Music Review: Wilco’s “Wilco (the album)”

RATING:  4 / 5 stars

By Chris Moore

For an album that is thematically based in the mysteries of human nature and love, the opening track is remarkably straightforward.  “Are you under the impression / This isn’t your life? / Do you dabble in depression?” Jeff Tweedy inquires in “Wilco (the song)” before declaring that “Wilco will love you baby.”

But don’t let the unabashed directness — even Tweedy admits it may appear cheesy at first  — of this opening track deter you from taking the album seriously.

Immediately after “Wilco (the song)” fades out, the heartbeat of “Deeper Down” steadily fades in with the crash of a cymbal.  This song is more subtle and serves as a reminder that the band has not lost its flair for more experimental fare, even after its flirtation with the more straightforward songwriting and jam band mentalities present on 2007’s Sky Blue Sky.  Aside from the standard acoustic and electric guitars, bass, and drums, this track also incorporates lap steel (which is becoming a standard Wilco instrument, particularly since the arrival of Nels Cline), loops, harpsichord, Mellotron cello and vibraphone, bowed piano (go ahead: look up “bowed piano” — it’s wild…), synthesizer, and cimbalom.  Based on the list of instrumental credits alone, it is apparent Wilco is not through with the sonic experiments that have earned them fame throughout their career, ever since the opening moments of “Misunderstood” on 1996’s Being There.

“Deeper Down” also begins to tackle the core subjects covered by the album, namely the uncertainties in both our relationships and personal lives.  As Tweedy sings, “Out beyond the telescope’s pry / Up above the tallest Dutch dope high / He realized / This mystery is his.”  The unknown elements that the singer is concerned with here are not the ones that can be analyzed by using scientific equipment or engaging in a study.  Rather, personal demons and mysteries are on display for examination throughout the song and the album.

As the next verse begins to employ the metaphor of the ocean floor for the depths of the human mind, a creaking sound invokes the image of a deep sea vehicle moving farther and farther down into the watery depths.

This is the one track on the album that is not written solely by Tweedy.  A collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, “Deeper Down” is the perfect bookend to the album proper.

“One Wing” returns to the lighthearted lyricism of the opening song, the title metaphor of this third track comparing a full relationship to a bird (“We once belonged to a bird”) and the aftermath of a breakup to the separation of those all-important feathery appendages (“One wing will never ever fly, dear / Neither yours nor mine, I fear / We can only wave goodbye”).  Again, this type of songwriting may seem worthy of a dismissal at first, but it works in context here.

The fourth track is anything but lighthearted.  Told from the manic perspective of one who has just committed murder (online sources suggest the victim was the narrator’s girlfriend), “Bull Black Nova” is the sonic standout here, being easily the most experimental track on the album.  Spin‘s review of the album suggests that this song is out of place in what is largely a body of traditionally arranged songs, but this is not the case.  After all, what will drive a person to killing another — particularly a loved one — is perhaps the greatest human mystery of all.

Driven by a steady beat and arrangement of electric guitars, this track fittingly evokes the mental hysteria of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  Indeed, the mystery dealt with in this song is perhaps best described as how one might handle the aftermath of having committed such a heinous crime.

The first of two acoustic masterpieces, “You and I” prominently features the first duet to be included on a Wilco album.  Accompanied by Leslie Feist, Tweedy presents this moving track with a fittingly subdued instrumental performance by the other members of the band.  Moreover, this song advances the motif of the album.  As Tweedy and Feist sing, “Oh, I don’t need to know / Everything about you / Oh, I don’t want to know / And you don’t need to know / That much about me.”  This song considers the reality that two people may still be strangers, regardless of how close they become.  While that may sound negative, it is turned around in the song as a positive and natural element of any relationship.

Tweedy later goes it alone on “Solitaire,” the eighth track.  This is another acoustic gem highlighted by Tweedy’s understated but heartfelt double-tracked vocals.  Lyrically, this is the perfect example of a simple but powerfully written song.  (Click here to see the Laptop Session this song inspired.)

