Blame some of the reaction on the roller coaster-like career track this band has encompassed. In the wee early-’90s the band had a couple of indie punk albums, and they weren’t half bad. But with the onset of Alt Rock America, major labels were buying up the freaks and outsiders. Reprise Records struck gold with Green Day in 1994 with the inescapable Dookie. After that there seemed to be the inexorable slide to irrelevance, such as so many bands were experiencing. Having binged, a lot of labels were now experiencing the morning after, recognizing many of these new acquisitions weren’t that good and didn’t have legs.
But Green Day wasn’t one of those. Yeah, Insomniac is not a classic and neither is Nimrod, really. But Nimrod had a diamond buried in it: the incredible, but incredibly overexposed “Good Riddance (Time of your Life).” Warning was, honestly, one of the band’s strongest albums but suffered from a lack of audience enthusiasm.
That would all change with the next record, the landmark American Idiot, which is widely seen as punk rock’s first concept album (at least for those who wouldn’t know Husker Du from a board game). The follow-up 21st Century Breakdown suffered from being too self-consciously beholden to the prior record. It sounded like “Idiot, Too,” even with the benefit of a couple of punchy singles. Around this time, the band transmuted into Foxboro Hot Tubs and sounded like they were having fun.
Fun is not what I would call the 3-CD experiment in self-indulgence ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, ¡Tré! In among this excess there is possibly one really good album, but damned if you can get to it by wading through the too-much-ness.
Why the history lesson? Few bands have survived this long, and handled so many ups and downs as Green Day. For fans, a duff record isn’t the end of the story, because a reaffirmation of why you ever bothered always seemed to be just around the corner. With four years, some band member crises survived, and a whole lot of hindsight, the stage was set for another one of those surprising upward climbs on the coaster. But Revolution Radio isn’t it.
Two things hold the record back: the production, handled by the band themselves, and the frontman, which we’ll get to in a moment. On the production end, the majority of the thing utilizes the same sonic trick song after song. It’s like an AM radio’s lack of high fidelity, followed by a full sonic kick-in. Done sparingly, this can be an interest approach to draw a listener in. On this album it is used as a go-to tool in the box. Conceptually it works — the album is titled with “radio” after all — but in practice you are aware they’re doing that thing again with the treble and the bass. Much like good-bad special effects, if you notice it rather than just accepting it and buying in, it isn’t effective. I noticed this trend after about three tracks of it and was discouraged when it did not stop.
Let’s now get to Billie Joe Armstrong who, on this record, does not sing like he’s blown out his voice. We look back to that wave of the early-’90s alt rockers, many of which sound terrible now, and marvel at Armstrong’s good fortune. For all he’s been through, he’s handled it remarkably well. But it’s the converse that’s the problem. He sings tentatively on Revolution Radio, holding back, seemingly afraid of letting it rip because it may be the last time.
That stunts the album, which is disappointing because there are some really good songs on here. If you pass over the first four tracks and land on “Outlaws” Revolution Radio starts coming into its own. If the band had given the reins over to a different producer, they might have seen “Bouncing Off The Wall” as the power-pop confection it really is and given it the triple scoop of cake frosting it needed. Take it farther. More vocal harmonies, less full band drop-back. Once they’re going, the band should keep going, not recede. Grandiosity burned Green Day with ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, ¡Tré!, and now they seem wary of going anywhere near, even when it’s screaming out for it.
Armstrong never sounds as comfortable or as unguarded as he does on the acoustic closer “Ordinary World.” I don’t know. Maybe that’s a hint. In 2013 he released the album Foreverly with Norah Jones. As guessed, it was a tribute to The Everly Brothers, and even though Green Day fans might have recoiled, Armstrong sounded relaxed in his own skin once again. Maybe that is the problem. Nobody could accuse the band of not still having the fire, and thanks to some really clear-headed and clear-eyed lyrics the majority of the piece makes some pertinent social statements. But every time it sounds like they’re ready to jump into the pit and wail, they back off.
On the scale of good-to-bad Green Day records, it’s incredibly difficult to place Revolution Radio on the spectrum. I hate to say that these songs might have really come into their own had they been performed by a different band — perhaps a younger band — but I suppose that’s exactly what I’m saying. Revolution Radio is ready to take the world apart with its bare hands…eventually.