REVIEW: Green Day, Insomniac (Warner)

“There’s no return from 86”, goes one of the new Green Day songs, and it’s true. Once you are “86’ed” from the Gilman music collective you are banned from the club for life. And when Green Day signed with Warner, they knew that they were basically 86’ing themselves from the community they loved and helped build. Even when Green Day started, many dismissed them as girl-song pop, but their energetic music was a refreshing break from the ultra-heavy dirge Neurosis punk dominant then. And as they passed into more and more mainstream surroundings, their music has become less pop, faster and more stripped down, almost as if they tried to be contrary to whatever the prevailing musical current was. Insomniac doesn’t change the pattern: the songs still have a strong pop sensibility but they don’t seem to go for the pop-hook jugular the way “Longview” and “Basket Case” do, or even the way older songs like “Welcome to Paradise” and “2000 Light Years Away” do.

This is not to say there aren’t wonderful moments on the record. On the contrary, the playing is tight, the double-tracked Marshall-distorted guitars are fat (Maybe a little too fat? Some nice bass lines are nearly inaudible.) and there are a number of memorable songs. The opener “Armatage Shanks” stuck in my head for days, “Stuart and the Ave.” is a pretty, irresistible song and “Bab’s Uvula Who?” is a full-speed rave that will (unfortunately) trigger mosh pits in stadiums across the country. The hooks are familiar (after all, how many three or four chord hooks exist?), but pleasant and well-done. For instance, “Stuck With Me” opens with the “Tattooed Love Boys” hook, but does it proud, especially the way the hook sneaks back into the song at the end.

Unlike Kerplunk and Dookie, the title of Insomniac is not a toilet joke, which is a tiny but real symbol of maturing. Their explosive rise to the top ranks of music acts has brought a new sense of responsibility that comes with power. Their first post-megasuccess concert in Oakland was a benefit for a number of worthy Berkeley activist groups like the Berkeley Free Clinic and the unfairly-persecuted group Food Not Bombs. They asked the proudly gay Pansy Division to open for them, thumbing their nose at the new mainstream audience they’d won.

With each album, Billie Joe’s lyrics seem to gain new confidence. He’s always had a knack for finding very singable phrases and Insomniac is full of them. “I’m a loner in a catastrophic mind” and “I get myself all wound up” just roll off the tongue, and when “Panic Song” hits the end with the ringing “I wanna drop out”, it’s nearly breath-taking. I say “nearly” because the half the album is in the “Basket Case” school of first-person confessions of defectiveness. The attitude towards the targets of these songs ranges from total scorn to a trace of amused sympathy, and if some of the songs weren’t so catchy, the album would just be a parade of contempt. As it is, the songs are similar enough that the recurring testimonials of self-lameness become wearying. Only the “he” of “Stuart and the Ave.” and “she” of “Westbound Sign” have the least bit of hope of action and change.

It’s almost as if Billie Joe feels a responsibility to be more “relevant”, whatever that means, by changing topics from young angst and love to more “serious” and general topics, which means in this case a number of darts at self-destructive youth. And while he can’t be totally blamed for the inevitable dimwits who take “Geek Stink Breath” as a glorification of speed, there is a significant lack of affirmation on this record. Green Day covers the Operation Ivy song “Knowledge” in concert, and there’s a telling contrast between the Op Ivy song “Jaded” (“I won’t burn my bridges and become just another jaded fool”) and the Green Day song of the same name (“I found my place in nowhere… Hooray! we’re gonna die”) and it’s the difference between hope and sarcasm. There are also an unusually large number of Berkeley references (Tightwad Hill, Stuart, 86, and more) and in-jokes in the lyrics, as if they were trying to maintain a personal connection to the serious songs by putting in near-nostalgic references to the past that they are now cut off from.

The denouncing of Green Day as “false punks” seems ironic, especially since now-iconic bands like Op Ivy and the Gilman scene as a whole were similarly denounced by older (and more violent and alcoholic) punks. Unlike minority groups in the US trying to avoid assimilation, music collectives have no genetic bond, rather a bond of ideals, and a built-in promise of musical and social freedom. The natural enemy of this spirit is elitism, clique-forming and musical orthodoxy, and these enemies usually win, unfortunately, with local music scenes stagnating. Most of the anti-Green Day-ers are either consciously or unconsciously encouraging the destruction of good punk values. This elitism is often cloaked in anti-major label arguments, and there are a definitely a lot of problems with the existing monopoly major-label system. But these arguments seem less truthful when the same self-righteous elitist vitriol is directed at Rancid (indie label) and AFI (super-indie), the latter simply because they got played on the local alternative station.

Punk is not a Casio synthesizer beat setting. If it’s true that the spirit of punk is that music is a vital part of life and community that everyone should have access to, as performer or audience, and if it’s true that the other promise of punk is the freedom to make exactly the kind of music you love and that’s important to you, and if it’s true that the artifacts of punk should be available to everyone and not an elite few, then the punkest thing Green Day can do at this point is kick back, take their time after their current tour to write songs, and turn out an unbelievable straightahead and heartfelt pop record.

Because listening to this record, I can’t help but feel that they are suppressing their pop side to defend a preconception of the sound of punk, especially when you compare the Warner records with the earlier giddy and energetic Lookout! pop records. And there’s some hope that they’re about to make a breakthrough. Songs like “Brain Stew” and “Panic Song” point towards some new musical territory for them, and the band members are entering fatherhood and familyhood. There’s no question that they have a spark and charisma and are important to a lot of Americans. The question is whether they are going to become the next Ramones, becoming irrelevant and embarrassing after a few promising albums, or whether they will continue to grow and make better and better music. There are a lot of catchy songs on Insomniac, but I have hope that it’s a transitional stepping stone towards a full hearted and honest Green Day music.