“You Never Know” is the first single; it comes halfway through the album, proving that Wilco was only warming up.  This song nicely features all of the elements that make this an excellent band: Tweedy’s vocals, Cline’s lead guitar, Sansone’s piano,  Jorgensen’s organ, and the typically strong bass and drums of Stirratt and Kotche, respectively.  What stands out about this track is that it is clearly Wilco in sound and style, yet, as several other reviews have noted, the stylistic touches are strongly reminiscent of one of the best songwriter/guitarists of all time: George Harrison.  It is nearly impossible to listen to “You Never Know” and not hear Harrison’s characteristic flourishes in the mix.  In a recent interview, Tweedy suggested that the similarities were not planned, but that he was pleased to offer an homage.

No other journalist has pointed out that the Hammond organ stylings on “You and I” sound like a reference to Bob Dylan’s “I Believe In You,” so I’ll just throw that one out there, too…

The second half of the album is equally as strong as the first.  “I’ll Fight” (a standout track) and “Sonny Feeling” (highlighted by Cline’s lap steel guitar licks) are a powerful combination, occupying the ninth and tenth slots on the album.  The former is a statement of purpose, evoking Biblical references to drive the point home.  The latter evades an entirely concrete interpretation, but it is clear that the song centers around a pivotal experience in a high school student’s life.  The middle is perhaps the strongest section of this song, as Tweedy sings, “You know it’s true / The other shoe / It waits for you / What can you do? / Remember to show gratitude / The darkest night is nothing new.”

In addition to the aforementioned “Solitaire,” the true highlights of the second half are certainly the two acoustic-based songs “Country Disappeared” and “Everlasting Everything.”  “Country Disappeared” is just about as political as you’ll hear Wilco (in song at least), but it is still best described as poetic and personal.  If “Deeper Down” is a fitting thematic bookend at the opening of the album, then “Everlasting Everything” is the ideal closer.  As Tweedy sings, “Oh I know this might sound sad / But everything goes, both the good and the bad / So it all adds up, and you should be glad / Everlasting love is all you had.”  This is apparently what is to be found after digging “deeper down,” namely the realization that a life driven by love is worthwhile.  With this, Wilco (the album) turns out to be perhaps the most positive release in the Wilco catalog.

As “Everlasting Everything” fades out and “Wilco (the song)” thunders in, listeners will find it difficult to pop the CD out of the player or change the selection on the iPod.  And this is just as a great album should be.  Is Wilco (the album) the perfect record, or even a masterpiece?  The answer is undoubtedly in the negative.  And yet there is something compelling, soothing, passionate, and masterful about it.

This is the story of a band putting out a strong seventh release, continuing to impress after an already impressive career.

The Weekend Review: March 2011 Report

By Chris Moore:

March 2011 was one of those months (at least in new music news) that make other months pale in comparison.  As you flip through the albums highlighted below, I hope you’ll find something to catch your attention.  With a couple notable exceptions, there were more quality releases unveiled in March than probably will be unveiled for the rest of the year.  This is not to suggest that there aren’t more positive reviews coming — because there are a couple of very positive ones — but it should be taken to suggest that there are mediocre reviews coming in more than equal ratio to what you’ll find below.  So, enjoy, and I’ll hope to see you back soon!

The Baseball Project, Vol. 2
The Baseball Project  



March 1, 2011

3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Buckner’s Bolero” & “Don’t Call Them Twinkies”

For the follow-up to a low-key, sports-themed side project, High and Inside is an entertaining and educational album that demonstrates an impressive range, musically as well as in terms of baseball trivia.  Thus, the Baseball Project lives up to its name, a largely straight-up rock album heavy on lyrics and smooth, lush harmonies.

