Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown. The album art was based on a stencil created by artist Carl Nyman, professionally known as SIXTEN, whose work can be found here . Image via discogs.com
10 years ago, on May 15th 2009, Green Day released their eighth studio album ‘21st Century Breakdown’ into the world. Yup, you read that right – 10 years ago! To say there was an incredible amount of anticipation in the leadup to its release would probably be something of an understatement. This was to be the follow-up to the album that basically revitalised their career, 2004’s ‘American Idiot’. Not only that, the wait had been a long one, the only activity from the band between the end of the ‘American Idiot’ tour and this album’s announcement had been a new side-project, the Foxboro Hot Tubs – who have an album that you should definitely check out if you haven’t already.
In 2019, Green Day are still a massive band, albeit a band who aren’t as omnipresent as they once were. In the years since 21stCB, they’ve released a trilogy of albums (2012’s ‘¡UNO!’, ‘¡DOS!’ and ‘¡TRE!’) which weren’t very well received and in 2017 released ‘Revolution Radio’ an album that was generally well received but in my opinion is a little bit hit and miss. To my ears, the last great Green Day album remains ‘21st Century Breakdown’. With that said, it’s an album I don’t listen to all that much anymore; before writing this I hadn’t listened to it in full in probably over a year. Is it really as great as I remember, or is my judgement being clouded by nostalgia?
Well, long story short – yes, having listened to it again I do still think it’s great, but with a few caveats. Let’s go back briefly to 2009. A young 15-year-old version of myself gets his hands on ‘21st Century Breakdown’, the new album by his absolute favourite band. Every track was gold. For weeks, the album was repeated almost constantly, all other music ceased to exist because why would I listen to anything else when I’ve got the Holy Grail right here? Never had an album excited me that much before, the music and lyrics became ingrained within my very being incredibly quickly. The excitement around it lasted across the entirety of 2009, and a majority of 2010, until the 21stCB cycle was over and the last shows of the tour had been played over in South America in October of that year.
Green Day on stage at a show on their 21st Century Breakdown World Tour. Image via Wikipedia .
Today, I can look back at that version of myself and smile at the passion I used to have for the album. But I can also look back and see that a lot of the hype and excitement I had for it was because I was young and reasonably fresh into my musical fandom. I’d only been into Rock music a couple of years when the album came out, and in fact when this album was released, it would still be 3 months before I would attend my first concert (The Offspring at Brixton Academy, it was wicked!). Listening to the album today for the first time in a long while, I was transported back to those earlier feelings a little bit – but as you would expect, the buzz it gave was more akin to ‘man, that was a great time’ than ‘man, this is a great time’
Which isn’t to say I didn’t have a great time. Let me be very clear – listening today I got VERY excited! Some of these songs I’ve had crop up in shuffles and playlists in the time since I last listened, but others I hadn’t heard in a long while were a genuine injection of fun into my day. There was a time when I professed that the title track of the album was my favourite song ever, and hearing those opening 2 chords ring out after the intro track, ‘Song of The Century’, catapulted me back to when I first listened and the overwhelming excitement I was feeling in that moment. I still think this is the best song on the album, one of the best from all of Green Day’s career even – no doubt in my mind. But it’s not one of my favourite songs. It probably wouldn’t even make the shortlist.
The main point I’m hitting on here is that when this album came out, it was monumental, both for me on a personal level and for a great number of Green Day fans worldwide, and I’d wager a good number of people who somehow hadn’t heard of Green Day before. Now though, with the benefit of 10 years hindsight, I feel very capable of saying it was an album that’s greatness was definitely overexaggerated by the media and Green Day fans alike, myself included! I think this is made even clearer by the fact that, outside of the Green Day fandom, it’s an album that seems to have been largely forgotten about in the time since. Even Green Day themselves seem to have forgotten about a good amount of it – on their last tour only 1 song from the album was played at every show (‘Know Your Enemy’, the album’s lead single), with another being added to the setlist later in the tour cycle (’21 Guns’, the album’s second single). Is this a reflection on the album itself? Did overhype make it a big thing at the time, but end up giving it a short shelf life in the long haul? I personally think so, but I’d be more than willing to listen to arguments.
With all that said, however, I want to celebrate ‘21st Century Breakdown’ on it’s 10th Birthday. Whilst it may not live up to the hype it once generated, it would be downright unfair to write it off in any way – as far as I’m concerned, it’s still a great album, and there’s a lot of brilliance to be found on it. The album opens excellently and in a suitably epic fashion, with 4 tracks that can best be described as Stadium ready. And across the rest of the album, great songs continue to jump out at you at a rate that means it’s not even surprising when they turn out to be so good. Yes, at times the songs may be a little bit self-indulgent or overblown, but surely Green Day had earned a little bit of that by this point in their career? And whilst there are definitely a wider range of influences on show here, I think a lot of them fit the music particularly well, and that this different sound for Green Day still had enough harking back to their past to remain clearly a Green Day record. The guitars are still punchy when they need to be and when they are, such as on ‘East Jesus Nowhere’ and ‘Horseshoes and Hand grenades’, it’s a proper smack in the face and to the gut.
Acclaimed producer and Garbage drummer, Bitch Vig. Image via BBC
It’s fair to say the album could probably have done with a few tracks cut from it, it’s an hour and 10 minutes and some of the songs definitely outstay their welcome. I think lyrically there’s a few duff moments too – ‘Restless Heart Syndrome’ being the main one for me. But back on the positive side it’s an album that’s incredibly well produced – Green Day choosing not to use long-time producer Rob Cavallo for the first time in their career and instead hiring Butch Vig, drummer for Garbage and producer of acclaimed albums like Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, the Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Siamese Dream’ and countless others. Now, I’m a little biased because he’s my favourite producer and in another of my favourite bands, but I think the work he put in on this album is one of my favourite things about the album as a whole. It sounds incredible, and even on some of the lesser songs, I don’t think sound quality or production can necessarily be touched for criticism.
And I’d be remiss not to mention the live show Green Day were putting on during the touring cycle for the album. Around 6 or 7 songs from the album were being regularly played in the setlist for the show, and Green Day themselves were firing on all cylinders, most nights making the middle of the setlist up as they went along. The Wembley Stadium show in June of 2010 remains one of the best live shows I have ever seen, if not the best. The spectacle of it all, the sound of it all, and just the sheer good will and excitement being directed at the band from the crowd all added up to an atmosphere I have longed to experience again ever since.
My final thought on ‘21st Century Breakdown’ is that, whilst the world may have largely forgotten about the album, that doesn’t reflect how good it is. It more reflects the media’s tendency to overhype certain things to the extent that people just don’t want to hear about it anymore afterwards. My belief is that, were a smaller band to release this album today, it might be looked at as a remarkable achievement.
On its 10th Birthday, if you haven’t listened to 21stCB in a while, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so. The passage of time had perhaps skewed my memory of the album a bit and left me feeling a little negatively towards it, but in listening to it again, I’ve rekindled a love for it. No, maybe it isn’t as good as I once thought it was. But it’s still good. In fact, screw that. It’s still great. And I hope that listeners will come back to the album and leave the experience with a far fonder outlook on it in the future.
By Matt Dobbie