20 Years of Green Day’s Warning

What’s your favourite Green Day album? Is it one of the obvious choices, like Dookie? Perhaps you have a taste for the early stuff? Maybe you’re exclusively a latter-day Green Day fan? There are no wrong answers when it comes to what you like best. Incidentally, it’s American Idiot for this writer.

One thing I’ve noticed when talking to Green Day fans and casuals alike is that one album seems to frequently come somewhere in the middle of their rankings. I don’t have evidence or charts to show you for this claim, you’ll just have to believe me when I say that most people I’ve spoken to tend to put Green Day’s 6th studio album, Warning, in the middle of their lists. Many will often say something along the lines of ‘yeah, I like/love that album but it’s just not as good as the ones I’ve put above it’. Sure, there are some outliers (UDS’s own Tom Baker, for example) who think it’s one of the best, and even one person I’ve met who thinks it’s their worst.

Warning is one of my most replayed Green Day albums, I played the CD so much that I had to replace it a few years after I first bought it. There are days when I’d go out on a limb and say that, after American Idiot and Dookie, it’s my third favourite GD album (not every day though, admittedly). Here we are on its 20th birthday, and the album still feels fresh – and yet I wouldn’t call it timeless. It feels very much of its era. It’s a weird and contradictory dichotomy to say that, I’m well aware. It stands out in many ways within Green Day’s discography, and yet it also feels like it can fall back into the shadows quite easily too. It’s an album that perhaps feels a bit one-note in the music contained upon it, but you also can’t deny that musically the sound of Warning is quite different to what came before it, even though in my eyes at least it’s a very clear progression, and with hindsight, stepping stone to what came after it – and if that’s the case, then how can it be one-note?

Green Day - Warning (Video)

It’s well known that Green Day began to experiment with their sound – brilliantly, I might add – on 1997’s Nimrod, an album that was very well received at the time and continues to be a favourite for many fans. It’s also very clear that by 2004 and the release of American Idiot, Green Day’s sound had changed a massive amount, and whilst the through lines are visible if you look for them, it would be easy to believe that it was a completely different band on practically all counts. Would Green Day have ever made it to American Idiot without Warning? It’s tough to say. From a career trajectory standpoint, Green Day’s stock wasn’t exactly faltering but their popularity was on the decline, so maybe the band wouldn’t have had the courage to try? Which leads to the musical angle, could their sound have jumped from that of Nimrod to that of American Idiot without Warning? On that count, I’d say yes actually I think it could have, but not fully, and I don’t think the album that came would have been as good as American Idiot turned out to be.

The true masterstroke on Warning, you see, is the songwriting. Which isn’t to say that the songs on any previous albums aren’t good, that would be madness! Practically everything Green Day had done up to this point was excellent. What it does mean, however, is that Billie Joe Armstrong, in effect, levelled up on Warning. And I think it was by embracing his favourite parts of the experimentation on Nimrod that he truly stepped into the pantheon of the greatest songwriters of the last 30 years. In truth, Green Day didn’t stop experimenting once Nimrod was over – they just honed in on and expanded upon certain elements, making an album that doesn’t shift genres with every other song but which instead experiments with different instruments, different tones and different lyrical styles.

Take a song like Misery, for example. The middle track of the album proves to be probably the biggest curve ball of the whole thing, it’s the first slow track too which really helps to trip the listener up and say ‘OK, now pay attention’. Green Day wouldn’t be tied to the words Rock-Opera for a few years yet, but this is their first true foray into that territory. The lyrics tell the tales of 4 separate individuals throughout the verses, and come the last verse you find that all 4 of these characters were linked and tied into the same story. Billie Joe hadn’t really written lyrics in the form of a story before, for the most part writing about himself in the first person, and to be honest you could be forgiven for not necessarily noticing a sudden change in lyrical style. Let me say it clearly, this song was an experiment that paved the way for the biggest experiment of Green Day’s career, American Idiot. Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the fact that this song features instrumentation in the form of accordions, strings and even a Mariachi-brass style bridge. You could bet your Average-Joe Punk fan had an aneurysm the first time they heard it!

Of course, Misery is just one example from an album full of them. I’ve heard Warning referred to as ‘the acoustic one’ before, and you can’t really argue with that but you’d also be wrong to just accept it. Mostly because the acoustic guitar that does permeate the album’s runtime is far more aggressive and punchy than the word would probably conjure into your head. In reality, this is a Green Day album that just happens to feature more acoustic guitar than ever before. In comparison to what came before, this album sounds much brighter, partly because of the aforementioned acoustic guitar, but also because the lyrics are, on the whole, much more optimistic and hopeful. You also can’t escape the fact that the first smatterings of political commentary appeared upon this album, most notably in fan favourite Minority, another step towards having the courage to write and release the themes found on American Idiot. I think, above all else, Warning feels like a bunch of kids in a band taking their first proper step towards full maturity.

During its 20-year lifespan, Warning has so far racked up just under 3.5 millions sales worldwide, which does make it one of the lowest selling Green Day albums (even a few hundred thousand short of 21st Century Breakdown’s figures). It’s sold more copies than anything Green Day have done since 21stCB, but then all music sales have slumped over the last decade. The album was certified gold within 2 months of its release, meaning it had shipped at least 500,000 copies, so it couldn’t be called a flop by any stretch of the imagination. On top of all this, critics at the time were generally pretty positive towards the album. So why didn’t people gravitate towards it more in 2000?

Well, there’s probably a few different reasons. Green Day had been in the public zeitgeist for 6 years by the time this album was released and so perhaps it was just a natural decline in interest as the audience, and world, grew up. As well as this, the cultural landscape was changing; it could be argued that the Pop-Punk crown was in the process of being stolen by Blink 182 at this time, who were currently riding high on the wave that was 1999’s Enema of The State. As well as this, Nu-Metal was now the ‘in’ thing, and so it was likely that a potential chunk of the audience had moved on to a new genre altogether. Another thing to look at is the release date – Warning was released at the start of October, and for an album as bright and Summer-ready as this, perhaps that was a mistake? It’s likely that each of these factors contributed in their own little way to make the bigger problem.

Green Day - Minority [Official Music Video]

In 2020, it’s not that Warning feels forgotten about per se. It’s always there in the mind, even if it’s just in the form of Minority’s chorus. It’s more a case that the album is overshadowed by what came before and after it – which you could argue is fair enough given the 3 albums that preceded it and the colossal album that followed it. And maybe that’s not a bad thing? Maybe the fact most people would place Warning in the middle of their rankings is purely because Green Day’s catalogue IS just that strong, and not necessarily a reflection on the album’s own quality. At least, that’s the way I’m choosing to take it from now on.

Go listen to Warning. It’s 20 years old and deserves a lot more love.

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Matt Dobbie
Matt Dobbie

Likes Rock Music, Doctor Who and KFC

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