On their ninth album, Uno, Green Day returns to the basics. Away with the risible narrative pretensions of their concept years! Away with the lights of old Broadway! Back to the terse and spoiled teenage whining, wrapped in short compulsive melodies, which even at this late stage they seem to churn out like the uncontrollable effluence of an overactive gland. But it can be difficult to leave epic ambition behind cold-turkey. These boys are returning from a world of big emotions, big budgets, and even bigger productions. Thus, we don’t just get a return to simple unpretentious pop-punk, we get three full albums of it, with Dos arriving later this year, and Tré set for release in early 2013.
As a stand-alone Green Day album, Uno is a fairly strong pop-rock collection with driving, punk-influenced guitars, chiming melodies, and lyrics about desire, uncertainty, getting older, and embracing freedom. Billie Joe Armstrong and company’s songs are, of course, still vaguely political: The high-velocity opening track, “Nuclear Family,” for example, draws a shaky parallel between the breakdown of the family and the rise of Chinese power.
The album trilogy reunites the band with longtime producer Rob Cavallo, the Warner Bros. big wig who originally signed the band and has produced all of their albums aside from 2009’s 21st Century Breakdown. His production work here maintains Green Day’s pop-punk aesthetic while allowing the band to explore slightly richer textures, like the chiming guitar tones on the inspirational anthem “Carpe Diem,” the vocal layering on the lost-love rocker “Fell for You,” a greater spacing between elements in the rhythm section as heard in the ode to the good old days, “Rusty James,” and even the occasional guitar solo, which in the case of party rev-up “Let Yourself Go” steers a straightforward punk anthem toward early-‘80s Van Halen territory.
Yet for all of the expansion in the band’s aural palette, it’s difficult to escape a sense of déjà vu on some tracks, which sound like only slightly altered versions of previous entries in the Green Day catalogue. “Rusty James,” for instance, sounds like the Mark II of the band’s 1997 track “Scattered.” For every memorable and distinctive step forward, like the funky Clash-cum-Franz Ferdinand track “Kill the D.J.,” there are three standard Green Day tunes that, minus a couple of production flourishes, could fit just as easily anywhere in the band’s discography.