The bouncy brightness of tracks like “Chin Music” (the song which contains the title in its lyrics, celebrating the use of “chin music” as a strategy) contrasts with the contemplative, sober feel of such songs as “Here Lies Carl Mays” and “Buckner’s Bolero” (a brilliant study in the art of the what-if).  Meanwhile, songs like “1976” sound like they could have been ripped off a jangly sixties LP, while others like “Don’t Call Them Twinkies” provide clear signposts that this is a modern record.  Guest vocalist Craig Finn’s lead performance on the latter track is a highlight of the album.  Bringing every bit of the lyricism and nearly-spat-out vocal delivery of his Hold Steady recordings, Finn unrolls a passionate appeal via an intimately thorough review of Twins’ history.  This is perhaps what works so well on the record, what translates so well: each member is clearly fervently invested in a baseball team.

The range of teams, time periods, and perspectives represented across Volume 2: High and Inside is impressive, and along with the range of styles employed, ensures the success of the collection as a complete thought.  All told, the songs cover a broad array while also driving home the suggestion that there is simply too much trivia, too many stories, to ever be told in one or two volumes.  There is something here for everyone, whether you enjoy the subtly tongue-in-cheek romp “Panda and the Freak,” the gorgeous acoustic balladry in “Pete Rose Way,” the intimate sing-along “Fair Weather Fans,” the overly serious tone of “Tony (Boston’s Chosen Son),” the hero celebration of “Ichiro Goes to the Moon,” the cocky strut of “The Straw that Stirs the Drink” (balanced brilliantly with the background singers), or the quasi-humorous warning “Look Out Mom.”

All told, High and Inside defies expectations for this sort of side project, and  is in fact one of the strongest efforts of the year.


The Valley

Gary Leach, Austin Deptula, Eisley


March 1, 2011

4/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Ambulance” & “I Wish”

Apparently, for both Eisley and Noah and the Whale, the third time around is the charm.  Both bands have delivered strongly defined, carefully developed #3 efforts, Eisley’s being marked for its seamless integration of pensive vocals and foundational piano textures with electric guitar and drums that elevate The Valley to the full status of rock album.

There are slower songs to be certain, “Kind” being perhaps the most subdued, but most songs have sort of edge.  There is “Mr. Moon,” a song that starts out quietly but soon builds into a full pace multi-vocal attack, or the gorgeously moody closer “Ambulance,” which builds from solo piano ballad into a full-on arena rock-worthy epic chorus.

Overall, The Valley is more than listener-friendly, offering catchy choruses and upbeat verses, yet also very ambitious, particularly on songs like the title track where strings are added and vocals are layered upon vocals.  Sara Barreilles-worthy piano tracks like “Watch It Die” are juxtaposed with riff-ridden songs like “Sad.”  Just when the mood drops, as on “Better Love,” Eisley returns with a beautiful, charged song like “I Wish.”

All in all, the attention to production and arrangement makes The Valley one of the year’s strongest releases and yet another reason why March was such an impressive new music month.


Collapse Into Now

Jacknife Lee & R.E.M.

March 7, 2011

3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Uberlin” & “All the Best”

When, prior to March 7, I read several headlines referring to Collapse Into Now as a return to R.E.M.’s “classic” sound, I was less than enthusiastic.  After all, I have yet to find an album from anywhere remotely near to their aforementioned classic period that I would unflinchingly award with five stars. 

There can be no denying that they created a sound that one might argue – without exaggeration – created a standard for and perhaps pioneered the alternative rock genre: crunchy guitars, interesting but not overly complicated bass and drums, and stark vocals only ever lightly supported.  In short, they stripped away the frills, riffs, and accents that had edged toward being overvalued in popular music before they entered the scene.  However, 2008’s Accelerate was a return to life from their mid-nineties to early-2000s wasteland of often spineless adult contemporary “rock,” a period that was peppered with some incredible songs and yet few strong albums.  Accelerate truly rocked with raw vocals and riffs and didn’t stop for a breath across eleven tracks.

To lose all that sounded less like a slogan in support of the record and more like an ominous warning to lower my expectations.

Not so.

