he idea that there is any correlation between truth and history is as patently absurd as aligning that abstraction with any other field of study, but if the history of the “third wave” of “punk rock” (by then firmly set into the sonic cul-de-sac it still languishes in) is written with any compassion, Green Day have one hell of a re-appreciation due. You can see it gathering force even now, scattered writers and fans admitting that this band was, and is, far better and smarter than most of their contemporaries. Those that haven’t made that jump, though, criticize the band for creating something that you could only call rock and roll, and not something more hardcore or esoteric. Or more accurately in their words, they sold out.
Those people will hate American Idiot with even more passion and venom, if they ever hear it in full. Which only further proves their irrelevance, really; writing off Green Day for production values is ridiculous. American Idiot is very conventional, yes, but what’s wrong with that? The titular single is about as old-style Green Day as it gets and it’s pretty state of the art. The rest sounds similarly magnificent, forces marshaled just so, guitars zooming with precision. Oh, but Green Day are a punk band, see; decent production is risky enough, let alone the clean surfaces found here.
I’d hate for every album out there, or even every Green Day album, to be this polished, but listen to the second half of “St. Jimmy” or the ascending chords of “Extraordinary Girl” among dozens of other examples and tell me polish doesn’t have its own pleasures. With the massed chant of “Are We The Waiting” and the tender “Wake Me Up When September Ends” the band’s range continues to expand, and the harsher tracks like “Holiday” and “Letterbomb” are fiercely effective. Any given type of production is no more intrinsically “meaningful” or “creatively bankrupt” than any other; these songs could have worked nearly as well through a four track recorder, but Green Day wanted something grander. If it didn’t work so well that’d be one thing, but this is the type of album impressionable teenagers fall in love with, crammed with melody and variety and thrill.
And then there are the big songs. None of the parts of the nine-minutes-plus “Jesus Of Suburbia” or “Homecoming” are throwaways, and sandwiched together they both work, in fact are two of the best tracks; witness the way the former dovetails briefly into calm with “Dearly Beloved” before diving back into the indelible “Tales From Another Broken Home” or the latter’s skillful placement of the surging “Rock And Roll Girlfriend” just after the drum rolls of “Nobody Likes You”. Yes, there are some overarching lyrical concerns spanning all of American Idiot and there are those two five song suites, but as with the best “concept albums” from the Who on down, the story takes a backseat to the music.
And, as for those conceits: This is not a record about Bush. He may very well have been a catalyst, but what Armstrong grapples with here is life in North America right now. Bush has arguably quickened the pace of our descent into hopelessness and absurdity, but there is nothing here except bits of “Holiday” that couldn’t depict the Clinton era. And when they sing “This is our lives on holiday” there they don’t just mean the past four years. It’s not even that much of a political album. The second half is mostly personal, and the focus is always on more important things. You definitely get the sense Green Day wants a particular candidate to win the election, but that’s more because of who they are on American Idiot than because they beat us over the head with it.
Instead there’s a pervasive feeling of being left behind, both by people and by the world itself. ‘Whatsername’ hangs heavy over these tracks and Kathleen Hanna pops in as her at the beginning of “Letterbomb” to singsong the taunt that follows the narrator around (“Nobody likes you / Everyone left you / There’ll all out without you / Having fun”). The suspicion that she’s right haunts the rest of the album. When Billie Joe sings as St. Jimmy, the Jesus of Suburbia, that “There's nothing wrong with me / This is how I'm supposed to be", he’s lying; there is something wrong with St. Jimmy and his posturing, but this is how he’s supposed to be according to the world. St. Jimmy is deliberately a ridiculous figure, but one that invites our sympathy; as events spin out of control, it’s hard not to identify with him at least a little (especially if you’ve got your own Whatsername).
The one set of lines that best sum up the (lack of) ideology underpinning this album are from the first part of “Jesus Of Suburbia”: “It says home is where your heart is / But what a shame / Cause everyone's heart / Doesn't beat the same”. There’s no judgment there, no attempt to privilege one group over the others. The whole problem is that at times it seems like all sides in the culture war that is modern North America wants everyone’s hearts to beat like theirs. Green Day may be baring their heart on their sleeve, but they’re not forcing it on anyone.
Reviewed by: Ian Mathers
Reviewed on: 2004-11-01