Monday, December 16, 2013

On Uno, Dos, and Tre

Yeah, I wrote about music. Whatever.

There’s a Great Album Hidden in the Wreckage of Uno, Dos, and Tre

Green Day released Uno, Dos, and Tre over a year ago now and it’s been agreed by 90% of fans (casual observation I pulled out of my ass) that the trilogy was a total mess, and possibly Green Day’s three worst albums. Since it’s been this long, and I’ve thought about it a lot and listened to all three quite a bit, I decided to reflect on why that is and come to something conclusive on just what doesn’t work here.

After all, theoretically speaking, each of these albums should be able to cater to a different section of the fanbase and keep them satisfied, with Uno being based on the group’s earlier, more basic pop punk sound, Tre representing their more epic side showcased on American Idiot and 21st-Century Breakdown and Dos laying in a transitional point.

Therein lies the first problem: the creation of this trilogy was highly calculated from the start. I remember reading a Rolling Stone article soon after the release of 21st-Century Breakdown wherein Billy Joe said their next album was going to be another concept album because they’d gotten too good at it to stop, and that obviously changed.

Soon before the release of Uno, Billy Joe did an interview with Guitar World where he said that the main reason Green Day decided to strip down was because he found himself enjoying playing the more straightforward punk numbers from 21st the most, but it’s also worth noting that the critical press was (needlessly) more skeptical of 21st, an album that, to its credit, was less conclusive, and more musically experimental than it’s predecessor.

So, for any number of reasons, the band made a compromise, which outright destroys the foundation that made the preceding albums so great: Not giving a fuck.

Green Day didn’t give a fuck when people said they sold out to sign to a major, make Dookie and change the face of rock music, and Green Day didn’t give a fuck that anyone thought they were being overambitious to release a political rock opera (that was more a commentary on the death of punk than anything else that had one genuine anti-war song.) Green Day did what they wanted.

Green Day may have been doing what they wanted on this trilogy, but what they wanted to do was stop pissing people off. No matter how you slice it, that ain’t punk, but much more importantly, that ain’t Green Day.

But let’s talk about the music.

First and foremost, the problem with Uno, Dos, and Tre is that Green Day made an effort to be the version of that band that everyone loved from Dookie[1], but they don’t have any of the tiny little details that made that version of the band great.

Like it or not, modern Green Day is about Billy Joe. Or at least, that’s the only serious conclusion I can come to. 

Mike Dirnt used to color Green Day songs with wonderful bass licks that filled space and gave the basic chord progressions and arrangements of vintage Green Day, already exploding with freight train force, an enthusiastic quality (think early Van Halen and the licks Eddie used to play.) That slowly went away, evaporating completely on American Idiot and 21st-Century Breakdown to make room for more guitar dubs and other layers, which was fine since the more interesting arrangements no longer required him to play “lead” as it were. That said, the lack of that outgoing style is exactly why Nimrod and Warning were distinctly weaker than the two albums preceding them (and why “Castaway” was such a standout on Warning as a result) leaving this trilogy with the same set of problems as plague those two earlier albums.

Meanwhile, Tre Cool has never been a technical powerhouse drummer, but he’s always played hard, and he simply doesn’t here. The mixing on the album is clearly aware of this, gladly burying his drums under an audio problem that outshines the lack of enthusiasm in the rhythm section by a country mile.

Billy Joe Armstrong has the best guitar tone for a genre of music he doesn’t play. It’s crystal clear, it’s precise, and it lacks any of the distortion or controlled messiness you need to make this kind of music feel energetic. Granted, this ends up working well for the albums best songs, which have basically jack and shit to do with the speed of punk, but songs like “Amanda” are begging for the buzzed-out sound of Dookie or Insomniac.

That basically sums up most of the album: sounding like Nimrod when it ought to sound like Insomniac. Some experiments are better than others, but the bad ones are horrible, and horribly misguided (“Nightlife”), and most of the attempts at the classic pop-punk style fall absolutely flat (“Let Yourself Go”.)

That said, I still think that in this absolute mess of a triple album, there is a set of really good songs.

No really! Most of the songs on this thing range between mediocre and complete shit, but that really only highlights when a real banger like “X-Kid” or “Amy” comes on. And, shock of all shocks, most of these really great songs sound like the band that made Dookie and the band that made Nimrod, except they’ve grown up and changed and are about stuff that 42-year old men write about.

