By Jon Pareles
Praising a return to form is a barbed compliment at best. It implies recent missteps, a decline, the waning of youthful inspiration, the toll of a long career — perhaps all of them at once. It suggests that the sensible way forward is to double back. Still, “Saviors,” Green Day’s new album, is a decisive, even overdetermined return to form.
Ever since its beginnings in the late 1980s, Green Day has stayed contentious. Billie Joe Armstrong has sung about personal grievances — including struggles with himself — as well as the ways they intersect with larger political currents, most ambitiously on the band’s 2004 concept album, “American Idiot,” which went on to be adapted into a Broadway musical.
The band can still cause a stir. In recent years, Armstrong has been performing the song “American Idiot” by changing the line “I’m not a part of a redneck agenda” to end with “the MAGA agenda” instead. But when he sang that phrase on broadcast TV this past New Year’s Eve, right-wing media seized on the line to raise a fuss.
“Saviors” finds contemporary targets. It opens with “The American Dream Is Killing Me,” which goes barreling ahead as Armstrong derides conspiracy theories and anti-immigrant attitudes, touches on homelessness and real estate exploitation and declares that as a nation, “We are not well.”
In “Living in the ’20s,” Armstrong confronts a decade that’s brought supermarket shootings and murder hornets. In the quick-strummed “Strange Days Are Here to Stay,” he sings about bleak expectations: “I can’t see this ending well/ Now that it’s too late.”
While Green Day has pushed against power structures, it has honored musical ones. With Armstrong on guitar and vocals, Tré Cool on drums and Mike Dirnt on bass, there has always been a virtuosic neatness behind Green Day’s blare.
Green Day arrived as a proud heir to the fast, blunt, tuneful, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes candid punk that the Ramones had formulated in the 1970s. As Green Day’s catalog grew, it became clearer that the band was well aware of generations of guitar bands, from its grunge contemporaries back through Van Halen, Cheap Trick, Boston and Aerosmith to the Who and the Beatles.
Green Day invariably delivers precisely arranged songs with clear-cut verses, choruses and bridges. Its 1994 album, “Dookie” — with hits including “Basket Case” and “Welcome to Paradise” — heralded the commercial breakthrough of punk-pop that was simultaneously raucous and high-gloss.
“Saviors” trumpets its connections to Green Day’s past. For its international tour this year — to be joined along the way by bands including Smashing Pumpkins, Rancid and the Hives — Green Day has announced it will play all the way through both “Dookie” and “American Idiot,” coinciding with their 30th and 20th anniversaries. Green Day made “Saviors” with Rob Cavallo, a co-producer of both albums, who last worked on Green Day’s three stripped-down 2012 albums “¡Uno!,” “¡Dos!” and “¡Tré!”
Green Day’s more recent albums had strained to be different: noisier, murkier and often using all its resources to simulate lo-fi recording. “Saviors,” by contrast, is forthrightly lavish. Guitars and vocals are multilayered, and the drum sound is gigantic; orchestral arrangements appear out of nowhere. The band proudly blasts again in songs such as the standout track, “Dilemma,” in which Armstrong — who entered rehab after an onstage tirade in 2012 — grapples with trying to stay sober. “I don’t want to be a dead man walking,” he proclaims over stadium-shaking guitar chords.
“Saviors” revisits the production approach of the so-called “loudness war” of the 1990s and 2000s, when it seemed studios sought to make, as Meat Loaf sang, “everything louder than everything else.” The waveforms of nearly every song on “Saviors” measure as what recording engineers call “brickwalled” — pushed to a constant, flattened peak. On a playlist alongside tracks that include more ups and downs, that loudness is supposed to feel exciting. But on an entire unrelenting, 15-track album, it grows wearing.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that on Green Day’s 14th studio album, some of the songs have beats and chord progressions that can feel like retreads. On “Saviors,” the production often strives to offset familiarity with impact. Yet “Father to a Son” — in which an uncertain parent vows to try his best — unmistakably echoes “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” even with an orchestra now supplementing the power chords.
For sonic variety, Green Day flaunts its rock scholarship. “Bobby Sox” — with Armstrong singing about the homey comforts he’d offer a girlfriend, a boyfriend or a best friend — is an outright homage to Pixies, exploding from a quiet verse to a crashing chorus. And the depressive but stubborn “Goodnight Adeline” could almost have been an arena march from Oasis.
“Saviors” doesn’t hide its craftsmanship or self-consciousness, but they are a means to an end. Green Day is still angry, disgusted, worried and no longer so amused about the state of the world. This time, the band has decided to shout about it.