts doing this full-on marching band thing, with tight, propulsive rolls that reference the military and high school at the same time—two entities traditionally known to frown on individuality, on stepping out of line. Incorporating that sound into the songs that do nothing if not encourage those very things is perfect: it’s subversive, ironic and completely empowering. I’m 30, and even I feel it.
But make no mistake: 21st Century is about and for the kids. Divided into three separate acts—“Heroes and Cons,” “Charlatans and Saints,” and “Horseshoes and Grenades”—the record loosely tells the story of two teenagers, Christian and Gloria, trying to cope with the world they’ve been left by their parents, the Catholic church and, of course, by the Bush administration. Christian is angry. He’s falls back on booze and drugs and a general infatuation with all sorts of destruction, of himself and everything around him; he thinks there’s no use in trying to fix things that can’t be fixed. Gloria, on the other hand, knows everything’s fucked, and she’s hell-bent on making it better. They look out for each other, though, and Gloria turns to him when she’s discouraged. In the song “Murder City,” they suffer a blow of some sort, and they find themselves in the same boat: “Christian’s been crying in the bathroom/And I just want to bum a cigarette./We’ve come so far/We’ve been so wasted/It’s written all over our faces.”
There are some lyrical clunkers, obviously, as there always are, frankly, when punk rock addresses the political—there’s a tendency toward over-simplification and clumsy sloganeering. “Know Your Enemy,” for instance, which for some god-awful reason is the first single from the record, is exactly the type of vague, easily chanted refrain that can be adopted by anyone; it’s hooky as all hell, but it’s insulting to an audience Green Day has always treated with great respect. They should know better than anyone that kids deserve, and expect, more from them than empty crap like “Don’t be blinded by the lies in your eyes.” Fortunately, moments like this are very lightly scattered throughout, easily outnumbered by far more successful lines.
The title track, which functions as the record’s centerpiece of sorts, seems to begin as autobiography, with Armstong singing, “Born into Nixon, I was raised in hell/A welfare child where the teamsters dwelled.” But midway through the song, and then for the rest of the record, he shifts perspective, to the voice of the younger generation: “We are the cries of the class of ’13, born in the era of humility/We are the desperate in the decline, raised by the bastards of 1969.” And right there, summed up in just a few lines, is why 21st Century Breakdown works as well as it does: Despite everything Billie Joe Armstrong has written over the past two albums, ostensibly about wars we’re currently fighting, now-former presidents we’re currently consumed with hatred for, authority that’s in dire need of questioning, and now about having hope for the future, he reminds us here, by talking about himself for just a brief, well-timed moment, that the details might change from day to day, but the story is always pretty much the same. Kids will always need someone to tell them it’s cool if they’re completely fucked up about how to deal with it all, as long as they recognize there’s something there to be dealt with. If Armstrong had written the song of this century like he set out to, it would have been boring and limiting; instead, he wrote the song of any century, and everyone will be better off for it.