In fact, the lyrical mess of nonsense that also plagues the album (especially disappointing following the somewhat scattershot, but still razor sharp cuts on Idiot and Breakdown) also comes into clear view when you filter out the crap: Billy Joe is a 42-year old pop-punk kid with a wife he loves and kids he’s concerned about, and he’s starting to worry about all of the choices he’s made. He’s reflecting on his friends that fucked up, and he’s feeling a lot more attracted to other women than he ought to. What is a triple-album that jumps all over the place becomes a clearly focused, mature album from a mature band. In fact, I’d say that if you cut this thing down to the 12 or 13 tracks that are genuinely really great, the production decisions start to make a lot more sense, the lyrics become more intimate, and what you end up with is an album that is, in fact, a lot better than any of Green Day’s first six albums.

In any case, let’s break this fucker down into categories and see what we get. And let’s start with the crap, because there still is plenty.

Fuck This Shit

“Let Yourself Go”: Green Day was never really the type to put the adolescent humor in their songs, and it doesn’t really work here. Immature, asinine. Not really catchy either.

“Loss of Control”: Yeah, fuck the people you went to High School with except holy shit dude, you’re 42, you don’t put a song about it on a Green Day album you write a fucking blog post. Music here is just lazy.

“F*** Time”: This one’s going on here just on principal of the song being called “F*** Time” and not “Fuck Time”. It’s the 21st Century dude. Also, who are you talking about? And how are you fucking? I mean maybe R'n'B has made me expect more of baby-makin’ music, but still, the kind of lame middle-aged-horny-dude thing that works on “Troublemaker” just fails here. (Also I hate E minor with a passion.)

“Wild One”: You CANNOT make a song called “Wild One” that insufferably slow. Also I’m not really sure what the song’s about.

“Makeout Party”: It starts with a riff that is 80% the same riff as the awesome “East Jesus Nowhere” from 21st Century Breakdown and then goes nowhere. The lyrics go for cute and come across as lame. Billy Joe needs to stop pretending to be teenage Billy Joe.

“Baby Eyes”: Dude, what are you talking about? (This one’s actually pretty catchy but holy shit, be specific.)

“Nightlife”: If Blink can’t pull it off, neither can you. Embarrassing.


“Dirty Rotten Bastards”: Sounds like an outtake from 21st Century Breakdown.

“A Little Boy Named Train”: No clue what it’s about, too generic to be exciting.

Good Lyrics, Boring Music

“Fell for You”: Interesting in that it’s a classic “Falling for You” song but it has more of the mature perspective of how shitty that can feel, because you have no idea what to do about it, and you realize that maybe acting on it isn’t the best idea. Musically though, it’s the most boring chords at the most pedestrian mid-tempo.

“Walk Away”: Too plodding, and I don’t know what you’re recovering from. But I dig the light existential vibe of “Well, nothing else to do but keep on keepin’ on.”

Catchy, But Lyrically Suspect

“Nuclear Family”: Catchy tune, lost opportunity to talk about the failed structure that it’s named after. Honestly I have no idea what this song is about.

“Kill the DJ”: According to Armstrong the song was supposed to be about him hating conservative talk radio hosts, and who doesn’t? But that sort of specificity isn’t in the song, leading it to sound like a sarcastic song about an old guy who hates everything on the radio, or alternatively an aging rocker who can’t stand the growing popularity of electronic music. (And the worst part is that either of those could still be true, or at least legitimate interpretations. It certainly was my first reaction.)

“Angel Blue”: I guess he likes a girl but she’s mean to him? There are a few songs like this on the trilogy, and some are better than others (“Stay the Night”) but it’s weird to hear BJA sing songs about having crushes and shit when he’s been married for decades. His kids are about as old as me!

“Wow! That’s Loud”: I dig the lead guitar hook, but same problem as “Lady Cobra”.

“Drama Queen”: I like the style, have no idea what it’s about.

Good, But Not Great

“99 Revolutions”: It’s nice when Green Day can be political without needing to do a concept album, but the production on this album is too dry for this to come across as anthemic the way it would be on American Idiot.

“Carpe Diem”: Captures a sense that someone is living irresponsibly, but a little vaguely. Standing alone it’s not that great, but it works well with the trilogy’s better songs about Billy Joe looking back, realizing his age, etc.

“Rusty James”: He’s definitely trying to talk about the bars and joints Green Day used to play at and how some of the people from that scene are burned out now, but he’s way too vague about it to be really compelling. “X-Kid” is essentially this song but better in almost every way. It seems like he’s trying to sing it from the character of one of the burnouts but the perspective isn’t distinctive enough from his own to make it feel vibrant. Then again, maybe that’s a form of self-criticism itself. (I’m not gonna give it that much credit though, and that should mean a lot from the guy who considers American Idiot the rock album of its decade.)

