Beginning with their breakthrough album Kerplunk! in 1992
and culminating with Nimrod in 1997, Green Day spent the
first half of their career perfecting the two-and-a-half-minute
pop-punk song, while both reviving the punk genre and infusing it
with a modern sense of irony and good-natured brattiness.

Beth Dykstra
We take our martinis shaken, not stirred. (Courtesy of Reprise)
Beth Dykstra

But charm can only take you so far. There comes a time in the
life of a punk band when musicianship and songcraft — which
Green Day has always had — have to take over. It began with
the underrated and underappreciated Warning in 2000, which
proved the group can pull off subdued, mid-tempo rockers with the
same skill that they showed on the punk blitzes that made them
famous.

The trend continues with the band’s new “punk-rock
opera” American Idiot, a full hour-long record even
more diverse and sprawling than Warning.

Like any rock opera, American Idiot is self-indulgent and
overblown, but it works, because Green Day knows it’s
self-indulgent and overblown. They keep tongue planted firmly in
cheek and infuse their songs with enough energy and hooks to keep
it interesting. The story, featuring such colorful characters as
Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy and Whatsername, is not what’s
important here. What’s essential is that American
Idiot
plays as a cohesive and engaging record. It’s the
rock opera for the lost generation, those held down by “a
redneck agenda” and “the subliminal mind fuck
America,” as Billie Joe Armstrong explains in the title
track.

Appropriately, Green Day sounds less Clash and Sex Pistols and
more Who on American Idiot. They pay ample tribute to the
Gods of the Rock Opera throughout the album, copping Who-like
melodies, harmonies, windmilled guitar riffs and thundering bass
lines and refashioning them into Green Day originals. The Who
influence is felt most prominently on the five-part mini-opera
“Jesus of Suburbia” (one of two such operettas on the
album), a full realization of the songwriting prowess that has been
lingering below the surface for some time now.

But the tributes don’t end with The Who. On “Are We
the Waiting,” Green Day are dead ringers for Styx (who, of
course, authored their own rock opera, Kilroy Was Here),
churning out a puffed-up power ballad complete with five-part
harmonies. And “Rock and Roll Girlfriend” would have
been right at home in “The Rocky Horror Picture
Show.”

More than anything, Green Day has proven on American
Idiot
that it is possible for a modern punk act to age
gracefully. Their songwriting has reached full maturity, and even
when they take the low road and opt for snotty humor, it
doesn’t seem out of place. But can they pull it off in
another 10 years to come? There’s no reason why they
can’t.

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

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