Collapse Into Now somehow manages to combine the defining features of their earlier sound with the vitality they had regained in 2008.  As is always impressive in a band that has spanned three decades with recognizable music, this latest release offers up songs for the ages, such as “Uberlin,” a track that will surely be included on any decent R.E.M. essential collection going forward from here.  Their sense of rawness and humor is still very much intact, as evidenced on “Mine Smell Like Honey,” while tracks like the adjacent “Walk It Back” recall the most tender moments of their career.

What restricts Collapse Into Now, what limits its ultimate appeal, can be heard in the flatness of the repetition in the lead single, “Discoverer.”  Additionally, there are the moments of experimentation, particularly in the latter half, as in “Alligator, Aviator, Autopilot, Antimatter” and the closer “Blue.”  These moments of divergence from the model established earlier on the record waver occasionally in their entertainment value (read: lack of attention to attention spans) and, less often, their intellectual value, and yet this is also one of the more promising aspects of the release.  After all, it would be all too easy to fall into the “classic” groove and churn out a predictable release without much risk involved, without vigor required.  Instead, we have the living, breathing Collapse Into Now.


No Color
The Dodos

John Askew

March 15, 2011

3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Companions” & “Don’t Try and Hide It”

The Dodos, on their new disc No Color, cleverly walk the line between instrumental immediacy and more predictable riffing.  The ultimate result is a potentially trance-inducing nine-track sequence of acoustic music that creates mood through a responsive attention to subtleties and an elusive lyrical approach. 

As evidenced by tracks like “Good,” the Dodos are comfortable leaping from restrained to frenzied, sometimes without much warning prior to the transition.  This is good, as all but two of the nine tracks on No Color stretch past the four minute mark, the second and third songs clocking in at six minutes each.  This sort of time commitment to songs that lack clear, catchy choruses to act as anchors must needs be balanced by some other factor; in this case, it is a sensitivity to mood that modulates several times per song, adjusted with the introduction of keys and strings, as in tracks like “Sleep.”

I’m not certain whether they released a single, but if they did, it should certainly have been “Don’t Try and Hide It,” the closest they come to a song that will get stuck in your head.  Still, it is “Companions” that easily springs to the fore when deciding on the most textured, instrumentally impressive, and, frankly, beautiful track.

Overall, No Color is a finely sequenced and intelligently balanced disc that will spin and spin (or digital album that will… play and play?) without triggering a desire for more: my vote for best pleasant-trance-inducing music of the year.


Last Night on Earth
Noah & the Whale

Charlie Fink & Jason Lader

March 7, 2011

4.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Tonight’s the Kind of Night” & “Give It All Back”

Every so often, an album comes along that I didn’t expect, one like Noah and the Whale’s third album Last Night on Earth, and blows me away.  Before March 7, I didn’t even know they were a band.  Truth be told, I was drawn in by their album cover: retro to be certain, yet just artful enough to be eye-catching.

Sonically, listening to Last Night on Earth is like jumping in Doc Brown’s DeLorean and getting off circa the first Back to the Future film when rock still ruled, though it was synthesizer-drenched and put a premium on experimenting with new technologies over the basic set of real instruments.  Vocally, Charlie Fink sounds like the latest “new Dylan,” or perhaps a “new Petty,” and the overall aura of the album might draw “new Springsteen” references, as well.

Regardless of these throwback references, Noah and the Whale is a truly authentic force, lyrically a product of no other time but our own.  The figure in “Life is Life” may throw “his back onto the back” of an “eighties car,” but it is “run down,” and ultimately, it is a bus that transports the boy in “Tonight’s the Kind of Night” to a land of opportunity “where everything could change.”

As on “Old Joy,” the past is celebrated in some ways, though the point is less nostalgia than a warning to “Forget the things that get away / Don’t dream of yesterday.”  Photos kept in drawers reveal “bad hair cuts” and cigarettes, poor decisions from past lives, along with memories of being “a lustless romantic trying hard to impress.”  In putting this latter sentiment into words and song, as in so many ways, this album is, as Fink would say, a “victory for the kids who believe in rock and roll.”

