Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
On “Angel Blue,” a typically breathless pop-punk offering from Green Day’s latest album Uno!, lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong sings that he’s “Trying to find my better angels.” Considering all of the high-concept, theatre-ready bombast the band has produced in the past decade, those angels might as well have been Roger Waters and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
On the new album, those better angels are once more Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer, which will likely please a lot of fans who thought that the foray into theme albums was reaping diminishing rewards. Uno!, the first in a trio of albums the group has ready to roll out in the next few months, is much closer to albums like Insomniac or Nimrod in its rigid adherence to its streamlined punk aesthetic. It may not be your father’s Green Day, but it is your disgruntled uncle’s version of the band.
From the opening rat-a-tat of Tre Cool’s drums on the fine “Nuclear Family,” you know what you’re going to get on Uno! That inevitability is both the album’s biggest strength and its largest detriment. On the one hand, nobody does this kind of pummeling yet precise approach quite so well, with the rhythm section of Cool and bassist Mike Dirnt serving as the propulsive underpinning for Armstong’s chunky chords and bratty sneer, which, unburdened by storylines and exposition, rips through these tracks like a force of nature.
The problem is that the band apparently has decided to load up this first release in the trilogy with their signature sound, which, quite frankly, becomes a bit wearying. You begin to long for any small bit of variety, such as the subtle ska accents in “Kill The DJ,” a slashing slice of urban paranoia. It practically sounds like a ballad next to speeding-ticket music like “Let Yourself Go” and “Troublemaker,” where subtlety, both lyrically and musically, is in short supply.
Toward the end of the set, Green Day lets a little melody shine through without slowing down the pace, and the prospects brighten immensely. “Sweet 16” is more Badfinger than Bad Brains and has a tinge of nostalgia that the band wears quite well. “Rusty Jones,” with its familiar yet catchy descending chord sequence, is just as good, a prime example of Armstrong’s defining quality as a songwriter: His ability to identify with the outsider.
More of that would have gone a long way. There’s nothing wrong with going back to basics, and another concept album would have taken a battering ram to a dead horse. Still, it feels like the band is playing it a tad safe here. If Uno! is meant to be a palette-cleanser, let’s hope that Green Day’s next two albums find a happy medium and add a bit more ambition to the attack.