Green Day’s Trilogy of Desperate Hope

In the summer of 2011, I was privileged enough to see Green Day play an impromptu, intimate concert at an Orange County, California venue normally reserved for bands who have sold about 1/100th as many records as they have.  I had just moved out to southern California, and the area greeted me by placing me within ten feet of Billie Joe Armstrong and his gang as they ripped through brand-new songs that nobody knew and that would make up a trilogy of albums to be released in 2012.

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That surreal experience, not to mention my default Green Day feelings, left me breathlessly anticipating Green Day’s assault on 2012 music.  In the fall, it started to leak out: first, with Uno! in September, then Dos! in November and Tre! in December (my hopes for a fourth album named Catorce! were, sadly, dashed).  This trilogy, as the narrative went, would represent a return to the pop-punk basics from which the band had drifted away during the grandiose and unpredictable American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown.  As the three albums are fairly similar to each other (in both sound and quality), I find it simpler and more illustrative to discuss the trilogy as a whole.

Billie Joe proclaimed that Uno is a pre-party album (whatever that means), Dos a party album, and Tre is for the after-party—and when he went and got himself booked into rehab for substance abuse shortly after Uno’s release, people understood why he sounds so desperate for a few more chances to let himself go.

Despite that desire for wild times–and despite all the songs sounding lively in concert to a virgin listener–Green Day’s talent seems to have shifted in favor of ballads.  They’ve acquired a newfound maturity, which combined with Billie Joe’s never-ending gift of melody, results in some lovely moments that supersede anything on the harder-rocking songs.

Green Day could always write great mid-tempo tracks (Scattered, Having a Blast), but I’m not sure they’ve ever concentrated so many love songs in one place as they have here.  Many of these tracks reveal BJA wishing to have someone back that he wasn’t mature enough to handle in the first place—a potentially dour topic, but the success rate is phenomenal, starting right away with Uno’s second track, ‘Stay the Night.’  Here, BJA wants to stick with possible true love even if its history hasn’t been a fairytale: “I gotta know if you’re the one that got away / Even though it was never meant to be” sounds like the kind of lyric the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner might write.  (And, naturally, Billie Joe makes that couplet very nearly rhyme thanks to the halfway-British accent he likes to attach to some of his vocals.

Many tracks here are more nakedly open and devoted than anything Green Day has ever written other than ‘Good Riddance.’ Nearly as good as ‘Stay’ is its Uno cousin, ‘Fell For You,’ which for all intents and purposes represents the platonic ideal of what it wants to be.  OK, this isn’t the most challenging song of all-time, but, goddamn, it’s so smooth that you could drink it down with water and not taste it.  It kind of sounds like a slowed-down version of Warning‘s excellent “Church on Sunday,” and there’s a masterful use of dynamics as BJA’s voice rises and falls with, “Steal a kiss, then I took a dive / … You’re out of sight / But not out of mind / Had a dream that I kissed your lips and it felt so true / Then I woke up as a nervous wreck and I fell for you.”

Despite slightly overplaying the ‘She’s-perfect-and-I’m-ruined’ card, Billie Joe’s lyrics hit some real emotions on these slow burns.  Tre opener ‘Brutal Love’ is an unexpected, atypical GD gem, all philosophical and soulful, with its horns and acoustics building to a warm embrace.  BJA wasn’t totally wrong—this is indeed the perfect morning-after companion, the soundtrack to that time when you’re moving too slowly and trying to figure out what you did last night and whether you want to do it again.  The crescendo, with Armstrong crying out, “Kiss me, I’m loaded / Something for my troubled mind” is probably my favorite moment in the whole trilogy: sexy, desperate, concerned, rousing.  Follow-up ‘Missing You’ continues the theme and the momentum, with its protagonist amusingly searching everywhere for his girl from last night: “I even looked under the bed / But I’m missing you.”

But when Green Day tries to just rock out here, the songs resonate less.  The maturity that enhances the ballads has a flip side, and the aging band can’t seem to marshal the same breakneck power we’ve typically enjoyed from them.  The results are often derivative (‘Lazy Bones’ and ‘99 Revolutions’ have identical starts), not-quite-hard-enough tracks like ‘Loss of Control’ or ‘Sex, Drugs & Violence.’

Ultimately, this facet is what keeps the Uno-Dos-Tre trilogy from reaching classic status.  The clunky ‘Troublemaker’ and heinous ‘F*** Time’ made me think of U2’s ‘Get on Your Boots’ in this sense: for the first time, it feels like these guys are old and trying really, really hard to stay hip.  And, like most critics, I have utterly no idea what ‘Nightlife’ is supposed to be.