Some might write off the more buoyant tracks like “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.,” but if they do they will miss Joey’s “black and blue body” and brandy-drinking “rock and roll survivor” Lisa going “down on almost anyone.”  In a very dark – and perhaps a very real – way, this track is about cutting ties with regret and being at peace with life as it is.  Fink adeptly slips in a note that “to a writer / the truth is no big deal,” as if inviting us to reimagine our own pasts, or at least to believe in the “the kind of night where everything could change.”

If only for the 33 minutes across which this feels possible, Last Night on Earth achieves something special through well-written tracks aptly performed and carefully arranged: all through rock and roll, albeit rock that conjures the tones of a lost time.  It may not be large-scale enough to reach the heights of last year’s eighties homage (Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs), but in my book Noah and the Whale have twice the imact in half the time.


Meyrin Fields
Broken Bells

Danger Mouse

March 29, 2011

2/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Windows” & “An Easy Life”

I’ve been interested in the Broken Bells sound ever since a friend played me the lead single to their debut release.  My respect has climbed with every listen to that album, particularly the ones when I was writing my review last year, picking out the nuances and influence-blending that make Broken Bells such a subdued yet brilliant project. 

This being said, although I was clearly one of the first to be excited by the prospect of four new songs from Danger Mouse and James Mercer, sometimes it pays to wait until an album’s worth of top-notch tracks are prepared.  And, as much as I detest the perpetuators of this repackaging ploy, the four tracks on the Meyrin Fields EP would have made for very strong bonus tracks attached to Broken Bells.

As a work unto themselves, they fall short of highly listenable.  And, clocking in at under twelve minutes, this “EP” plays more like a two-for-one single release.  (Or, to more precisely represent the price point, a two-for-two single release.)  The title track begins with grit and attitude, yet relaxes into essentially the same groove for three minutes.  “Windows,” easily the standout, adds a funky bass line to the usual mix and several segments.  “An Easy Life” is perhaps the most reminiscent of Broken Bells (2010), which is a good thing indeed, while “Heartless Empire” clearly deserves its place, last on this release.


Rolling Papers
Wiz Khalifa

Stargate, Jim Jonsin, Benny Blanco, I.D. Labs, Papa Justifi, Oak, King David, Bei Maejor, Noel “Detail” Fisher, Lex Luger

March 29, 2011

2/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Black and Yellow” & “Fly Solo”

Rarely has an album with such a well-attuned balance between inventive sounds and pop mentalities been layered with such regularly insipid lyrics.  While I still tread lightly in my reviews of the hip hop genre – understanding that I, in my suburban white-breadedness, may never truly relate to the timeless themes of “bitches and champagne,” as Khalifa sings – I simply refuse to believe that an album like Rolling Papers, with its beautiful backing vocals, ambitious arrangements, and hints at more insightful commentary, is not shooting for the lowest common denominator with its constant topical return to hos, weed, and partying.  Now, don’t get me wrong: I enjoy a good song about hos, weed, and partying just as much as the next listener, but when nearly every song is layered thickly with misogynistic, drug-soaked lyricism, I begin to feel numbed to the insensitivity. 

Clearly, Wiz Khalifa has more potential than he is capitalizing on, evidenced by the big, bad swagger of the gorgeously catchy “Black and Yellow” and the acoustic framework of the surprisingly bright power pop track “Fly Solo.”  Of course, he makes good on the double entendre implicit in the title, played out in “Roll Up,” and more fully explicated in a recent Rolling Stone magazine review.

The middle of the album truly dips in quality, though the tracks are musically inventive, including interesting usage of electric guitar and synthesizers on what is perhaps the worst track, “Hopes and Dreams,” second only perhaps to “Star of the Show” and third to “Top Floor.”  “Wake Up” is more likely to induce the opposite reaction, though the middle shows off a vocal sensitivity not present elsewhere.  “The Race” is hardly excellent yet prominently displays Khalifa’s mastery of beats and catchy tunesmithing.

It is, however, the penultimate track, “Rooftops,” that perhaps best hints at Khalifa’s potential when he juggles bald-faced materialism and misogyny with social commentary, listing off his conquests, affecting cocky, yet singing, “Used to not be allowed in the building, now we on the rooftops, rooftops.”

