Green Day Finds Comfort in Protest

Revolution Radio is a short and catchy blend of political anger and personal wistfulness.

Green Day at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony
Aaron Josefczyk / Reuters

One of the last times Green Day had a real hit, it consisted of Billie Joe Armstrong asking, over and over again, “Do you know your enemy?” His band rumbled behind him, creating a kind of back-and-forth sawing sensation, as he repeated the question but only ever answered it vaguely.

As is the case with a lot of music that styles itself as “punk” (even or especially pop punk), there is always an enemy in Green Day’s songs. In the early days, the villain was small-scale suburban conformity; in the band’s grandiose 2000s, it was also the state of the world more broadly. The group’s solidly enjoyable new album Revolution Radio positions itself as continuing on the protest march announced by 2004’s American Idiot, but listening to its songs’ mentions of gun violence, drones, and the Flint water crisis, you might get the counterintuitive sense that “the enemy” here is not actually any larger evil—it’s age.

Green Day are 30 years into their career, and their entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015—their first year of eligibility—was a recognition of the group’s enormous influence. The fact that their near-contemporaries Blink-182 had a No. 1 album this year speaks to the fan base that remains for pop-punk veterans. But Revolution Radio is also the band’s first album since Armstrong’s well-publicized 2012 onstage meltdown and trip to rehab for addiction, and also its first release since the poorly received album trilogy ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tré!. All of which explains why Revolutionary Radio sounds like a safe regrounding. It’s a 12-song blast of comforting melody and guitar crunch that uses protest rhetoric almost like someone saying their daily affirmations—rebellion as soothing routine.

“I never wanted to compromise or bargain with my soul / How did a life on the wild side ever get so dull?” Armstrong asks over glimmering guitars on the spacious, wide-eyed opener “Somewhere New.” The rest of the song hints that we’re meant to think he’s talking about a national kind of malaise—“I put the ‘riot’ in ‘Patriot,” “All we want is money and guns / A new catastrophe”—but throughout the album, political bummed-outedness and personal bummed-outedness blur together. The hard-driving single “Bang Bang” puts itself in the mind of mass shooters, whose primary motivations, Armstrong argues, are boredom and attention-seeking, the same things that these songs suggest power some of his own vices. And the careening title track, inspired by Black Lives Matter demonstrations, focuses more on the thrill of banding together for a purpose than it does focus on any particular purpose itself.

Then there are moments clearly meant to illustrate Armstrong’s own life, or at least the life of the washed-up punk singer he plays in the forthcoming indie film Ordinary World. The Fountains of Waynes-y bop “Youngblood” is about how Armstrong’s wife keeps him feeling youthful; “Still Breathing” is a first-raising ballad about resilience; the lovely acoustic closer “Ordinary World” makes peace with banal reality. Most transparent in its message is “Outlaws,” which channels a touch of “Earth Angel” and Weezer as Armstrong pines for his band’s younger days, when they were, per the title, “outlaws.” It’s the cry of a rebel who’s always been in search of a cause.

The music is unfailingly melodic and crisp, derived as much from Tom Petty as from The Descendants, and it often shows off Green Day’s underrated ability to make sneering radio rock feel as cozy as a Christmas carol (the opening track even has sleigh bells). A few songs boast cute innovations: the bar-band romp “Bouncing Off the Walls” doesn’t have a singalong chorus but rather a repeating riff and a closing refrain, and the ambitious “Forever Now” switches tempos between its various sections before revisiting and revising a line from the start of the album. “How did a life on the wild side / Ever get so full?” Armstong asks, and the implication is that he’s been saved, once again, through the simple power of music about resistance.