I don’t intend to claim that none of the rockers play, of course.  ‘Angel Blue’ recalls early 2000s Green Day rhythm, and ‘Baby Eyes’ cuts straight to the point: “Oh, I’m out of control, baby / When I see your pretty face.”  ‘Makeout Party,’ thankfully, presents a slightly different sound, its glorious trashiness reminding me of Van Halen.  Over a grimy glam guitar, BJA warns, “It’s a makeout party on another dimension / And it’s gonna get crowded with some bad intentions.”  Mmmm.

Yet, overall, relying on blistering tempos from the band seems like a losing proposition now.  Instead, bank on the simple pleasures of the mid-tempo ballad “Sweet 16,” or Dos standout ‘Stray Heart,’ a pure pop song that won’t change the world but is almost flawless in its execution.

‘Nuclear Family,’ in several ways, is the trilogy’s most representative track.  It hit me like a ton of bricks during that summer 2011 concert, showing itself off as the tightest rock song I’d heard all year.  This was going to be my song, the visceral, trilogy-defining leadoff hitter that I had heard ahead of time.  But, while the beginning still legitimately excites, I can’t help but notice that its chorus strangely sucks all the power out of it; instead of hitting liftoff (as, say, ‘She’ does), it grinds everything to an underwhelming halt.  It’s as though the band can’t keep up the momentum for more than about 45 seconds–indeed, there are lines that you want to shout along with (“I just want some action, so gimme my turn,” or “Like a nuclear bomb and it won’t be long til I detonate!”) except that Billie Joe sounds, well, too quiet and restrained.

This type of discovery was common–several songs that I fully expected to be life-changing (Nuclear, ‘Carpe Diem, ‘Let Yourself Go’) were simply acceptable–mere evidence that, while Green Day’s B-material can play (as on Shenanigans, the collection of album extras), it doesn’t equal the greatness we heard on their last two albums.

With American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown, Green Day concluded that they needed to modify their formula—although, to be fair, they still did have the ferocious punk intensity exhibited on burners like the former’s title track.  These tracks don’t pull back for the same epic bridges that we saw on ‘The Static Age’ or ‘21 Guns,’ and there are no long piano intros or nine-minute suites; nevertheless, the same message applies.  When they step back for a melodic lament about glory days gone by (‘X-Kid’), it’s spectacular.  But the conventional punk numbers (like ‘Carpe Diem’), while acceptable, feel more predictable, the guitars too clean and the tempos a tad too slow.

Several critics expressed dismay that these albums weren’t condensed into one masterwork.  That sounds like an obvious statement, but it’s a classic, infuriating ‘critic’s comment.’  Just about EVERY album, from every band who has ever recorded, would improve if you merged it with the best tracks off its predecessor or successor; the mere fact that Uno, Dos, and Tre were released so close to each other shouldn’t make us so quick to cast aside any tracks we don’t love on the first listen.

Indeed, nitpicks aside, I have to give the band a substantial amount of credit for proffering three dozen songs within a couple months that are nearly all listenable—a significant achievement in and of itself.  The criticisms here should not be miscontrued–even the lesser tracks evince more songcraft than that of 90% of current bands.  Tre‘s ‘Amanda,’ for example, is so extraordinarily Green-Day-by-the-numbers that BIllie Joe might have written it while he was blacked out…but it’s still a heady, melodic rush.  If you don’t worry about whether they’re sullying their legacy, or why they haven’t recreated American Idiot, you can enjoy the anthemic ‘Walk Away’ or rev yourself up for a party with the strong midsection of Dos (skip the couple on each end of it), punctuated by the “I’ll make you surrender!” battle cry of ‘Stop When the Red Lights Flash.’

And you can savor Tre’s ‘X-Kid,’ this trilogy’s definitive work.  They saved this one for last, maybe because Billie Joe knows how accurate his sharp lyrics are: he conveys the perspective of someone who misses the fact that he can’t summon what he used to: “Hey, little kid, did you wake up late one day, and you’re not so young / … And you’re numb to your old glory / But now it’s gone.”  Then, perhaps chronicling a specific time in his life, he follows it up with, “You fell in love / But then you just fell apart.”  It’s all put together with the best melody of the entire trilogy and a sense of eager desperation, that if they can just have this, then maybe nothing else—the age, the rehab, the world’s problems, the relationship problems—will matter anymore.  This one wasn’t played ahead of time, and I can’t wait to hear how it sounds live—and I bet they can’t either.

Grant J.

Grant J.

Grant co-founded Earn This in 2009 and is a regular contributor. His music taste makes him seem a lot weirder and sadder than he really is.

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