For all the issue I take with the uneven quality of the album, it is bookended well, “When I’m Gone” serving well as the opener and “Cameras” aptly closing the disc.  All in all, Khalifa has my attention, and I can only hope that his next record contains lyrics that are as thoughtful as his musical arrangements.


All Eternals Deck
The Mountain Goats

Brandon Eggleston, John Congleton, Scott Solter, Erik Rutan

March 29, 2011

3.5/5 stars

Top Two Tracks:
“Estate Sale Sign” & “Prowl Great Cain”

This album resets the standard for me when I hear terms like “minimalist” and “lo-fi.”  For a professional full-band recording, it is as stripped down as they come, essentially an acoustic guitar, bass, keyboard, and light drums on most tracks.  Rarely do they play at full speed, and when they do, it is rarely all at once.

This understandably “cultivates a space,” opens a gap that, in this case, is filled admirably: lyrically.  In a manner that is rare of modern music, All Eternals Deck places a premium on the words so much as to subjugate the music to them.

As a result, the new Mountain Goats disc is not as eminently listenable and reliably re-listenable as, say, the Decemberists, but the words are clear and strong.  From the vampire metaphor in the opener (that is a metaphor, right?…) to the numerous references which range from Biblical to pop-cultural, the tracks are consistently intellectually engaging, though the minimalism does feel… well, a bit minimal at times.  This is frustrating, as the band is clearly very capable of balancing high-octane performance with engaging communication (see: “Estate Sale Sign”).

Regardless of its shortcomings, All Eternals Deck is a clever, winning collection of performances, and they continue to assert themselves as a thoughtful band.  Having been first introduced to the Mountain Goats via Steven Page’s cover of “Lion’s Teeth,” these tracks have made me all the more interested to find and hear the MG original sooner rather than later.


Music Review: The Beatles’ “Please Please Me” (2009 Stereo Remaster)

By Chris Moore:

Of all the remastered Beatles discs, the Fab Four’s debut album might seem the least likely to be the first you’d want to hear.  After all, it is their most raw effort, not only for the fact that it was their first experience in the studio but also because they were pursuing a “live” sound.  It was essentially recorded in a day under the supervision of a profoundly talented producer (George Martin) and four boys with a tremendous deal of potential (John, Paul, George, and Ringo), all five of whom had yet to re-create — or, really, create — the genre in which they would spend much of their respective careers and earn much of their respective fame.

Perhaps for all those reasons, Please Please Me is an excellent place to start.

"Please Please Me" - the Beatles' debut album, remastered for 2009!

“Please Please Me” – the Beatles’ debut album, remastered for 2009!

Amidst all the controversies over mono versus stereo, should the remasters have been remixed?, etc., Please Please Me has been released in the awkward stereo format — instrumentation at the left, vocals panned right — that would have been available only to “a small number of hi-fi enthusiasts,” as the liner notes recall.

I had to chuckle to myself as I sat in the parking lot today, cellophane wrapper on the floor and new-CD smell filling my nostrils, as I imagined how exciting and fresh this format must have been at the time, a hint of what was to come in the not-so-distant future.

For the first time today, I too was excited to purchase a Beatles album.  Each of my previous purchases of a Beatles record on CD left me feeling empty.  Sure, the music was excellent — phenomenal and mind-altering, even — but the packaging has always been far too sparse, nothing more than the cheapest of cheap jewel cases and a one-fold booklet.  The packaging of this 2009 remastered album makes it worth the purchase alone.  There are reprinted liner notes, rare photos, and a mini-documentary that, although very brief (less than four minutes), includes entertaining footage and interesting narration from all four band members as well as George Martin.

The songs themselves sound as good as they ever have.  The Beatles’ rapid ascent to pop music stardom becomes clear after hearing tracks like the energetic “I Saw Her Standing There,” the vocally superb “Please Please Me,” and George’s lead vocal debut “Do You Want to Know A Secret?”

