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A Green Day at the Opera: Story of an 'American Idiot'

By Sean Daly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2004; Page C05

Get the mop ready: "American Idiot," the much-anticipated pop-punk opera from influential troublemakers Green Day, is going to make dozens of spiky-haired heads explode. Really, we're talking full-on melon kerplooeys for the poor dudes in Good Charlotte, Sum 41 and all the other faster-faster-hook-hook copycats who have relied on the Berkeley trio's albums as how-to-thrash guides. Trying to ape this one is gonna cause serious brain pain for the lesser talents -- and probably a lot of really bad music as well.

"American Idiot," Green Day's first album in four years, is certainly no "Dookie," the band's 1994 three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-angst debut. It's more like a hyper-stylized short story set to music, a wild scrum of their own influences: the playfulness of the Ramones and the pomposity of Queen, the rage of the Sex Pistols and the pop of the Beatles. It manages to sound just like -- and then nothing like -- the Green Day that's sold millions of albums over the last 10 years. In some places, it's too clever for its own good; in others, too silly when it's trying to be deep. That said, it's often smart, fun and thoroughly rockin'.

Mike Dirnt, left, Billie Joe Armstrong and Tre Cool: Conjuring up an epic pop-punk tale from the dark side of 30. (Marina Chavez)

For all the wannabes that jackknifed into Green Day's wake a decade ago, singer Billie Joe Armstrong, drummer Tre Cool and bassist Mike Dirnt -- now in their thirties -- have always managed to stay ahead of the pack. There's a clever method to the madness, and it starts with those sugar-smacked melodies buried not so deep under bleeding walls of guitar, the ferocious beats and the sinister bass lines. Slow down "Welcome to Paradise" and it would make a great, if twisted, ballad. Speed up "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" and the prom special would be a heck of a stomper.

That melody-making is still on display here. "American Idiot" kicks off with the title track, a radio-ready burner that bops along on a seemingly playful blitzkrieg beat. Armstrong still sings like a snotty little bugger, bending words with an exaggerated snarl. But now his lyrics -- and this is very much his album -- have much more weight: "I'm not part of a redneck agenda / Now everybody do the Propaganda! / And sing along to the age of paranoia."

That song is the Green Day you remember, but don't get too comfortable. The rest of the album tells the long, loopy story of a possibly schizophrenic teenager named Jimmy (or is it two teenagers with religious delusions?), raised on soda pop and Ritalin, who learns life's lessons in a 7-Eleven parking lot. Green Day starts the epic tale with a five-part mini-opus called "Jesus of Suburbia." As the boy searches for a way out of strip-mall purgatory, the soundtrack is all over the place: raging doo-wop that gives way to glam-rock and a saloon-style piano. Armstrong then merges Johnny Rotten hate and fuzzy feedback with silly "ooh oohs" from the Weezer school. But hold on, there's more! The song's fourth part, "Dearly Beloved," is cool, bouncy Brit-pop, and the closing "Tales of Another Broken Home" is back to good ol' Green Day again. It's a wild trip, but troubled Jimmy still seems to be stuck in the burbs at song's end. Then again, it's tough to tell with Armstrong's tangled, tortured poetry.

The band attempts another five-part trick toward the album's finish -- "Homecoming" -- but with far less rousing results. It's not giving too much away to say that things don't go well for the story's antihero. But what's supposed to be the big, sad conclusion to Jimmy's adventures in anger is instead a disaster of cringe-inducing parts, including a mock-'50s twist-up called "Rock and Roll Girlfriend" and a portion that sounds like a Christmas song. Poor Jimmy -- what a way to go out.

Oh well: It's probably best not to follow Armstrong's narrative too closely. Instead, just know that Jimmy does have moments of hope and, more important, sex, and that's when the album is so good it gives goose bumps.

"Extraordinary Girl" opens with Middle Eastern percussion, then 1-2-3's into a power-pop, hooray-for-love song with heart-sleeve chord changes reminiscent of Fountains of Wayne. For "Are We the Waiting," Armstrong, Dirnt and Cool form an anthemic chorus of "Are we we are / Are we we are" as the song builds to glorious heights. It feels vaguely '80s, but in a good way that begs repeat listens. And for those people who just want to slam-dance around their bedrooms and peeve their parents, the ferocious "St. Jimmy" gets the job done.

But the best track on "American Idiot" is the beautiful bummer of a ballad "Wake Me Up When September Ends." Armstrong, in "Good Riddance" mode, bids adieu to his (and Jimmy's, I reckon) younger days, and he's so good at making you feel sad, it's a relief when the drums and power chords kick in at the end to cheer the thing up a little. The song proves that Green Day, on the wrong side of 30, can still deliver better than any of its younger pop-punk brethren.

Green Day is scheduled to appear Oct. 31 at the Patriot Center.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company