It would have been unimaginable as recently as a few months ago for Green Day to release a full-length featuring a dozen new songs and sell less than 100,000 copies of the album in its first week. But that disappointing sales debut just occurred twice for the pop-punk mainstays: first with “Dos!,” the second part of the group’s three-album follow-up to 2009’s “21st Century Breakdown,” which started with 69,000 copies sold in its first week in November according to Nielsen SoundScan, and now with “Tre!,” which debuted with 58,000 sold and a No. 13 spot on this week’s Billboard 200 chart. “Uno!,” the first part of the trilogy released in September, bowed with 139,000 copies sold in its debut week, and has since moved a total of 256,000 units, according to SoundScan. Yet when compared to the 215,000 copies that “21st Century Breakdown” sold in its first frame in 2009 — which came in an abbreviated three-day sales week, no less — the initial figures for the band’s ambitious three-part epic have to be viewed as underwhelming.
Of course, those numbers can be chalked up to forces beyond the control of any marketing team. When frontman Billie Joe Armstrong announced on Sept. 23 — two days before “Uno!’s” release — that he would be seeking treatment for substance abuse, the rollout of “Uno!,” “Dos!” and “Tre!” understandably stepped aside for personal necessity. The group’s remaining 2012 tour dates, including a spot at the Voodoo Music Experience fest, were scrapped, and its 21-date North American trek was postponed. Although “Uno!” was promoted with a single, “Oh Love,” that hit No. 1 on the Rock Songs chart, as well as multiple music videos and televised performances prior to the Sept. 23 announcement, Green Day could not spread the word about the releases of “Dos!” and “Tre!,” and their initial album sales reflect that lack of promotion.
Meanwhile, the band’s contribution to the “Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 2” soundtrack, the string-laden ballad “The Forgotten,” was released as the lead single to the compilation in October, but could not receive the kind of high-profile push that was given to Bruno Mars’ “It Will Rain,” which led the “Breaking Dawn – Part 1” soundtrack last year. “The Forgotten” has sold 4,000 downloads to date according to SoundScan, while “It Will Rain’s” sales total 3.1 million. Days before the release of “The Forgotten’s” music video, the band announced that they would shift the “Tre!” release date from Jan. 15, 2013, to Dec. 11, as a mea culpa of sorts for the cancelled shows. “We feel bad we have to delay our tour, so to make up for it we want to give our fans the music earlier than we had planned,” drummer Tré Cool said at the time. “If we couldn’t be there to play it for you live, the least we could do was give you the next best thing.”
The altered release date for “Tre!” meant that Green Day was releasing three albums — 37 songs worth of material — in a 78-day span; it was an overwhelming amount of new music from a band that had taken nearly five years to craft the follow-up to its career-resuscitating 2004 rock opera “American Idiot.” Triple-albums like the Magnetic Fields’ “69 Love Songs” and Joanna Newsom’s “Have One On Me” have been well-received in the SoundScan era, but few artists have opted to put forth such a wealth of material without issuing everything simultaneously and placing a buy-three-for-one bow on top of the project. The release plan certainly affected the singles rollout of the three albums, as “Dos!” and “Tre!” afforded little time to grow at alternative and rock radio. As of Dec. 18, “Uno!’s” “Let Yourself Go” was still acting as the focus track, rising to No. 18 on the Alternative Songs chart. Meanwhile, “Dos!” lead single “Stray Heart” registered a mere five plays among the more 1200 stations monitored by Nielsen BDS for the Hot 100 in the past seven days. “The Forgotten,” off both “Tre!” and the “Twilight” soundtrack, had garnered one play from the same stations in the same time period.
The release of three separate albums within a six-month time period was always going to be a Herculean task for Green Day’s longtime labels, Reprise/Warner Bros., and it’s impossible to know how “Uno!,” “Dos!” and “Tre!” would have been received if the band’s planned media assault had been enacted. Furthermore, it’s hard to predict how “Uno!,” “Dos!” and “Tre!” will be promoted, specifically at radio, once the band resumes operation and re-plots their tour dates (reps for the band and for Warner Bros. Records did not respond to requests for comment at press time). But even with an amplified presence from the band over the past three months, it would have been difficult stylizing the glut of songs that fans were asked to digest — and pay for — in such a small timeframe.
“I’m not going to conform to some consumer speed,” Armstrong told Billboard in last July’s cover story previewing the album trilogy. “I believe people want to hear this kind of music, that people want to hear records that have a story.” Then he added, “Or maybe they don’t. I have no idea.”
Armstrong was right — Green Day fans have always gravitated toward the Bay Area trio because of the surprising amount of gravitas present in their punk-rock ethos, whether it was the apathy ode “Longview,” the warmly detailed kiss-off “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” or the winding tale of disaffected youth that acted as the pulse of their “American Idiot” album. In two decade’s time, Armstrong, Cool and bassist Mike Dirnt evolved from a trio of bratty but talented three-chord auteurs to politically charged provocateurs capable of stretching their ideas to the length of a Broadway musical.
Comparatively, “Uno!,” “Dos!” and “Tre!” are as erratic as Armstrong’s words about them. Gone are the calls-to-arm and weighty musings of “21st Century Breakdown,” replaced by sneering tales from the gutter, incessant profanity and a general air of sexual frustration. On their 2009 album, Green Day told their fans that “Silence is the enemy against your urgency/So rally up the demons of your soul”; on “Dos!,” Armstrong declares, “It’s fuck time!” on a song called “Fuck Time.” That’s a reductive juxtaposition, but it does demonstrate how committed the band is to reverting to the lusty nihilism of 1995’s “Insomniac” on these full-lengths. With all three members now in their 40s, however, is this really the version of Green Day we want to return?
The new albums do contain poignant moments and absolutely searing hooks, mostly because Green Day can fashion a biting refrain from muscle memory and producer Rob Cavallo always draws out pristine material. “Uno!” is the most consistent of the three sets, with firecracker punk screeds “Carpe Diem” and “Nuclear Family” complementing the slithering experiments “Kill The DJ” and “Troublemaker,” while “Tre!” possesses some of the stakes-free hangdog charm of 2000’s “Warning.” “Amy,” the unadorned Amy Winehouse tribute that closes “Dos!,” is the band’s strongest ballad since “Macy’s Day Parade.” But eight years after harnessing their kinetic energy toward the highly entertaining melodrama of “American Idiot,” Green Day on “Uno!,” “Dos!” and “Tre!” sounds like a band that doesn’t want to reenter the political realm but is unsure of what new realm to enter. Whatever overall message Green Day wanted to convey on these three albums evaporates by the time the song list reaches the 20th track; the chapters are there, but they don’t add up to a satisfying book.
Green Day has undergone a crisis of identity before: after 2000’s solid if unassuming “Warning” was received with less fanfare (the disc has sold 1.2 million copies to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan), the trio was stuck opening for edgier artists like blink-182 on tour. Four years later, “American Idiot” rejiggered the group’s importance in modern rock — even if it failed to prevent George W. Bush’s re-election — and has sold 6.1 million copies. Armstrong, Dirnt and Cool recognized a need to evolve, refreshed their image accordingly and scored the biggest hit of their career. Time will tell if the inimitable group of Armstrong, Dirnt and Cool can pull off that magic trick twice.