As if these weren’t enough, the other Lennon/McCartney originals round out the set nicely — the classics “Love Me Do” and the lesser-known but equally catchy “Misery.”

Even the covers, like “Anna (Go To Him)” and “Twist and Shout,” shine almost as bright as Lennon/McCartney originals.  Although I have always maintained that “A Taste of Honey” is disposable, it is interesting to hear the first instance of Paul’s double-tracked lead vocals on a recording.

Throughout this remastered album, as with the original release, the words that continually come to mind are “energetic” and “fun.”  In all reality, the remastered tracks are merely cleaned up versions of the original mixes — the same as always with a sharper focus, so to speak.

If the past four decades are any indication, this may be the last overhaul of the Beatles catalog for a very long time.  For those of us “hi-fi enthusiasts” in 2009, it seems a shame to go on for the foreseeable future without all the Beatles’ material — arguably the most essential albums and tracks of rock and pop music — in full, lush stereo sound, each vocal and instrument standing out.

And yet, even if you feel this way, the 2009 remaster of Please Please Me — with all its simplicity and raw energy — should provide nothing but pleasant listening and reading.  And if you’re interested, make sure to check out all of our Beatles cover songs here on the Laptop Sessions acoustic cover songs music video blog!

Music Review: Green Day’s “21st Century Breakdown”

For the acoustic cover music video of “Peacemaker,” CLICK HERE!

RATING:  4 / 5 stars

By Chris Moore:

Try as I might, I just couldn’t get into American Idiot. (I know, I know… send your complaints care of Chris at the Laptop Sessions.)  What possessed me to buy 21st Century Breakdown?  I’m not entirely sure.

But, I’m glad I did.

Green Day has followed up their 2004 rock epic/concept album American Idiot with an even more ambitious concept album, aiming this time at the realities and challenges presented to the next generation at the turn of the century.  If I read the lyrics of the title track properly (“We are, we are the class of ’13), Billie Joe Armstrong refers to the first decade of the 20th century as an incubation period and 2013 as a graduation year of sorts.  Interestingly this is the year that we will inaugurate our next president.  Considering the subject matter of their previous album, Armstrong seems to be holding 2013 up as a test of what we as a nation and a society have learned over the past couple decades.

Will we — as “graduates” — demonstrate tangible, calculable progress, or will we recede back into the mentalities and mistakes of our forefathers?

As Armstrong sings, “I was made of poison and blood; condemnation is what I understood.”  And, of course, he doesn’t forget the government on this most recent release, noting that “Homeland Security could kill us all.”  Indeed, he traces the “class of ’13” back to — and suggests that we have been raised by — “the bastards of 1969.”

In this sense, 21st Century Breakdown is connected at its heart to the era and perhaps the first year that Americans lost an innocence and faith in their government that at least appeared to exist previously.  Consider the difference between the lighter, folk-inspired protest music of the civil rights movement and the heavier protest material of the late sixties and early seventies.  Indeed, 1969 began in January with the inauguration of Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States who was most infamous for the Watergate scandal.  In March, Assistant Attorney General Richard Kleindienst spoke out against what he called “ideological criminals,” referring perhaps to the the alternative opinions being expressed by college students among others.  In May, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas resigned following a financial controversy.  In the final months of the year, mass protests were staged against the war, including what came to be known as “Vietnam Moratorium Day” and a march on Washington, DC.

Throughout 21st Century Breakdown, there are repeated references to an entire generation of people whose confusion and “anguish” has been spawned from having inherited this legacy.  Certainly, there is a positive underlying message somewhere on this album, a suggestion that 2013 could indeed be a graduation year of sorts and a chance to move on to a new and different generational mindset than the one that has preoccupied us particularly over the past eight years.

Of course, we must remember that 1969 also saw Neil Armstrong’s moon walk and the Woodstock music festival.  Although the album is angsty and even angry throughout — and ends with tracks like “21 Guns” and “American Eulogy” — Armstrong and company depart with a message of hope in the final track, “See the Light” — he sings, “I want to see the light… I want to learn what’s worth the fight.”  To be certain, there is a positive energy and hesitant hopefulness that simply did not come through on American Idiot.

