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Career punks
Green Day take a big leap forward

When Dookie (Reprise), the major-label debut from a trio of weed-smoking East Bay couch potatoes, came out 10 years ago, it struck a chord ó a big chord. And not just with the all-ages crowds whoíd helped the band sell tens of thousands of CDs on the tiny Lookout! label. Those of us whoíd grown weary of overly earnest, angst-ridden man children whoíd hopped the grunge train long after it left the Seattle station couldnít help smiling as we nodded along to the familiar sound of the Brit-inflected guttersnipe sneer that Billie Joe Armstrong affected, the brisk bombastic backbeats of Moonish Tre Cool, and the low-slung bass pummeling of Mike Dirnt, along with the day-glo dye jobs and the amusing "I donít care" lyrics. Sure, it had all been done before. But that was kind of the point, right? Artless simplicity, heavy-handed hooks, and barre-chord bashing from here to eternity.

Ten years later, itís not just amazing that Green Day are still with us ó hell, the ballad "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" could have been Billie Joe Armstrongís ticket to solo stardom. And Green Dayís brand of punk tends to be a young manís game. Indeed, the bandís last album, Warning (Reprise, 2000), marked a significant decline in units. It had begun to look as if Blink-182 had supplanted Green Day as reigning platinum punks, even as Billie Joe did his best to expand his musical range by embracing elements of the bandís other great love, the Who.

To steal a line from Billie Joeís current favorite target: mission accomplished. From the title of the new American Idiot (Reprise) to the bleeding-heart hand grenade that adorns the cover illustration, Green Day are back with more passion and conviction than theyíve shown since those early days at Berkeleyís Gilman Street. Itís clear that once again punk rock means something more than a paycheck to the band, and you donít have to go much farther than the first verse of the first song (the title track) on the almost hour-long American Idiot to sense that Billie Joe has been re-energized. "Donít want to be an American idiot/Donít want a nation under the new mania/Can you hear the sound of hysteria?/The subliminal mind-fuck America," he sneers against little more than a brisk backbeat as the big guitars part like the Red Sea to ensure that you catch every nuance of disgust and desperation in his voice. Before the song ends, Billie Joe has pulled the pin on that bleeding-heart hand grenade by throwing in with "faggot America," renouncing "redneck America," and ending with the wake-up plea "calling out to IDIOT AMERICA!" Itís an explosive introduction to a complex album that does more than just drop punk-powered political bombs.

What comes next may alarm some punk purists ó itís a mini rock opera called "Jesus of Suburbia" thatís broken into five distinct parts. This is ground the Who first broke, but Billie Joe proves heís up to the task as a songwriter, with Treís tribute to Keith Moon giving way to a piano-laced Mott the Hoople melody and a twist on a the old punk "I donít care" theme ("I donít care if you donít") replete with a Ramonesy backdrop that segues into a melancholy love letter punctuated by the ring of a glockenspiel. It all ends 10 minutes later with a segment ("Tales of Another Broken Home") thatís pure Green Day. No, Billie Joe these days doesnít spend much time hanging out in the 7-Eleven parking lots of "Jesus of Suburbia." But he knows the taste of root-beer slush washing away the burn of a dime-bag bong hit, the shame of an alcoholic broken home, and the loss of faith that can infect a forgotten teen. He can convey what itís like to walk in those shoes; he can also speak to kids who are just now coming of age. Itís his strength as a songwriter, and itís what makes American Idiot a Tom Joad for a different segment of society.

American Idiot goes on to play to all of Green Dayís other strengths while paying honest tribute to dozens of the rockers who have come before, with a "one-two-three-four" Ramones intro here, a Johnny Rotten sneer there, and yet another rock mini-opera ("Homecoming") that brings Jesus of Suburbia back to deal with the suicide of someone named St. Jimmy in five movements that range from Who-style bash-and-pop to "nobody cares" punk-rocking. Elsewhere, thereís acoustic-guitar strumming, a strange hand-drum intro, and a general sense that Green Day are growing in a way that, say, the Ramones never did. The personal and the political are in perfect balance here ó you never feel preached to, because the politics are connected to Springsteenian tales from a world of personal triumphs and tragedies. Itís too early to say, but American Idiot may be the most important album of Green Dayís career. If nothing else, itís proof that they have a career.

Issue Date: October 1 - 7, 2004
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