A rock opera from...Green Day? The standard take is—shock! surprise! WTF!—that nobody saw this coming from the trio of Cali punks who emerged in the '90s to sing about masturbation and how they like watching TV on their mom's couch and who scored ginormous success with an album with the giggly title of Dookie.
Never mind the fact that while Green Day was snapping off sweet pop-punk anthems about their lack of motivation, they somehow had enough energy to make eight albums, the latest of which, 21st Century Breakdown, is the even more ambitious follow-up to the ambitious blockbuster American Idiot. Really, the telegraph of Green Day's willingness to shape-shift might have come as early as 1997's Nimrod when a whole CD of snotty and blissfully short monuments to anger and frustration was upended by "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)." That acoustic ballad would quickly become a radio staple, prom theme and a thorn in Billie Joe Armstrong's side. (He's made no secret of his detest at the popularity of the song).
It's funny, then, that 21st Century Breakdown is graced with "21 Guns," a ballad just as pretty if not prettier than "Good Riddance." It's doubly funny that "21 Guns" has already shot to the very top of Green Day's most popular songs on iTunes. Whatever the dance Armstrong and his mates feel like they have to do to maintain their punk cred is probably understandable and definitely beside the point. This little band of malcontents has grown up to become an ESPN-fueling ("Know Your Enemy" is practically unavoidable on the channel), red-meat rock act for the masses.
Give Green Day credit—they aren't taking their newfound responsibility lightly. 21st Century Breakdown is larded with capital S for significance and "let's try to be Bruce Springsteen." There are three acts to this rock opera (Act 1: Heroes and Cons, Act II: Charlatans and Saints, Act III: Horseshoes and Handgrenades), which contains all manner of nods and shout-outs to our past, present and future dystopia.
Whatever. Armstong's literary cosmology lags behind his sense of tunes and his realization of rock's essential need to rush the blood and tug the heart. If you can figure out the story of the album's heroes, Christian and Gloria, then maybe you have too much time on your hands. But really, Armstrong's lyrics don't exactly beg for parsing. "I got under the grip / Between the modern hell" and "Overthrow the effigy / The vast majority / Burning down the foreman of control" are typical of the way Armstrong abstracts the details and keeps the songs from really sticking.
So while it all might not add up, fans, in their exhilaration at Green Day's grand reach and the buzz of their big guitars, won't care a whit. And it also doesn't matter if Armstrong & Co. started out as farmers or punks: They are rock kings now, and really, there could be plenty worse wearing the crowns.