Green Day – Revolution Radio Review

revolution-radio

It’s about a month old at this point, and therefore ancient internet history, so this post will have limited appeal. But as the resident stalwart Green Day fan around these parts I really feel the need to get some words published about this album. I’ll be honest, it’s more of a catharsis/venting thing for me than a straightforward music review. That’s because it’s this album – the twelfth1 full length studio album – that marks the point Green Day started sucking in earnest.

Allow me to explain that, before we get to the review. So, maybe it goes without saying that among punk rock fans, Green Day has always kind of been a pariah. It’s a tension that I’ve dealt with for over 15 years. And even to those who once considered themselves fans, there have been a few points at which people have declared that they “lost it”. Maybe it was the commercially disappointing Warning, or the quasi-American Idiot sequel 21st Century Breakdown, or the overstuffed, underwhelming Uno, Dos, Tré triple album. But to me, Warning is their greatest album ever, 21st Century Breakdown is a worthy follow up to American Idiot (which is undeniably a masterpiece), and the trilogy, well… The trilogy was indeed overstuffed with mediocre tracks, but also dotted with a few great ones. It was a failure of ambition and overconfidence, which is at least admirable if not especially rewarding.

But Revolution Radio is another story… The failure of this album is a new kind of failure for Green Day: failure to be true to themselves. 

When you think of Green Day’s entire career trajectory since they hit it big, it’s marked by moves that almost never felt purely market-driven. They followed up the mega-hit Dookie less than two years later with Insomniac, their darkest and most nihilistic album, including songs about depression, anxiety, and hard drug use. Then came Nimrod, an 18 track opus speckled with experimental musical styles, which included the acoustic ballad Good Riddance – a thing no one expected Green Day capable of. Warning carried the musical experimentation even further, and is still to this day their most mature album, growing better and better with age.

The legend goes that after the commercial dud that was Warning, they recorded an entire album of “basic” Green Day songs2 in an attempt to recapture old glory, but lost the master tapes to theft and used the event as a sign to really push themselves into new territory – resulting in American Idiot. Again, a thematically unified rock opera is something no “punk” band had ever attempted, and it paid off big time. You could view the release of 21st Century Breakdown as a bit predictable – it essentially takes the American Idiot model and expands it slightly. But in so doing they stretched musical muscles they never used before, and produced masterpiece songs like Peacemaker, Viva la Gloria (both of ’em), and 21 Guns. The expected direction to go after two rock operas would have been either a third rock opera, or a “back to basics” kind of throwback album, and Green Day went with neither. Instead, they decided to take advantage of their newfound prolific creative momentum and just release three albums worth of material at once, in any styles they felt like playing.

While the trilogy isn’t very well-regarded now,3 it serves as another example of what kind of band Green Day really is at their core: a band that plays the music they love, and loves the music they play. It’s honestly that simple. Billie Joe Armstrong has a gift for pop songwriting, and it’s the reason for both their mainstream popularity and broad exile from punk circles. But I’ve remained a fan for all these years for that one basic reason – they are artists, not businessmen. There’s never been an exploitative, market-driven force behind Green Day’s music regardless of how accessible it actually sounded. Until now.

Now that we’re five paragraphs in, I can at last talk about the actual album I’m reviewing. All that leadup was necessary because to the casual or non-fan, Revolution Radio sounds pretty much like typical Green Day. And what makes it such a huge disappointment to me isn’t that it’s atypically BAD, it’s that it’s completely predictable, uninspired, and mediocre in nearly every sense. It gives off the distinct vibe of a desperate desire to have a radio hit, in an age where “radio hits” are essentially a thing of the past. There’s nothing unexpected, nothing exciting, and nothing new here.

The album kicks off with Somewhere Now, a Who-inspired mid-tempo track that sounds like a standard length version of their 2000’s epic songs but with all the edge and energy drained out. When those background vocal “Oooooooo”s kick in, it’s never felt so bland. On American Idiot, such details were exciting, but now Green Day does it in their sleep. Dual singles Bang Bang and Revolution Radio follow, and they’re two of the best songs on the album. But they wouldn’t have even made the cut on 21st Century Breakdown. While they both include some nice moments4, they are, again, songs Green Day has done much better in the past.

With two exceptions that I’ll get into shortly, the rest of the album is simply middle of the road, safe songs brought to half-life by overproduction. Revolution Radio is like a collection of B-sides from everything Green Day has been writing since 2004. Which sucks, because that exact observation is what most people hated about Uno Dos Tré, myself included.

Those two exceptions are Still Breathing, and album closer Ordinary World. I just… well, listen.

Look, Green Day has always pushed the boundaries of how much pure pop punk rock fans could stomach in their music, so maybe it’s naive of me to think they’d never release a song like this, but god DAMN, that’s hard to listen to. The synthetic production, the little break before the chorus, the melodramatic lyrics… it sounds like a Katy Perry song being covered by a rock band. I hated it the first time I heard it, and it has not grown on me since. In fact, I do believe this is the first Green Day song I’ve actually hated. I just realized that.

Final song Ordinary World5 carries on what I guess is now a Green Day tradition of ending albums with ballads, but this one pushes so far into corny territory I can’t possibly defend it. Billie Joe is playing so high on the fretboard it may as well be on a ukulele, and along with the ultra-sappy lyrics referencing shooting stars and buried treasure, it becomes utterly cringe-worthy. Compare that to Good Riddance, a song that at first glance appears to be a sweet little love song, but whose lyrics hide a bite of bitterness. That’s the Green Day formula, in a nutshell. Music that lures in the masses with hooks and harmonies but slips in a few drops of poison to make it interesting. Revolution Radio dispenses with the poison and attempts to give you nothing but honey, and it feels like a cheat. It feels like, well, it seems silly to say in 2016, but selling out.

So it’s funny that more than 20 years since Green Day provoked the ire of millions of punk rock fans by signing to a major label and becoming MTV darlings, it’s now, after the virtual death of popular rock music, that they would allow market forces to compromise their art. I realize I’m making a huge assumption there, but understand that it comes from a place of loving and defending Green Day for as long as I’ve been an adult. Longer, actually. I stuck by their side because of their stubborn refusal to phone it in, and now it appears they’ve done exactly that. I’m not Billie Joe; I can’t speak to his intentions, but I know he’s made the jump into acting with the movie Ordinary World, and there’s an American Idiot movie in the works as well, based on the album/play. Maybe there’s just nothing left for him to prove, music-wise. And maybe that’s the whole problem.

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