Monday, October 10, 2016

album review: 'revolution radio' by green day

And there were people who thought I wasn't going to review this.

In truth, I wasn't going to miss covering a new Green Day album for the world, even though I'd make the argument that I've got a complicated relationship with the band. Like most people of my age I gravitated to American Idiot in the mid-2000s, but as those of you know who saw my review with Jon over ARTV, the album that really won me over the band was 21st Century Breakdown, a gloriously rock opera that was scattershot lyrically and about the furthest thing from raw punk music, but was too damn catchy for me to resist and ultimately has aged a lot better than other Green Day records. And from there, I went backwards - I dug into the early 90s Green Day albums that set the stage, including the record Kerplunk which with its sharp songwriting and drop-tuned grooves probably remains my favourite of their early years. Their work throughout the mid-to-late 90s... I don't hate it by any stretch, but I definitely get why it took American Idiot to reignite the sharper creative spark, even though I did really love some of the weirder twists on Warning like 'Misery' - that album at least tried to tell more stories.

And then 2012 happened. Those of you who read my blog can go back to find the three reviews I wrote for Green Day's triple release in the fall of that year, but suffice to say it did not go well. I'll admit I wasn't exactly a great writer back then, but I also went back to revisit those records for the purpose of this review and that was a mistake. It's not that there weren't a few good songs scattered across, but the bad and especially the bland outweighed the good and it really should have been compressed into one great record instead of three mediocre to bad ones. But one of the most damning criticisms was that the trilogy made Green Day look and sound out-of-touch and disconnected, not with the youth that's always been their audience but the social and political issues now, that could have had ripe material for commentary.

So fast forward to 2016, Green Day have a new album... and look, when I got my copy early I almost didn't even want to cover it. In a year where so many pop punk bands have struggled for relevance, I'm not sure I could take Green Day screwing it up again, and they were significantly older. That said, given how absolutely turgid and unstable this year has been in terms of politics, they've got the most fruitful material since the Bush administration and I had to hope that they'd at least do something interesting with Revolution Radio... so did they pull it off?

Well, I'm of a couple minds on this album, and how much you like this really will depend how and why you're a fan of Green Day. If you're a diehard fan that was left wanting by the trilogy, you're going to be thrilled and relieved by this record. If you're a more critical Green Day fan coming out of the 90s, you might find this project underwhelming, as if Green Day has run out of ideas and are simply returning to the barrel - again - to mine what works. If you're not a Green Day fan you won't care. For me, having re-examined their entire career before listening to this album a good eight to ten times... I'm not going to say this is great Green Day or anything close to their best, but it is a return to form, albeit one that feels a little safer than I'd like to see. It definitely has its moments, and will probably do a fair bit to win back fans from the trilogy... but the band has done a lot better with more ambition, and there's a part of me that feels that the deliberately smaller scope might be going backwards - and I don't just mean in terms of their sound.

So instead of my usual review template, let's return to my three general rules when it comes to political art, the 3 P's - because, make no mistake, Green Day are punks who are trying to make statements on this record, even if they are as direct yet scattershot as usual. We'll get back to that lack of precision in a second, but the other two Ps are power and populism, which is where Green Day has tended to do well across their career. In the former case, it's all about presentation and invective, and Billie Joe Armstrong is certainly not phoning it in as a singer - almost analogous to Garth Brooks his voice has lost some of its raw dynamic range on both the high and low end, but he still has the volume and conviction to match his instrumentation, which you can describe as very meat-and-potatoes by Green Day standards, for better or worse. Now there are a few places where the band does venture into newer territory: the opening track 'Somewhere Now' falls midway between the breezy tones of mid-90s REM and The Who worship Green Day has indulged over the past decade; the choppy lumbering riffs of 'Say Goodbye' have more heft than you normally expect in a modern Green Day track, the opening of 'Too Dumb To Die' gets a little noisier with the distant rattling riff, and 'Troubled Times' picks up some bassy rattle before the hook smashes through. And that's the thing - regardless of any bass or guitar embellishments on the verses, eventually it's all going to come back to a straightforward hook that works the loud-soft dynamic till its bleeds. And look, for the most part I don't have a problem with that: I'd take Green Day actually writing a melody for its hook or a solo that actually can stick in the memory over the majority of modern pop where you're lucky to get a melodic hook in the instrumental at all.

