When Pete Townshend scribbled the lyric “Hope I die before I get old” for the Who’s 1965 anthem “My Generation,” he was being coy, a bit smarmy, and was certainly under the thrall of the precociousness and assumed immortality that comes with being young, smart and talented.
He was surely unaware that he was at once birthing the ethos of punk rock and crafting the words that would forever signal the form’s diminishing utility as time progressed. Rock musicians who didn’t die young and leave a good-looking corpse would have to deal with Townshend’s lyrics from that point forward and very few have been able to justify their continued artistic existence as they did the unthinkable – got old.
Fifty years after “My Generation” laid down the gauntlet, a scruffy trio from California known as Green Day is dealing with Townshend’s implied edict as its members try to drag their primal, attitude-driven punk rock into middle age. How does a band responsible for an album titled “Dookie” and a catalog that includes laments for suburban ennui deal with issues that transcend the simple clarity offered by youth – the lack of gray in black and white assertions, the simple comforts of “us against them?”
With “Revolution Radio,” (Reprise Records) Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool attempt to do so by returning to the razor wire-taut pop-punk that made them a huge underground band, and largely ignoring the more ambitious, overproduced fare that brought them into the mainstream, via “American Idiot.” Sometimes, their efforts pay off. Sometimes, they don’t. As a result, “Revolution Radio” falls several steps short of being revolutionary.
It does, however, boast some considerable charms.
Most are delivered during songs that sound like they came easily, are not overcooked, and don’t attempt to make any grand statements, a la “American Idiot.” The weak moments involve generalizations in the lyric department, and attempts to reconcile the snotty punk of the band’s earliest days with the inflated and overdressed tendencies of its rock operas.
Green Day has never been a band capable of reinventing the wheel. “American Idiot” and its follow-up, “21st Century Breakdown,” did not represent leaps forward in terms of songwriting, despite incisive, topical lyrics. Rather, they were the punk-pop equivalent of Metallica’s work with the San Francisco Symphony – grandiose arrangements placed atop a rock band’s standard fare, not interwoven with it in an organic fashion. It worked for Green Day, commercially speaking, but despite the critical salivating and absurd comparisons to the Who’s “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia,” the trio was still essentially a band with a limited musical vocabulary. Twelve years after “American Idiot,” that’s still the case.
Things start promisingly enough with “Revolution Radio’s” opener, “Somewhere Now,” an unusual Green Day opener in that it commences in a subdued acoustic environment and then builds toward a bash-and-pop finale that provides the most “classic rock” moments on the album. The lyrics seem to be disconnected fragments that don’t really add up to much but a general air of discontent that is enveloping the singer – the clarity of purpose provided to “American Idiot” by the Bush years is missing, and these songs were written pre-Trump, so they don’t benefit from being tied to specific social/political milieu.
“Bang Bang,” the album’s first single, works as a simple reassertion of the up-tempo irreverent punk Green Day once played in dive bars and at house parties, but don’t look too closely – the lyrics don’t hold up as coherent commentary on gun violence, nor does a sense of a specific purpose. It’s a fun song that ultimately comes across as a great riff with a cool hook, and nothing more.
Similarly, the title track – which, singer/guitarist Armstrong has said was inspired by a Black Lives Matter protest he happened upon and felt compelled to join – is notable mainly for its simple catchiness, and not as a coherent statement of protest or sociopolitical criticism. “Still Breathing” deepens the idea that what you’re listening to here is an album that delivers its greatest gifts in the form of love letters to the past – simple celebrations of endurance and the unstudied pleasures of playing the sort of music the three fell in love with as teenagers.
“Revolution Radio” sounds a touch directionless and thrown-together in spots, but it does deliver some of the thrills that might be familiar to people of a certain age – those fans old enough to remember the pre-“American Idiot” Green Day, a straightforward pop-punk band capable of blending wit with caffeinated Ramones-style power chord hooks and choruses that stuck in the brain.
The band doesn’t sound particularly dangerous these days, but it does sound content, comfortable with its strengths, aware of its weaknesses, and at ease with the fact that life goes on after 40. Perhaps that’s enough.