Green Day gets played regularly on classic-rock stations in 2016. Usually just the hits from Dookie, though occasionally you might catch “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” or something from Insomniac. It makes sense, considering the band has lived virtually every classic-rock cliché there is by this point: the sappy ballad-turned-high school prom classic; the bombastic, career-reviving rock opera whose plot you can scarcely decipher; the protest-rock phase; the even longer, second rock opera; the releasing-too-many-albums trick borrowed Guns N’ Roses. There was even that 2012 onstage meltdown, which involved an obligatory dig at Justin Bieber and a subsequent stint in rehab for Billie Joe Armstrong. Thankfully, the band’s back catalog is strong enough to withstand bumps and missteps. (Don’t believe me? Queue up “Basket Case” at a karaoke party.)
Now, the legacy pop-punk trio has added another cliché to its repertoire: the back-to-basics album. Revolution Radio, Green Day’s 12th album and first since 2012, was self-produced by the band in Armstrong’s studio in Oakland. It is 44 minutes in length (longer than Dookie, yes, but pretty brief for a band that has made excess something of a priority in recent years) and doesn’t have any overarching concept or gimmick. The singer has described the album as “not so much a makeover as a make under.” On the disillusioned opener, “Somewhere Now,” and the sweetly strummed closer, “Ordinary World,” Green Day seek peace after several years of turmoil. (The latter cut bears the folksy stamp of Armstrong’s 2013 Everly Brothers tribute, which in retrospect sounds more therapeutic than creatively invigorating.) “If this is what you call the good life,” Armstrong declares on “Forever Now” (which reprises the opener), “I want a better way to die.”
In between, there is not a lot of peace but plenty of sharp hooks. Revolution Radio, true to title, is full of unrest and sociopolitical despair. Politically charged rock has been Green Day’s default mode ever since masturbation lost its fun. It’s a fitting coincidence that since 2000 the band only seems to put out records during presidential elections. (21st Century Breakdown, the exception, arrived six months after Obama’s election.) On “Bang Bang,” Armstrong and co. muster a fittingly caustic tribute to the uniquely American mass shooting phenomenon. The thrilling song is awash in cable news snippets and psychotic glimpses inside the mind of a shooter in the age of viral reproduction—a “semi-automatic lonely boy” who wants “to be a celebrity martyr.” The title track deals with music’s power to dissent and rebel, set to siren-like punk riffage. Elsewhere, Radio settles for nostalgic, anti-establishment power balladry (“Outlaws”) and vague, end-of-the-world platitudes (see: “Troubled Times,” with its insistent refrain that “we live in troubled times”).
It’s been a long time since Green Day has made a record as low-stakes as Revolution Radio. For more than a decade, the California-formed trio has operated with an almost manic desperation to bring high ambition to low-brow pop-punk (a genre Armstrong would like to “”destroy, in case you haven’t heard), whether via concept album bombast (American Idiot) or sheer prolificacy. Now here’s a rock record that’s content to be a rock record. Revolution Radio is a loud, energized power-pop album in moody punk clothing. It sounds pretty goddamn radiant when it’s playing and leaves little impression when it isn’t. Armstrong boasted about seniority during that iHeartRadio meltdown, but after all these decades Green Day still sounds like Green Day: palm-muted power chords, sneering vocals, 4/4 drum breaks. I love “Youngblood” and “Too Dumb to Die,” two sing-songy paeans to young love and youthful rebellion. In other words, there is nothing revolutionary about them.