What happens when angry, rebellious punk rockers grow up? Green Day's 12th studio album, Revolution Radio, offers one answer to that question.
Revolution Radio is everything you'd expect from Green Day: social commentary. Anger. Profanity. High-octane, punk-rock power chords.
But there are also some things in this Revolution that we haven't often seen from Green Day. Stuff like hope, yearning, prayers, optimism and even veiled admissions that being a rebellious rocker isn't all it's cracked up to be.
"Somewhere Now" laments our culture's decline and finds frontman Billie Joe Armstrong admitting that rock star excess doesn't satisfy ("I never wanted to compromise/Or bargain with my soul/How did a life on the wild side/Ever get so dull?"). He criticizes our violent, greedy society ("All we want is money and guns") and suggests that we've numbed ourselves with technology ("All grown up and medicated/On my own cellular waves"). He also playfully talks of finding his lost soul: "Hallelujah, I found my soul/Under the sofa pillows."
"Still Breathing" celebrates surviving all the stuff life throws at us. Armstrong admits his brokenness but exults in the fact that he's still here ("'Cause I'm still breathing on my own.") He also compares himself to four other strugglers: "I'm like a junkie tying off for the last time/ … a loser that's betting on his last dime/ … a son that was raised without a father/ … a mother barely keeping it together." Finally, this song suggests a longing for home and truth: "I've been running all my life/Just to find a home that's for the restless/And the truth that's in the message."
"Bang Bang" begins with newscast voiceovers about videos of violence and executions. The song suggests that isolation, social media, narcissism and access to guns is a deadly mixture: "Bang, bang! Give me fame/Shoot me up to entertain/I am a semi-automatic lonely boy/ … Broadcasting from my room and playing with my toys." "Troubled Times" asks questions about truth and love: "What good is love and peace on earth?/When it's exclusive?/Where's the truth in the written word/If no one reads it?" The song doesn't provide answers, but suggests we must pay attention to history to avoid repeating the past's errors. "Forever Now" mentions solitude and prayer ("I sit alone with my thoughts and prayers"), acknowledges that the world is a scary place ("Standing at the edge of the world/It's giving me the chills") and pines for a better life ("If this is what you call the good life/I want a better way to die").
"Say Goodbye" mourns lives taken by violence: "Violence on the rise/Like a bullet in the sky/Oh Lord have mercy on my soul/ … Say a prayer for the ones that we love/Say goodbye to the ones that we love." "Outlaws" romanticizes the rebellion of youth (not a good thing), but Armstrong says he and his friends have become "outlaws of redemption." The song also reminisces about "first love" and "first forgiveness." "Youngblood" positively compares a woman with a "bleeding heart" to "Ms. [Mother] Teresa."
"Ordinary World" asks longingly, "Where can I find the city of shining light/In an ordinary world?" The song deals with one's treasure and legacy ("How can I leave a buried treasure behind/In an ordinary world?") and recognizes life's brevity ("The days into years roll by"). Armstrong also expresses contentment: "Baby, I don't have much/But what we have is more than enough."
"Somewhere Now" perhaps implies that true patriots are those who violently protest ("I put the riot in Patriot"). Lyrics on "Say Goodbye," a song about people being killed, could be interpreted as being anti-police: "Say hello to the cops on patrol." The title track says, "Revolution radio/Operation no control," and again may subtly imply an anti-police message: "Scream with your hands up in the sky/Like you want to testify/For the life that's been deleted/ … Under the stars and stripes."
There's a reference to oral sex in "Bang Bang." "Youngblood" includes two f-words and talks of a reckless youth who likes to get drunk. (Profanities elsewhere include two uses of "h---" and one of "p-ss.") On "Too Dumb to Die," Armstrong recalls smoking marijuana in high school ("I was a high school atom bomb/Going off on the weekends/Smoking dope and mowing lawns").
A smattering of lyrics hint at the kind of angry anarchy Green Day once embraced zealously. "Outlaws" glorifies destructive youthful vandalism: "Hooligans/We destroyed suburbia/When we were outlaws." And "Bouncing Off the Walls" hyperbolically sports old-school infatuation with Satan ("'Cause it's all that I want/And I want to be free/I got Satan riding next to me/'Cause we're all bloody freaks").
Back in 2009, I wrote of Green Day's latest album at the time, "21st Century Breakdown churns with cynicism and rage even as it wallows in despair. Moments of positive perspective on reality are few."
I can't say for sure what's happened to frontman Billie Joe Armstrong since then. But we know that in 2012 he had a well-publicized onstage breakdown himself, one that led to a stint in rehab. Perhaps that was the catalyst he needed to deal more deeply with some of his own anger and addiction issues, because seven years later, he's singing a pretty different tune.
To be sure, there are still moments of punkish rebelliousness here. But the despair I noted above has largely been replaced with something that feels like … maturity. Armstrong and Co. are still frustrated by the state of the world. But instead of unleashing their pent-up frustration in destructive, anarchic rage, they frequently deliver messages of hope and perseverance instead. There's a perspective on setbacks and suffering that's largely been absent from previous efforts. And they also recognize how violence, narcissism and social media can become a toxic stew.
Even more surprising than that, I think, is the band's frequently articulated, almost spiritual sense of longing here. These guys yearn for the world to be a better place. They sing about praying, the state of their souls and lost innocence. They sing about life, death and truth. "Say Goodbye" even asks, "Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul." This is not the Green Day we've seen recently … or ever, really.
Revolution Radio isn't perfect. We've still got a smattering of harsh vulgarity and occasional moments where the band's anti-authoritarian tendencies bubble up. But this release nevertheless represents a revolution of sorts for Green Day and is, on balance, arguably the most upbeat album this band has ever released.