Green Day’s ‘¡UNO!’: Album Review

cstutz | September 25, 2012 5:30 am
Judging by Green Day’s oeuvre over the past decade, frontman and principal writer Billie Joe Armstrong works best these days with a theatrical or cinematic image in mind, composing a soundtrack to some greater concept. So it was on the band’s two narrative-driven rock operas — 2004’s American Idiot and 2009’s 21st Century Breakdown — and so it continues on its new album, ¡UNO! (out today, ).

This long-player, which is the first in a trilogy of records seeing release over the next four months, is a departure from those past albums’ dramatic, structural formats and lacks their hyper-angsty and political themes. But, still, it feels that Armstrong, now 40, is writing with a camera’s eye that has him conjuring scenes of late-night romanticism and YOLO parties for which to build these raucous and youthful pop anthems. And the trouble is, they don’t feel genuine. Perverted by time and distance, these notes of rebellious whimsy and emotional longing seem rather pre-packaged for some teenage sap’s most formative experiences.

It’s fantasy or farce — the attempt of a wild middle-aged musician to write about his audience, as opposed to his own self, creating something that feels impersonal and smutty.

So, if cutting the creative bindings of rock operas has been liberating enough for three albums-worth of material, one’s sense is Armstrong may have let his inspiration and the fun of playing liberated three-chord rock and roll get the best of him. A truly impressive move now for Green Day would have been delivering some maturity. That doesn’t mean asking them to grow up, necessarily, but to just show some indication that life is more complicated than Armstrong paints it, and that his creative taste has evolved beyond putting faith in stock phrases and banal truisms. Alas, it often feels he has traded one fiction for another.

The opening track, “Nuclear Family,” sets the album’s pace by busting in forcefully with a the-world-may-crumble-but-I-feel-fine broadside that’s perfectly decent disgruntled punk, strung together by pop hooks and absolutely inoffensive production. The band pulls it off well enough with snarls and smirks through promises to drink angel’s piss, pleas for action and a destructionist stipulation that every perfect little societal facade will crumble in one massive blow out.

But by the time the next track, “Stay the Night,” hits its first chorus, something is truly now amiss. As Armstrong chants out the hook, pleading for his heroine to stay the night because “we’re running out of time” and “I don’t wanna say goodbye,” he establishes a simple tone that hangs over the whole album. In “Carpe Diem,” Armstrong smears your face in cliché after cliché without realizing that a song intentionally built on old chestnuts, too, is hackneyed. And in “Kill The DJ” he trades unabashed expletives for any insightful thought — so despite the song’s terrific Clash-like ska four-on-the-floor rhythm, we’re still liable to side with the DJ in the end.

It’s not all bad on ¡UNO!, and there are hints of a more edited and aware album the band could have made. The sentimental “Sweet 16” feels tender enough that there must be some honesty in it. “Troublemaker” conjures a bizarre funkiness that brings to mind The B-52s. “Let Yourself Go” is the most mosh-ready track of the bunch, barreling along with forceful drums and ruthlessly carefree sentiments. And single “Oh Love” is saved by its chorus, which conjures the seasick drunkenness of a sailor’s chantey.

The key to ¡UNO! is in its accessibility. You may likely find yourself singing along on first listen even, without thinking to wonder where or how you learned the songs’ words. But that does not make this good music. It’s only because, in some jumbled form, you’ve heard them all before, and so this is simple and soft regurgitation. That’s fine for pop music, but if anyone came here looking for something even slightly challenging, they’d be better off looking elsewhere. As for Armstrong, he’d be better off looking introspectively. For someone with a platform who seemingly likes to use it, he missed an opportunity here to show that even snotty punks can age with grace.

The Best Song Isn’t The Single: “Sweet 16” shows Green Day at its most tender here, free from all posturing and just getting down a bare-bones sweetheart song. Armstrong pulls some nice melody work toying with his falsetto, and while the writing’s not without cliche the reminiscence and gutter punk line “you will always be my Sweet 16” is almost enough to forgive all other wrongdoing.

Pops Like: A hybrid between Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown and American Idiot‘s over-produced, melodramatic arena anthems, and the most tasty pop off the band’s best-of compilation International Superhits!

Best Listened To While..: Picking up high school chicks and tearing up the town on a wicked night out, no matter your age.

Idolator Rating: 2/5

Colin Stutz