Midlife crises are, in many ways, a return to adolescence. They are imbued with an overwhelming sense of dislocation and identity confusion. And punk, as a genre, is often associated with adolescence and the accompanying turbulent emotions. So in a way that will probably surprise many, Green Day’s latest album, Revolution Radio, is the perfect comeback vehicle for a trio of middle-aged punk rockers recovering from a four year hiatus rife with personal issues and identity crises.
For Billie Joe, who previously compared the band to a vintage sports car, saying, “You’ve got to keep it tuned up, or it’s gonna sit there and rust” in reference to their 20-year, unrelenting work ethic, a turbulent life event was the only thing that could have stopped them. Formed in 1986 and releasing records practically nonstop since 1990, Armstrong’s very public breakdown at the 2012 iHeartRadio festival forced him, bassist Mike Dirnt, and drummer Tré Cool to pump the breaks for several years.
While Armstrong dealt with his alcoholism and addiction, entering rehab, Dirnt dealt with his wife’s cancer, and Cool enjoyed a honeymoon phase travelling with his new wife. But even though Green Day was on break, Armstrong got sober and kept busy. He remade the Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us as Foreverly with Norah Jones, performed in the Broadway version of American Idiot, wrote the lyrics for the Beatles-style Shakespearean musical These Paper Bullets!, and starred in the indie film Ordinary People, coming out the week after Revolution Radio.
The hiatus seems to have let them reassess who Green Day was and is, paring down the bloated self-seriousness and returning to their origins. Revolution Radio marks their first album in 15 years with no gimmick, no triple EP, no over the top elevated concept. Their signature power chord structure, which has probably inspired more teenage garage bands than anyone else since the release of American Idiot, returns as the backbone for the twelve tracks, while Armstrong’s recognizable vocals raise each chorus to head-sticking potential.
The album is also completely self-produced and recorded in Armstrong’s new studio, Otis, in his native Oakland, California. Recording wrapped in July, with the trio working in complete privacy with their longtime sound engineer Chris Dugan; they didn’t even tell Warner Brothers, their recording label, about the album’s existence until it was almost finished. And for a band that was seemingly trying to one-up themselves since the insane success of American Idiot, with the ambitious concept of 21st Century Breakdown, and the triple release of Uno!, Dos!, Tre!, the back to basics approach plays on the band’s natural strengths.
Album opener, “Somewhere Now”, moves from simple, almost sweet acoustic guitar picking to the anthemic electric power chords we know them for. When Armstrong sings, “How did life on the wild side get so dull?” it’s hard not to feel the sincerity of his words with regards to his personal life. Other tracks also mine the group’s past for material. “Outlaws” celebrates their reckless youth and the spirit of rebellion inherent to the genre of punk with lyrics like, “We’re outlaws of redemption, baby/Hooligans/We destroyed suburbia.” “Too Dumb to Die” is also overtly autobiographical, with Armstrong singing: “I was a high school atom bomb/Going off on the weekends/Smoking dope and mowing lawns/And I hated all the new trends.”
Many songs on the track turn outwards, however, examining an America that is arguably even more turbulent than American Idiot’s contemporary ethos. “Bang Bang”, the lead single, and also the most aggressively fast-paced track, positions the singer as a semi-automatic mass shooter, with intrepid lyrics that are especially poignant with current debates on gun control (“Bang Bang!/Give me fame/Shoot me up to entertain”). “Troubled Times” is an ominous and slow building song that considers the current state of the country, referencing racial and economic inequality (“What good is love and peace on Earth/When it’s exclusive?”). “Forever Now” reprises parts of opener “Somewhere Now” and brings resolution to the album, while final track “Ordinary People” is a sweet and touching acoustic track Armstrong originally wrote for his film of the same name and liked so much he decided to include.
Equal parts inwardly reflective and outwardly contemplative, Revolution Radio is self-aware of its members’ middle aged crises and perspectives. And that is why it works surprisingly well as Green Day’s comeback; their position shares a lot with that of adolescents, a country going through an identity crisis, and the genre of punk as a whole. By scaling back from the overambitious sentiments of albums since 21st Century Breakdown and returning to the simple yet effective power chord structure of earlier Green Day, the trio manages to make Revolution Radio both personal and timely for a country going through the same sense of dislocation they themselves have all too recently experienced. B