For the most part, Green Day had abandoned their punk rock foundation way before 2004. With things taking a gradual turn after the release of Insomniac, they began crafting music that was more in tune with rock ‘n roll. That reached its most mature peak in 2000’s Warning, which then brings us to American Idiot. Despite constant changes since the earlier punk days, many consider this to be the real shark-jumper, or as I like to call it, Green Day’s “black album.” I say that only because this is the disc where fans divide greatly, much like said Metallica disc. But what’s important is that American Idiot is now fifteen years old, a great time to look back on its legacy.
On paper, this may seem like another politically charged record that man a band had made prior. In reality, that’s only the case for two of the songs, the title track and “Holiday.” If I’m being really honest, those are both big radio pop hits that just about everyone knows by now, and there isn’t much to describe about them beyond being friendly arena rockers. No, the real ingredients for American Idiot were born out of more than just some hatred towards Bush or the issues of America. Included with this were disputes between the members, and a tape of ideas they’d come up with previously being stolen. The end product from such friction is a conceptual album about a lower-middle-class American who meets a punk rocker, both of whom hold a lot of disdain for the country at the current time. Basically, they would cast their views on real situations into fictional characters.
That said, Billie Joe Armstrong and co take a plethora of different angles. Ballads and hard rockers give-way to each other as the softies are often paired up with a more up-tempo tune. The most famous one is the aforementioned “Holiday” leading into the other radio hit “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams,” a bit of a whinier pop number with acoustic verses and an electric chorus. I prefer the next set, “Are We The Waiting” and “St. Jimmy.” The former is crafted on vibrant licks and slower drum kicks with a softer chant for the chorus. The latter breaks the hazy surface with a fast punk rock ditty that pays homage to the band’s earlier days. Fitting, as St. Jimmy is the name of the “punk rocker” character. The next pair, “Give Me Novocaine” into “She’s A Rebel” are laid out similarly but executed differently. Acoustic rhythms picked in the style of the early rock ‘n roll innovators with a somber chorus make up the first, and catchy albeit simplistic pop-rock hooks dominate the second.
One of the biggest songs to come off of this, and the only one of the radio hits that I can say I still love to this day is “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” Out of all of the ballads on here, this one captured the emotional feelings the best. Billie Joe Armstrong’s voice shows clear sorrow not only in tone but delivery as well. It feels like a bit of a build-up as the sadder passages pick up momentum from the clean intro to an anthem-type chorus. The only bad thing to ever emerge from this tune is the horrible and overdone “somebody wake up the Green Day guy” jokes that clutter the internet beginning every October.
Speaking of buildup, American Idiot abandons the verse-chorus-bridge structure with not one, but two epics. One of them acts as falling action of the story known as “Homecoming,” working like a segue out of the album. Truly though, this is a rehash of the brilliant epic that helps introduce the disc, “Jesus Of Suburbia.” The title of the song shares its name with the main character in the story, and the tone-shifts and climbing action that it yields are tremendous. Starting as a harder banger, it soon molds into a slow effort that’s backed by a piano with few integrations of hard guitars to assist the chants. The fastest part of the song comes about halfway through, implementing repetition in lead and backing vocals before burning into an angry pile of ash. The mood established here does the best at capturing a pissed-off younger man without needing any metal or punk aesthetic to back it. Not to mention, Mike Dirnt’s bass lines shine the brightest here. All of this falls into a piano-led outro before finishing with Tre Cool’s blasting drums and a harder kick.
Ultimately, American Idiot did exactly what Metallica did. It introduced a large new audience while somewhat irking the old audience. My theory on why this didn’t happen earlier is that the previous couple of records didn’t cash in nearly as much success as this one. For some, Green Day blending in with the new crowd was viewed as a tragedy, making it controversial; “selling out” if you will. Others saw it as continuing their evolution. But neither of these change what it is – a weird concept that implements pop songs, ballads, epics, and hard rock. If you can get behind any of that, I suggest nothing more than putting the image aside and giving this a shot.
American Idiot came out on September 20th, 2004 through Reprise Records. It was pressed to CD and cassette as well as double vinyl. There are countless reissues in vinyl and CD alike, all of which can be found at my usual go-to.