“Stop When the Red Lights Flash”: This one might be about promiscuity again, but it’s also still too vague for me to be really sure. “I’ll make you surrender” sounds more aggressive and dangerous than anything in “Fuck Time” or “Troublemaker”, but it’s attached to a set of lyrics that doesn’t really work out, and a tune with energy, but no direction.

“Ashley”: It’s pissed-off, but the outright bitterness can make it a bit of a turn-off. Also it’s in E minor which makes it a chore to get through for me.

“Lady Cobra”: Would’ve been better if there weren’t better songs about promiscuity all over the trilogy. I dig how noisy it gets though and how it gets to the point.

“Sex, Drugs, and Violence”: I like how it’s kind of about how Green Day decided to simplify for this album, but pointing out how pedestrian these topics can be also says a lot about the weaker songs on the trilogy. I might also not be calling it a better song because it’s following “X-Kid” and it’s the same E major catchy style, and it can’t possibly follow that song.

Special Category

“The Forgotten”: It’s honestly really good, but it’s incredibly out of place here.

So after all that, what do we end up with? 13 songs, 45 minutes.

The Great Shit

“See You Tonight”: The two really great songs on Dos (the other one being “Amy”) are the two most musically vintage, with this one giving off a Simon and Garfunkel affectation by way of 50’s pop lyrical style, both of which it totally nails. Lyrically, like a lot of the good songs on this trilogy, this one is about Billy Joe trying to keep it in his pants.

“Stay the Night”: It’s catchy as hell, and it feels relevant to his age. Billy Joe hitting midlife, questioning his decisions, even his marriage, and looking to have a fling just to take some risks again.

“Troublemaker”: The chorus would be pedestrian if Billy Joe wasn’t singing it so well. Meanwhile, horny Billy Joe is fun Billy Joe. Song should be annoying, but it’s mostly cute. He says he wants to be a troublemaker, but you know he doesn’t mean it. And I’m pretty sure he’s in on the joke. The classic kind of “He can get away with it because he’s Billy Joe Armstrong.”

“Stray Heart”: Lots of other songs on the trilogy are about Billy Joe dealing with his feelings for other women, and this one seems like an apology his wife, which makes it pretty sympathetic even if it can be a bit vague. I’m giving it a lot of points because it’s catchy as hell pop-punk without feeling like they’re trying to imitate themselves.

“Lazy Bones”: Musically this is the kind of rock Green Day oughta be focusing on from now on, and the wandering style of lyrics that mar a lot of other songs work here when the song is about being stressed out and being so tired you can’t sleep.

“Amanda”: A lot of songs on this album are about struggling with infidelity, but this is the only one mature enough to say “We can’t, I’m sorry.”

“Brutal Love”: Another one where the clean production style that fucks up the rock songs really helps the musically vintage style we hear here. The marching bombast here really matches the melodrama here well. Really like this song.

“X-Kid”: “Hey little kid/Did you wake up late one day and/you’re not so young/but you’re still dumb/and you’re numb to your old glory but now it’s gone.” Fuck that hurts.

“8th Avenue Serenade”: Catchier than “Sweet 16”, and it captures a more desperately sexual angle to a long relationship that’s lost a bit too much passion.

“Missing You”: Maybe she found out about all those women on the side. Actions have consequences buddy.

“Sweet 16”: This is one of the great nostalgic songs on the album, this one specifically about Billy Joe’s relationship with his wife. He’s been absolutely worshipping his wife in his music recently,[2] but it’s at its cutest here.

“Oh Love”: Musically, this is the type of song where the aural choices made on this album actually add up. It’s a more glacial tune, but the big chords ringing clear give that some genuine power this time around. Lyrically, “Oh Love” is the prototypically great song from this album, capturing Billy Joe walking around at night, filled with doubt, feeling vulnerable. It’s great stuff.

“Amy”: I fucking love this song. I just . . . god damn this is good.
-       Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2013


[1] And for the record, Dookie may have many of the band’s best songs but it’s not nearly as consistently awesome as Insomniac, even if the former features the tiny little things that can make an album really special.
[2] Gloria and Whatshername are both basically his wife, and just listen to him sing those praises on “Last of the American Girls” or “Extraordinary Girl”

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