During Green Day’s performance at Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest, Billie Joe Armstrong changed the lyrics to ‘American Idiot’ to declare that he’s “not a part of the MAGA agenda.” He must have expected the backlash from right-wingers, who were quick to decry the band for “going woke,” as if it were a different band that released American Idiot two decades ago. In a tweet that reads like a Metacritic pull quote from a review of their new album, Elon Musk wrote: “Green Day goes from raging against the machine to milquetoastedly raging for it.” (The aggregate score for Saviors is actually pretty high, this being a “return to form.”) I wonder if he’d have a different reaction to a song like ‘Coma City’ now that it’s out, given that it pokes fun at “assholes in space” bankrupting the planet. It’s not that Green Day have stopped raging against the machine; if anything, they’re just trying to prove that it (and they) haven’t changed all that much. “We are the last of the rockers making a commotion,” Armstrong sings on the title track.
Of course, times have changed, Green Day make sure to remind us throughout Saviors. “Ever since Bowie died/ It hasn’t been the same” is a particularly cringe-worthy line from ‘Strange Days Are Here to Stay’, as if the trio hasn’t put out a record since 2016, which they in fact have. Their last LP, Father of All Motherfuckers, was a glammy, messy, fundamentally uninventive record that came out at the beginning of 2020, before the pandemic, so who’s to fault the last of the rockers for taking their time to comment on the state of things now that, as Armstrong sings on the opening track, “it’s getting serious.” That song has “American” in the title, so we better call it satire – though really, Armstrong seems too tired of seeing the same old shit to approach it with even the slightest level of irony: “The American dream is killing me,” he sings, straight up. Only this time, mass hysteria appears in the form of “TikTok and taxes,” or, to borrow an example from ‘Living in the 20s’, getting a robot and “fucking it senseless.” Yikes.
Those who went out of their way to defend Green Day on New Year’s will posit that they’ve always been the band to make this kind of political statement. But that ignores the fact that, as highlighted by the anniversaries of both Dookie and American Idiot – two definitive records that defined very different eras of their career – before there was any pressure on them to be explicitly political, they were a gloriously juvenile pop-punk band. Though critics have pointed out that Armstrong’s penchant for social commentary tends to distract him from his melodic sensibilities, the problem isn’t that he can’t package his anger, political or otherwise, in the form of a pop song – Saviors is, for better or worse, generally catchy and immediate – but that he sometimes he struggles to balance those different sides of the band: the melodrama, the dumb fun, the broad gesturing and laughing at modernity. So because the new album is meant to serve as a spiritual bridge between Dookie and American Idiot, even with Rob Cavallo back at the helm, it mostly falls flat. There are songs you wouldn’t mind hearing individually, but it’s hard to listen to a record that tries to straddle that line while sounding so polished and homogenous.
What holds back Saviors isn’t a lack of energy – if you question the trio’s musical vitality as a group, just listen to the outro of ‘Coma City’ – but a better sense of where to direct it. In the past, Armstrong may have found more original ways of saying he’s feeling stupid and lazy than “Maybe I’m stupid and lazy” (‘Corvette Summer’), before universalizing it by saying we’re all stupid (and, uh, in case the nostalgia hasn’t hit you yet, contagious). But at least he still doesn’t sound bored to be in this business, unlike other veteran acts trying to turn industry fatigue and inner-band conflict into a career. Maybe that’s what he means when he sings about being “the last of the rockers making a commotion,” and that’s certainly worth something. I’m just less impressed by the commotion than the sincerity of it all, which is what makes the irreverent ‘Look Ma, No Brains!’ and heartfelt songs like ‘Father to a Son’ and ‘Goodbye Adeline’ land particularly well. They’re different songs – silly, intimate, grand – but they all feel direct, and as such, representative of this moment in the band’s life, a life that requires constant growth and survival. In those moments, Green Day make it sound relatable and simpler than it is.