Do you have the time
To read as I opine
About an album sweet and sharp all at once?
If so, great, because that’s what we’ve got in Green Day’s Dookie. This is called a punk rock album, but lyrically it’s a far cry from the political Molotov cocktails of Nevermind The Bollocks and the first Clash album. Rather than striking out at the world, Green Day’s ammunition is mainly aimed at itself. Musically, the punk energy is there for sure, particularly in the thrashing beat and hyperactive fills of drummer Tré Cool, but the whole thing is laced with power-pop riffs and harmonies, albeit sped up to Ramones-level velocity.
It’s the pop-punk hybrid that made this album palatable to the masses, and boy did the masses dig it in the mid-90s, propelling the album past ten MILLION copies sold. Nevertheless, until Robby assigned it to me, I’d never listened to it. I knew the singles — they were inescapable at the time — and had bought American Idiot long ago, but I’d never sought out Dookie. Something to do with the name, maybe.
Anyway, having now spent a little time with it, I’m hearing a couple of things jump out. First, the dynamic shifts. This album is at its most thrilling when it jumps from quiet to loud or vice versa, and it’s no coincidence that its three biggest singles — “Longview”, “Basket Case”, and “When I Come Around” — all pull this dynamic trick. This is most noticeable in “Basket Case”, which starts off with only guitar and vocal, sweetened at the end of each line by harmony. Then we get just a tiny bit of hi-hat layered in, until the line “it all keeps adding up” ushers in an explosion of guitars, harmonies, and drums. That level keeps up through the song, except for a few times where one instrument or all instruments drop out, then pick up a beat or two later. It feels like letting go of one trapeze, floating for just a moment, and then grabbing the next one.
“Longview” puts a different set of instruments in the quieter intro bit — strutting bass and low drums playing a jungle beat. But otherwise it’s pretty much the same tactic — giant guitars (this time harmonizing with each other in pale shades of Boston) jump in suddenly on the “lazy” part of “I’m fucking lazy,” kicking the song into pogo gear around a riff jumping back and forth between two notes. Then they drop out again, back to the jungly bass/drum combo. You know it’s coming back with the chorus, and that’s part of the pleasure — BOOM goes the song, exploding into, well, self-hatred, but more about that later.
“When I Come Around” doesn’t start quiet, jumping right out front with a big, meaty riff. But for the title line, everything drops out, leaving Billie Joe Armstrong’s voice jumping to the next trapeze, which always arrives just like it should. That trick of a musical gap, the bottom dropping out from the song, happens all over this album. Take “In The End”, which does it on Billie Joe’s “sooooooo…”, or “Welcome To Paradise”, which does it on the “welcome to”. Quiet-to-loud isn’t limited to the singles either, most notably “F.O.D.” which starts even quieter than “Basket Case”, as it substitutes acoustic guitar for electric, and stays quiet for a full minute and a half before the punk rock kicks in.
Those two songs (“F.O.D.” and “Basket Case”) pretty much sum up the tone of the lyrics too, which are, as the man says, neurotic to the bone, no doubt about it. Especially “Basket Case”, which is the perfect examplar of the album. (I was going to say “quintessential Dookie“, but really, ew. The name is a problem, guys.) The tone fit in well with the times — in the 90s rock music was stuffed full of apathy and self-loathing. In a context that went from “oh well, whatever, nevermind” to “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo” to “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?”, a line like “sometimes I give myself the creeps” fit right in.
That alienation and disaffection permeates the album. Sometimes it’s aimed at a former friend or lover, as in “Emenius Sleepus” and “F.O.D.” Sometimes it’s aimed at the world in general, as in “Having A Blast.” Much more often, though, and frequently even alongside the externalizing, it’s aimed inward. “Longview” paints a picture of a character so filled with ennui and self-hatred that all he can do is sit around the house, watch TV, masturbate, smoke pot, and wait for phone calls that never come. “I’m so damn bored, I’m going blind, and I smell like shit” just about sums it up, wouldn’t you say?
Zooming out just a bit from the interior angst of “Basket Case” and “Longview”, there are some songs that contextualize these desperate characters. “Welcome To Paradise” shows us the “cracked streets and the broken homes” of the narrator’s environment, which he has internalized to the extent that he now believes there’s nowhere else he belongs. “Coming Clean” is spoken by a 17-year-old whose self-understanding has alienated him from his family. (Reportedly this is an autobiographical song about Armstrong’s coming to terms with himself as bisexual.)
The whole thing is pretty grim, but combining those lyrical concerns with the furious energy of the band and the adrenaline acrobatics of its dynamic shifts gives us an album made to plug right into the outlet of teenage angst, and deliver enough energy to make it through the days.