Billie Joe Armstrong's sharp, high voice fills the control room at Studio 880, Green Day's recording and practice space in Oakland, with acidic despair: "I once was lost but never was found/I think I am losing what's left of my mind!" The song, "21st Century Breakdown," is the compact epic that opens Green Day's new album of the same name – and that shot of Whoish eternal-teenage drama is just the introduction.
The track soon veers into a Celtic-punk fling – bagpipe-like jangle and tribal drum rolls – then breaks into slow, seething glam-rock discontent ("My generation is zero," Armstrong sings at one point. "I never made it as a working-class hero"). When the music ends, Armstrong, Green Day's singer-guitarist and main songwriter, swivels around in his chair at the console. "Those descending chord progressions – there's something about them," he says with delight. "They're in my DNA."
Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool have been planning, writing, arranging and recording 21st Century Breakdown since early 2006. They are, on this late day in January, still not done. The record comes out in May, with extensive touring to follow. But Armstrong has a few lead vocals left to record, and none of the tracks are fully mixed yet.
So Armstrong and the album's producer, Butch Vig, sit at the mixing desk nudging faders and turning knobs, doing on-the-spot mixes as the band previews the first two-thirds of the album in sequence. "This is the first time we're hearing the songs with Billie's vocals up front," Dirnt says excitedly. "We're finally hearing this album the way we hoped it would be."
Not counting 2008's Stop Drop and Roll, Green Day's garage-rock holiday as Foxboro Hot Tubs, 21st Century Breakdown is their first studio album since 2004's political mini-opera gamble, American Idiot. Divided into three acts – "Heroes and Cons," "Charlatans and Saints" and "Horseshoes and Handgrenades" – the disc loosely follows a young couple, Christian and Gloria, through the mess and promise of the century so far. In the title song, Armstrong refers to "the class of '13," a phrase inspired by the older of his two sons, who will graduate from high school in 2013.
"A lot of people were born into an unlucky time, the era of George W. Bush," Armstrong says. He concedes, "There is an optimism now with Obama," then cites the message inside the avenging power pop of "Know Your Enemy": "Be aware. Don't look at this guy as the answer to our prayers. You still need to get involved."
Other songs in the first two acts include "Before the Lobotomy," a mod-rock blitz reflecting Armstrong's love of the Sixties British band the Creation; "Christian's Inferno," a bullet of fuzz bass and throaty guitar; "Last Night on Earth," a ballad anchored by Seventies-John Lennon-style piano; and "March of the Dogs," a blast at organized religion with lyrics Armstrong wrote after attending the baptism of a friend's child. ("Man, was it that bad?" the friend later asked.) "Restless Heart Syndrome," the climax of the second act, starts with more Lennonesque piano, then blows up with clanging guitar and lion's-roar wah-wah.
Even more ambitious than American Idiot, 21st Century Breakdown is a record of diehard punk ideals and tightly scripted, continually ascending classic-rock excitement. "Face to Face by the Kinks, the Who's demos from around The Who Sell Out, like 'Glow Girl' and 'Early Morning Cold Taxi' – I love those songs," Armstrong says, summing up his own new album this way: "How do you take that '65-'66 vibe and make it your own? What would be Green Day's interpretation of that?"
"They were definitely swinging wildly for the stars," says Vig, who produced Nirvana's Nevermind and key Nineties albums by Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth. He says that when he started working with Green Day a year ago, they confronted him with a mass of promising fragments and what he calls "beasts": 10-minute jams inspired by the long songs on American Idiot. Vig and Green Day spent four months in pre-production, connecting the best ideas into songs and rehearsing them over and over before the main sessions at L.A.'s Ocean Way studios. "Even with all of those ideas, Butch got his head around each one, where it fit," Cool says. "Nothing got swept under the rug or forgotten."
Armstrong wants to play 21st Century Breakdown live in its entirety on tour. But so far, he confesses, "We've done the first act and half of the second. Then we look at each other and go, 'This is really hard.' It's funny – we make our most physical album not when we're 19 but in our mid-30s."
This story appeared in the March 5, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.