If you were to compare Green Day to a cockroach, founding members Billie Joe Armstrong, Tre Cool, and Mike Dirnt might not object. Who knows— they might even express an affinity for a species of insect that’s earned a reputation for being indestructible, knowing what it takes to endure as a punk band that’s forging ahead into its fourth decade.
In that time, they’ve been recognized as pioneers of the East Bay punk scene and decried as sellouts. They’ve adapted one of their albums into a successful Broadway musical and weathered the fallout of Armstrong’s antics at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas in 2012, which eventually led the singer and guitarist to attend rehab for substance abuse. Through it all, of course, they’ve continued to release new records as well.
In the wake of 2000’s pleasant yet unremarkable “Warning,” Green Day reinvented itself as a rock-opera act with 2004’s “American Idiot” and its successor, 2009’s “21st Century Breakdowns.” Next came a trio of albums that were heavy on filler and light on direction in the form of 2012’s “¡Uno!,” “¡Dos!” and “¡Tré!.” Most recently, Green Day returned in 2016 with “Revolution Radio,” an effort that found the band wearing its Clash fandom on its collective sleeves and returning to a more traditional album approach.
This recent release history made it difficult to determine precisely what anyone should have been expecting from Green Day’s 13th studio record, “Father of All Motherf—ers” — or, as it’s mostly being abbreviated, “Father of All…” Given the precedent set by “American Idiot,” you had to wonder if Donald Trump would earn a central role in the band’s latest offering, but far from doubling down on politics, “Father of All…” instead prefers to take a more timeless approach.
Aiding the band’s efforts is producer Butch Walker, a newcomer to the world of Green Day who has previously worked with the likes of Taylor Swift and Panic! at the Disco. If Walker’s job was to shake things up, his efforts are most keenly felt on the record’s opening title track, which finds Armstrong singing predominantly in an affected falsetto.<
Build on the bombast of snotty guitars and Hot Topic poetry — sample lyrics: “We are rivals in the riot inside us” — “Father of All…” is an inauspicious opening shot that manages to be enjoyable yet disposable. It’s a trend that continues throughout “Father of All...,” which never fails to deliver ear worms but often stuffs them with empty calories.
Although you can easily imagine the stadium foot-stomps and spirited call-and-response that will assuredly greet live performances of “Oh Yeah” on this summer’s stadium tour, as a studio track, it finds Green Day unwilling to venture too far from infinitely familiar territory. “Fire, Ready, Aim” feels at most like a distant cousin to “Revolution Radio’s” “Bang Bang,” while the honky-tonk overtones of “Stab You in the Heart” fail to separate the song from legions of similar fare.
“Father of All...” isn’t without its surprises, however. “Meet Me on the Roof” sees the band indulge in a few minutes of pure prom doo-wop, which has always secretly been a uncharacteristically sweet spot for an act that once named an album after a slang term for fecal matter. “I Was a Teenage Teenager,” likewise, is on the verge of cloying but persists on the strength of strong harmonies. The latter also instantly brings to mind a few of Green Day’s earliest efforts at sincerity from bygone nights at Berkeley’s Gilman.
The album’s best cut may be “Take the Money and Crawl,” which finds Armstrong sneering his way through a dissertation on not giving a s—. It recalls the attitude that Green Day infused into many of its most seminal tracks, in which wastelands can be paradise. With “Take the Money and Crawl,” the band proves still capable of translating its trademark brand of suburban scorn into music that resonates.
The challenge with being a band built in youth that continues to succeed well into middle age — especially one that’s made its claim under the auspices of punk — is the choice of whether to adapt. Over the years, Green Day has done it a number of times, even when the payoff could never equal the effort. There are bands that stay together for the money, and then there’s this one, which still often books last-minute shows at Bay Area dive bars just to have something to do.
“Father of All…,” however, the effort feels more like a sidestep than a leap forward. As the successor to equally milquetoast “Revolution Radio,” it leaves you wondering if Green Day has at last tired of pulling tricks from its heart-adorned sleeves. Rather than creating music with purpose, the band now seems content to manifest material purely from a desire to continue on.
That’s not a place that often leads to essential offerings, but perhaps that achievement is a past-tense proposition for a punk trio (or, now, quartet) that has bridged the gap from Reagan to Trump.
“Are we the last forgotten?” Armstrong asks on the closer, “Graffitia.”
It’s a bit of a trick question, because while Green Day is certainly approaching “last of their kind” territory, it’s clear the band has no intention of fading away. Maybe the ambition to endure will drive them back toward other goals, too, as needing to just say something will never mean as much as having something to say.