Tell the truth: did anybody think Green Day would still be around in 2004? Ten years ago, when they blew up into the hot summer band of 1994, they were snotty little Berkeley, California, punk kids who sounded ready to pogo off the face of the earth in three-chord tantrums such as “Basket Case.” Between Billie Joe Armstrong’s adenoidal snarl and Tre Cool’s maniac drums, Green Day seemed like a Saturday-morning-cartoon version of The Young Ones, three cheeky monkeys who came to raid the bar and disappear. But here they are with American Idiot: a fifty-seven-minute politically charged epic depicting a character named Jesus of Suburbia as he suffers through the decline and fall of the American dream. And all this from the boys who brought you Dookie.
American Idiot is the kind of old-school rock opera that went out of style when Keith Moon still had a valid driver’s license, in the tradition of the Who’s Tommy, Yes’ Relayer or Styx’s Kilroy Was Here. Since Green Day are punk rockers, they obviously have a specific model in mind: Husker Du’s 1984 Zen Arcade, which showed how a street-level hardcore band could play around with storytelling without diluting the primal anger of the music. On American Idiot, the thirteen tracks segue together, expanding into piano balladry and acoustic country shuffles. The big statement “Jesus of Suburbia” is a nine-minute five-part suite, with Roman-numeral chapters including “City of the Damned,” “Dearly Beloved” and “Tales of Another Broken Home.”
American Idiot could have been a mess; in fact, it is a mess. The plot has characters with names such as St. Jimmy and Whatsername, young rebels who end up on the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” But the individual tunes are tough and punchy enough to work on their own. You can guess who the “American Idiot” is in the bang-up title tune, as Armstrong rages against the “subliminal mind-fuck America” of the George W. Bush era: “Welcome to a new kind of tension/All across the alien nation.” Green Day have always swiped licks from the Clash, even back when they were still singing about high school shrinks and whores, so it makes sense for them to come on like Joe Strummer. The other Clash flashback is “Are We the Waiting,” a grandiose ballad evoking Side Three of London Calling. “Wake Me Up When September Ends” is an acoustic power ballad, a sadder, more adult sequel to “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” Even better, there are punk ravers such as “Give Me Novocaine,” “Extraordinary Girl” and “Letterbomb,” which bites off a big juicy chunk of the Cheap Trick oldie “She’s Tight.”
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Since rock operas are self-conscious and pompous beasts by definition, Green Day obligingly cram all their bad ideas into one monstrously awful track, the nine-minute “Homecoming,” which sounds like the Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away” without any of the funny parts. But aside from that, Idiot doesa fine job of revving up the basic Green Dayconceit, adding emotional flavor to top-shelf Armstrong songs. They don’t skimp on basic tunefulness — not even in the other big nine-minute track, “Jesus of Suburbia,” which packs in punk thrash, naked piano, glockenspiel, Beach Boys harmonies and a Springsteen-style production number about a 7-Eleven parking lot where there are some mystical goings-down indeed. Against all odds, Green Day have found a way to hit their thirties without either betraying their original spirit or falling on their faces. Good Charlotte, you better be taking notes.