Green Day: 21st Century Breakdown

Music ••• Sound ••••½
It's been 5 years since Green Day sounded the alarm with American Idiot, the band's sprawling 13-song punk-rock opera about an evil political regime run amok. Today, the country's cast of characters has changed, and there's finally a frisson of hope for a better future. But Green Day sees it all another way on 21st Century Breakdown.

Grouped into three Acts - subtitled "Heroes and Cons," "Charlatans and Saints," and "Horseshoes and Handgrenades" - this album's 18 tracks sputter with discontent, maladjustment, and psychic pain. That may seem no different from the band's early records, but here the vituperativeness isn't laced with wit and insouciance. Gone (but not forgotten) are the raging speed rants, cartoonish antics, and anthropological musings about the punk scene; instead, they're replaced by an introspection that rivals Bono's or Michael Stipe's.

In fact, most of the humor has been drained from these songs, giving them a seriousness - a doomsday vision - that's as burdensome and pain-wracked as any of Jeff Buckley's bleaker laments. And while it's tempting to look at 21st Century Breakdown as a comment on crumbling values and diminishing expectations (much like John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change" chastised his generation for its apathy), on closer listen it seems to be more of a personal journey inside Billie Joe Armstrong's tangled mind, chronicling his own quest for meaning, faith, and individuality rather than all of mankind's.

Still, guided by co-producer Butch Vig, this is an ambitious undertaking and a plucky step forward in moving Green Day's sound to a higher plane. While some of the concepts are charmingly innocent and not particularly innovative, you have to give it to the band for taking a stand - even if you don't agree with it.