Under normal circumstances, it is probably not advisable to apply all that much scrutiny to Armstrong’s lyrics.  “It’s punk,” I have been told.  And that is true.  Indeed, this is perhaps why I have had a mental block of sorts that has prevented me from getting into, appreciating, and enjoying their previous work.  But anyone, myself included, who has so much as thumbed through the lyric booklet for American Idiot knows the effort and forethought that went into that album.

On 21st Century Breakdown, it all seems to come together.

As with Bruce Springsteen’s Working On A Dream (released earlier this year — CLICK HERE for a full review), this is an album written and recorded by a group that has worked hard over a lengthy career and is now able to put together the pieces — in Green Day’s case, there is straightforward, all-out punk rock but there are also more subtle acoustic guitar and piano-driven tracks.  There is screaming and there is crooning.  There are power chords pounded out on electric guitar, but there are also carefully constructed (if fairly simple) harmonies.

For my money, this is Green Day’s most ambitious — and perhaps most fully realized — album yet.

Breakdown opens with “Song of the Century,” emerging from the hiss of radio static as a simple, a cappella introduction to the concept of this album.

The title track follows immediately with several stabs at the piano before a heavy drum beat picks up and kicks in.  This song lays out the premise of the album to come, referencing the aforementioned “class of ’13” and the “bastards of 1969.”  This is a song presented in movements, reminiscent of a more mainstream take on the progressive format embraced by Weezer’s “I Am the Greatest Man (That Ever Lived)” from last year’s Red Album.  The closing line — “Scream, America, scream.  Believe what you see from heroes and cons” — is not only a call to the people of this society, but also evokes Brian Wilson with the reference to “heroes and cons” (think: “Heroes and Villains”, the multi-movement second track of Brian Wilson’s legendary SMiLE).

Next comes “Know Your Enemy,” a punk tour-de-force.  As many have noted, its roots are planted firmly in the Clash.  Boneheaded? Yup.  Bound to get stuck in your head? Yup.

Part one continues in a roller coaster ride: starting deceptively slow with “Viva La Gloria!” and “Before the Labotomy” (which introduce the recurring characters of young Gloria and Christian) and throttling back with “Christian’s Inferno” before coming to a melancholy conclusion with “Last Night On Earth.”

Part two, titled “Charlatans and Saints,” delivers more of the same.  The standout tracks are the electric rocker “East Jesus Nowhere” — a scathing commentary — and the acoustic rocker “Peacemaker” — another scathing, sarcastic commentary on its oxymoronic title.

This section ends with “Restless Heart Syndrome,” a song boasting perhaps the worst lyrical pun of the year, but a strong track nonetheless.

The third, final, and perhaps strongest section is “Horseshoes and Handgrenades,” the title track employing these handheld items — one thrown by the well to do and the relaxed, the other thrown by soldiers engaged in mortal combat — as part of a rhetorical device.  As Armstrong sings, ” ‘Almost’ only counts in horseshoes and handgrenades.”  A unique way to put it, but I suppose that’s true…

The final four tracks are at the thematic heart of the album: “The Static Age” rails against the confusion of the modern age, “21 Guns” asks the important and sadly relevant question “Do you know what’s worth fighting for?”, “American Eulogy” begins with a reprise/continuation of “Song of the Century” and unrolls a two-part attack (“Mass Hysteria” / “Modern Age”), and “See the Light” eases the album into its final phase, reinforcing the desire to “know what’s worth the fight” and, of course, to “see the light.”

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Two years after the American Idiot tour ended, it was reported that Armstrong had finished writing 45 new songs.  Oddly enough, though, this album was released after the longest gap between releases in the band’s history.

Or, perhaps not so odd.  The album is proof positive that Green Day took their time not only with the writing, but also the recording and sequencing of the tracks for 21st Century Breakdown.

The result?

An entertaining but thoughtful album that is more than worth your time.