Re-listening to Green Day’s oeuvre recently left me with the same sinking feeling that I’ve had re-listening to Muse and The Killers, a feeling that the bands which seemed so brilliant in my adolescence might not be all that. Green Day are at their best when at their tightest, in the compressed songforms of Dookie especially, yet when they sprawl on American Idiot and 21stCentury Breakdown it’s hard to avoid hearing the vacuity that Robert Christgau described as the “sound of confusion taking itself seriously”.
“Confusion taking itself seriously” doesn’t seem to apply to the band any more, though. In fact, they don’t appear to take their craft seriously at all. Nobody much cared for their trilogy of albums released in 2012, ¡UNO!, ¡DOS!, ¡TRÉ!, so in a failed bid to return to critical adulation they rode back into the political battlefield with the hollow slogans production line of 2016’s Revolution Radio (“Legalise the truth!” “We live in troubled times!” “We’re outlaws of redemption!” “I wanna start a revolution!”). Yet the half-assed nature of all of these albums suggested that Green Day no longer took themselves seriously and didn’t expect anyone else to.
Father of All… ploughs on with that dismal tradition. A few reviews have claimed that this album eschews politics, by which they seem to mean the band don’t call out Donald Trump by name, because actually nearly every song on it has an obvious political subtext. The title track is about the chaos of the modern world, the “paranoia” and all the “blood and money”. “Fire, Ready, Aim” is about mindless internet trolls. “Graffitia” explicitly mentions a black kid shot by a cop. Etc.
I suspect that what critics who claim there’s a lack of politics at work here are talking about is instead the lack of self-seriousness evident in the band. The albums whisks by in 26 minutes, their shortest ever, without a single treacly ballad to weigh it down. All songs are over and out in less than 4 minutes, most of them in less than 3 minutes, and don’t fuss around with any fancy intros or codas. Just meat-and-veg, 4/4, guitar-bass-drums, simple old rock n’ roll. Thankfully, Billie Joe Armstrong doesn’t overstrain with his singing, which in retrospect is the worst aspect of the band’s 2000s albums. So the band sounds relaxed rather than urgent; when critics argue this album isn’t political, they mean to say it doesn’t sound political. It sounds apathetic to the state of the world.
Of course, I used to like American Idiot because I employed my own brand of apathy: ignoring the lyrics. I tried this tack again with Father of All…, but listening with brain switched off didn’t produce any promising results. “Sugar Youth” is a nice throwback to the classic Green Day sound, with a chorus that could’ve come from any of their early albums. “Stab You in the Heart” is a reasonably fun homage to 50s rock n’ roll, particularly “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and Little Richard, and it sounds like the band is having a good time. “Meet Me on the Roof” interpolates a Motown beat pretty successfully. But those are the highlights folks, because everywhere else the “power trio” fall back on the tried-and-tested pop-punk routine which used to be entertaining back in the 90s but now sounds wooden, particularly without the rhythmic elasticity that livened up such hits as “Longview”, “When I Come Around”, and “Brain Stew”, to name a few.
We should be thankful that they’ve given up the haphazard “concepts” of their Broadway era, and the ballad overkill of 21st Century Breakdown in particular. But really the music is not catchy or spirited enough to overcome the feeling of stasis that has plagued the band for too long. Their rock n’ roll sounds deeply unsure of itself, too bland and uninspired, and as such is unable to stave off the suspicion that they’re running out of ideas.
Further evidence of their confusion was to come with this album’s terrible marketing campaign, which showed that they really had no understanding of modern music at all. First off there was Billie Joe Armstrong telling Apple Music: “Rock ‘n’ roll has become so tame… I think rock music should make you feel bad.” Not only is this wrong, I wish I could ask Armstrong which song exactly on Father of All… makes one feel “bad”. Second was their release of the title track on Youtube with the message “Rock has lost its balls”, ignoring through blind sexism the fact that most of the best rock in recent years has actually come from women. Third was a frankly embarrassing Twitter post showing off a poster containing this slogan: “NO FEATURES. NO SWEDISH SONGWRITERS. NO TRAP BEATS. 100% PURE UNCUT ROCK.” It’s hard not to think that any of the first 3 things listed there would actually have made this album much more interesting.
Punk needs an enemy, something to fight against: but the utter shambles of the marketing campaign for Father of All…, and the music contained within, suggests that Green Day, right now, are utterly confused as to who or what form that enemy should take. It’s hard to believe that they’ll rediscover that self-awareness any time soon.
As they sing on one song here: “I was a teenage teenager full of piss and vinegar.” Except now they’re just full of shit.