In an era where downloaded singles far outpace the sales of complete CDs, putting out a concept album seems a quaint, if not futile, way to present new music.
If any act can restore the luster of the complete album, it may be Green Day: Their “21st Century Breakdown,” released this spring, continues in the tradition of the band’s Grammy-winning “American Idiot” album, with key characters, political themes and compelling story that is told track by track, with elaborate artwork to further illustrate its themes.
“There are three different acts to this record,” says bassist Mike Dirnt, speaking in a cellar of a hotel. “There’s a lot of content. We almost treated it like a vinyl record, therefore giving more for people to hold on to and call their own.”
Frontman Billie Joe Armstrong compares the process to writing a novel.
“You try to come up with more creative ways that the songs relate to each other, and they sync back into each other,” says Armstrong, the band’s chief vocalist, guitarist and lyricist. “That makes a listener want to go back and investigate an album.”
Plenty of fans have initiated at least a first probe of the album: It’s sold over 700,000 copies since its May release, and thousands get an in-depth examination nightly with the band’s current nationwide tour.
The group’s last CD, 2004’s “American Idiot,” not only sold millions of records, it also won the group two Grammy Awards, including record of the year honors in 2006 for the brooding song “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” A critical triumph, the album, one of the first major musical statements critical of the Iraq war and the presidency of George W. Bush, was a departure for the punk-rock band, which got their start with their irreverent 1994 debut, “Dookie.”
“American Idiot” expressed the frustrations of many by painting a nuanced picture of modern-day suburbia, told through the eyes of characters so rich that it’s being developed into a musical to debut in the San Francisco area in October.
“I thought ‘American Idiot’ had a lot in common with something like ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show,”’ Armstrong says. “It would great to see a film made out of it someday too.”
‘Our records are emotional roller coasters’Some have described “21st Century Breakdown” as “American Idiot, Part II” because both use recurring players to tell a larger story and tap feelings of national malaise and despair. But the band sees the album as a continued evolution instead of a sequel.
“‘American Idiot’ gave us that opportunity where we have a lot of people listening, and we were able to just stretch further than we ever had with that record, and this time, we wanted to take it two, three steps even further than that,” says Armstrong.
One of the steps the band took away from “American Idiot” was choosing a new producer. They considered a few high-profile names, even meeting with Linda Perry before selecting Butch Vig to guide the recordings instead of longtime producer Robert Cavallo.
“We were just moving in a different direction from Rob, and at the end of the day, Butch has kind of always been on our short list for producers,” says Dirnt. “We always knew with his track record that he has the skills to pull it off ... after we met him, it was just a matter of realizing this guy is a great guy.”
Vig says the band knew they were under “immense pressure” for the follow-up to “American Idiot”: “It’s something we didn’t really talk about but we all knew we were there,” he explains. “It was a difficult record to make.”
What emerged is an album that explores a variety of topics sometimes considered too weighty for radio, from painkiller addiction to religious hypocrisy to anti-war sentiments. But the group insists they haven’t shaken off their “Dookie” roots entirely. “I don’t think that we’re some kind of lefty political band,” Armstrong insists.
“Our records are emotional roller coasters,” he adds. “I don’t think that they’re a particularly preachy kind of album or anything like that — I think they kind of embody an emotion and confusion.”
Summing up Green Day’s sound, drummer Tre Cool, who was mainly quiet during this interview, says simply: “It’s a soundtrack to life.”