Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown won’t land in stores until May, but Rolling Stone scored an early listen to six tracks this afternoon — and confirmed that the trio will kick off a massive world tour of indoor arenas in July. A full in-the-studio report by David Fricke will hit newsstands in our next issue, but here’s a sneak peek at what Billie Joe Armstrong, Tre Cool and Mike Dirnt have been cooking up with legendary producer Butch Vig at the same California studio they recorded the Grammy-winning American Idiot, Warning, Insomniac and Dookie. (Take a look back at Green Day’s career in photos, the Build Up to the Breakdown.)
As previously reported, the 16-track album is broken into three acts — Heroes and Cons, Charlatans and Saints, and Horseshoes and Handgrenades — and Dirnt told AP magazine that the songs “speak to each other the way the songs on [Bruce Springsteen’s] Born to Run speak to each other. I don’t know if you’d call it a ‘concept album,’ but there’s a thread that connects everything.” The songs are defiant, but also defiantly hopeful, referencing the unsettled political climate as well as more personal and generational turmoils. Its blend of claustrophobia, freedom and urgency is well illustrated by the album’s cover art, which depicts a tight shot of a young couple kissing against a graffiti-covered wall.
The title track quickly kicks into a familiar Green Day three-chord blast, but morphs into multiple movements like some of the more rock-opera-heavy numbers on American Idiot. “My generation is zero/I never made it as a working class hero,” Armstrong sings, making a reference to the John Lennon track the band covered in 2007. After a big drum breakdown, the song winds into a slower “Bohemian Rhapsody” moment. By contrast, “Know Your Enemy” is a straight-ahead rock song with a chanty “oh-way-oh-way” refrain. Opening powerfully like an AC/DC track, Cool drums furiously as Armstrong sings “Silence is the enemy so give me revolution.”
“Before the Lobotomy” is one of a handful of Breakdown tracks where Armstrong breaks into an uncharacteristically sweet singing voice and voyages into his limber upper register. Lyrics are answered by darts of guitar, and the band inserts pauses and breathing room between the music and vocals. At first Armstrong sings of “dreaming of another place and time where my family are from” but as the song progresses he’s pointing a finger at “Charlatans of lost memories like the end of the century.”
“March of the Dogs” is the most punky and overtly political of the six tracks. Built on big punches of guitar and classic shout and response vocals, Armstrong spits, “I want to know who’s allowed to breed/All the dogs who never learned to read/Missionaries, politicians/And the cops of a new religion.” It’s a biting indictment of contemporary religion that starts intense and never lets up, even for a marching-drum bridge.
Armstrong’s serene vocals reappear on the mid-tempo rocker “Restless Heart Syndrome.” Returning to the line “know your enemy,” Billie Joe advises, “Know what ails you/impales you… you’re a victim of the system.” The track takes a dramatic kick into its loud section, and its neat four-chord structure turns on a minor note. And “21 Guns” has a dash of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” to it — the track opens slowly with acoustic guitar, adding piano and other instruments until it opens up into a big, lush, super-melodic chorus. “Lay down your arms, give up the fight,” Armstrong croons. “Throw up your arms into the sky, you and I.” After a quick guitar solo and what sounds like a few pretty lines of harmonium, the song concludes with a hopeful finality.
• Green Day’s Build Up to the “Breakdown”: A Look Back at the Punk Trio’s Career
• Working Class Heroes: On the Road With Green Day
• Billie Joe Armstrong on Bush, Britney and the Future of Punk
• Billie Joe Armstrong Revives Side Project Pinhead Gunpowder in L.A.