The problem comes that if you're a hardcore Green Day, you've heard all of this before, and probably done better. One of the reasons I like 21st Century Breakdown and Warning is that while they had their punk anthems, they also took more chances with its sonic palette and production. They didn't always work, but more often than not they stuck the landing. This album doesn't quite take those chances, and where that's all the more apparent is the lyrics. And I'll say this for Green Day - at their best, they've always aimed to be populist in the writing, speak for the disaffected American youth who see the world flying out of control. It's why on this album songs like 'Troubled Times' and the title track actually have some staying power, and for a sheer party anthem 'Bouncing Off The Walls' is a lot of fun. But for as much as Billie Joe Armstrong has the firepower and the drive to want to talk about more incendiary topics, he doesn't have a lot of focus. He wants to talk about government surveillance and international aggression and internal instability and Black Lives Matter and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan... but instead of focusing on these issues and getting into the meat and complexity, he instead engages in what Nathan Rabin called the 'Spike Lee' approach to politics: the sort where he would get up, read the morning paper, see a slew of disconnected issues, and rail about all of them all at once, which unfortunately tends to blend them into a white noise of rage and can diminish the real impact. 'Bang Bang' is the closest to having focus, written from the perspective of a glory-seeking shooter... but it's no 'Peacemaker', if we're being honest.

And even this is not new for Green Day - hell, it was the biggest underlying criticism of 21st Century Breakdown, but the thesis of that record was a search for a clarity for its abstract protagonists in a world deteriorating around them, so the overloaded panic and confusion worked - and even then, certain songs did have a clear individual focus. Whereas on Revolution Radio, the political messages are juxtaposed with Billie Joe Armstrong's personal demons, which mostly focus on being an aging punk who is questioning what it all was worth with a fair amount of nostalgia. Hell, as much as I like 'Bouncing Off The Walls', it's a trip back to an easier, wild time - same with 'Outlaws' and the teenage love song 'Youngblood', which I can't take seriously because the title reminds me of that godawful comic from the 90s, which is what happens when you aim to trigger that sort of nostalgia. I'd argue part of this questioning that comes through on 'Too Dumb To Die' and 'Still Alive' - fresh out of rehab, they're songs where Billie Joe Armstrong is coming to grips with the fact that while he lived fast, he didn't die young, and the 'what now' is a genuine shocker for him that crystallizes on 'Forever Now', a song that's a mishmash of three distinct tracks... and you can tell. And yet despite all of that myopia, there is one genuinely inspired choice on this record on by far its best song: the closer 'Ordinary World'. It's a stripped back acoustic number, it's wistful and underplayed, and it's from the perspective of what could have happened if Billie Joe Armstrong and Green Day had never made it. And yet despite presenting a story that didn't happen, it's far more emotionally honest and mature than you'd ever expect, and it really does get to the roots of the suburban populism that has always been at the heart of Green Day's music, just grown up - even if they never left suburbia, the earnest emotion is still there. If Revolution Radio had been written from this more mature, more weathered perspective, it could have had so much more gravity and pathos. 

But even despite the amount of heavy lifting that song does to lend context to the rest of this record... I wish I liked it more. Make no mistake, it's definitely a step up from the trilogy and you could even argue going forward it's a chance for Green Day to tell new stories in a new chapter of their lives - and yeah, at the end of the day I'm still a real fan of this band. But at the same time, this record is not treading new ground lyrically or instrumentally, and the scattershot approach to its message doesn't do it any favours, especially in comparison with how Green Day handled such an approach in the past. If it wasn't for 'Ordinary World' I'd come down a lot harder on this record... but at the same time, I can't deny that even if Green Day has a formula it's a good one, and again, 'Ordinary World' is absolutely excellent and has serious year-end list potential for me. As such, I'm giving this record an extremely light 7/10, and a recommendation. If you're a Green Day fan, you'll probably like but not quite love this, and if you're not you've long ago stopped caring. Right now I just hope this album is the transition back to a more mature and innovative Green Day that I've missed for some time - a good first step, but I want to hear the next one.

No comments:

Post a Comment