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Reviewed by David Medsker
The title track leads things off, and it’s the best single they’ve sent to radio in years. With a small debt to the Ramones’ “California Sun,” it starts at full throttle and doesn’t let up. “Maybe I am the faggot America,” Billy Joe Armstrong wonders, openly joking that some faceless media whore will decide what demographic he belongs to. The title only partially refers to the American Idol phenomenon. They know full well that this whole you’re-only-as-good-as-your-opening-weekend mentality has been around far longer than that.
“Jesus of Suburbia” is where they leave their “Basket Case” past in the dust. A nine-minute, five-piece suite (The Who’s “A Quick One While She’s Away” is its closest ancestor), “Suburbia” covers much of the same lyrical ground they mined in their ‘90s youth (“I don’t care if you don’t care,” “No one ever died for my sins in hell, as far as I can tell”), but it’s encased in five songs that individually would have improved their Insomniac or Nimrod albums tenfold, and they’re thrown together in one song. That’s how good this album is: they had to condense some of their best stuff just to find room for it all.
Therein lies the beauty of American Idiot. To quote Beatles producer George Martin, they’re following his suggestion to think symphonic, or at least think in broader terms. “Give Me Novacaine” contains the trademark rock crunching guitars, but uses acoustic and George Harrison-esque slide guitars for its anchor. Two songs later is “Extraordinary Girl,” the most stunning slice of power pop the band’s ever attempted. It begins slyly enough, with a drum machine pretending to be lost in Toto’s “Africa,” but soon launches into a level of jangle pop nirvana that even the Posies couldn’t touch. Then, as if they hadn’t paid enough tribute to their power pop influences, they unleash “Letter Bomb,” which steals a subtle, yet obvious, nick of Cheap Trick’s “She’s Tight.” Stealing from Cheap Trick may be old hat, but they get bonus points for not doing the obvious song. And even then, they’re not finished; “Wake Me Up When September Ends” is easily the catchiest song written about 9/11 that doesn’t call for a race war.
Be it from a lyrical or musical standpoint, Green Day is clearly interested in making things right, even if it means acknowledging that some of the best songs have already been written. That is the sign of a good band, one that not just knows that they’re good but can admit when others are better. In the end, paying homage to your influences is the only way to ascend them, and American Idiot doesn’t just lift Green Day above the rest of the punk pop class: it puts them on par with all the bands they hold most dear. One more album like this and we may be looking at Green Day as not just a second generation punk band, but a first ballot Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band.