Billie Joe Armstrong welcomed 2016 by saying he wanted to “destroy the phrase ‘pop-punk’ forever.” Green Day has been hinting a new studio album is in the works for several months — but is this the right time for a complete remodel of the 30-year-old band?
The band is at a career crossroads. It’s tough enough following up one underperforming album, but across 2012’s last four months, Green Day hit us with three LPs, all of which sold well below the band’s usual standard. ¡Uno! dropped that September and its punchy, back-to-basics singles “Oh Love” and “Let Yourself Go” were greeted with cautiously warm reviews and solid airplay on both rock and alternative radio. It all seemed like a polite return to form following the bombast of 2009’s 21st Century Breakdown. But it hardly seemed the masses were clamoring for 25 more Green Day songs, which is exactly what the band gave them over the rest of that calendar year. To date, ¡Uno!, ¡Dos! and ¡Tré! have sold 667,000 copies combined, a far cry from 21st Century Breakdown’s 1.1 million. The project did start strong; “Oh Love” was only the third track ever to premiere at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart, indicating success in radio, streaming and sales. But by the end of the year, the hype that a new Green Day release is supposed to bring had largely dissipated. The fall-off could partially be attributed to a slew of canceled shows over Armstrong’s rehab stint, but more on that later.
Fast-forward to the present, and Green Day is in a familiar place. Their 2000 album Warning was seen as a commercial failure, and they headed into the studio needing to reverse the band’s flagging narrative. After issuing a hits collection, a b-sides collection, and having a set of new recordings stolen, they finally composed American Idiot, which went on to give their career a massive second wind. That iconic 2004 album turned a whole new group of younger listeners onto the veteran band; on paper, a repeat performance of the American Idiot revival seems like the mark to shoot for.
Here is some studio footage the band has shared lately:
But could the music industry in 2016 support another American Idiot? Twelve years ago, Green Day might have been flailing, but hits from Blink-182, Simple Plan and Yellowcard made sure pop-punk guitars were a frequent guest on top 40 radio. On today’s dial — despite 5 Seconds of Summer’s best efforts — this sound is almost completely gone. Green Day could deliver what sounds like another classic, but it’s hard to imagine mainstream culture coming up with the space to hold it.
Here is Green Day’s 2012 single “Oh Love”:
This is often where a band retreats into its history, doubling down on a back to basics approach. Green Day toyed with this on its 2012 trilogy, though there’s still plenty of studio gloss that could be stripped away. They released a demos collection two years ago (which bassist Mike Dirnt compared to their pre-fame Lookout Records sound) and Billie Joe Armstrong has been into Jawbreaker lately. He’s also been tweeting and Instagramming about Bernie Sanders, stopping Donald Trump and supporting Black Lives Matter, so perhaps Green Day’s political lyrics could return.
They’ve dodged the “legacy act” burden once before and to do it again, they’ll have to craft a different sort of album. Shooting for the stars with another American Idiot is likely to land them somewhere near ¡Tré! territory, and as odious as Trump is, the Rock Against Bush look has aged about as well our memories of John Kerry’s campaign. Billie Joe could look inward, and find inspiration in his struggle for sobriety, which dogged him throughout the trilogy rollout and led to a stint in rehab. A grittier pop-punk sound that still maintains Green Day’s syrupy hooks would do them well. There aren’t many top 40 reference points, but a look up and down the lineups of Atlanta’s Wrecking Ball or Gainesville’s Fest provides a multitude of subterranean bands with similar reference points to early Green Day; here’s to getting them some Beach Slang, Bully and Pup on their record players. The Top 40 window has likely closed, but mainstream rock, alternative, and even adult alternative radio supported ¡Uno!, and a strong play to rock radio — where Green Day is still an iconic force — is absolutely essential.
Billie Joe won’t need to destroy pop-punk, but he will need to make it sound meaningful.