It's hard to remember these days that Green Day didn't used to be a shitty pop punk version of Bruce Springsteen. Let's travel back to those golden days before the broadway musicals, the collaborations with the cast of Glee (if I just imagined that, well it's not much of a stretch, is it?), and charity team ups with Bono. Back when Billie Joe Armstrong, Tre Cool, and Mike Dirnt were nothing more than one of the tightest rock bands of their day, making mosh pits go crazy and radio listeners bob their heads in equal measure. Before Billie Joe was the savior of America he was a brilliant songwriter, and don't ever forget it. Time to revisit one of the most influential albums of my teenage years:
Green Day - "Insomniac" (1995)
Green Day pull out all the stops and prove what a powerful force they could be as a pure band. Tracks like "Geek Stink Breath" and "Panic Song" do unexpected things with the band's dynamics. Mike Dirnt's bass and Tre Cool's drumming have way more color than they need to for this kind of music, and that means that "Insomniac" has more depth and replay value than most albums of this type. Who'd have thought that Brain Stew, with it's dunderheaded five note riff repeated endlessly could somehow not get boring? The fact that it climaxes by seguing into the frenetic "Jaded" probably has a lot to do with it's appeal.
Billie Joe Armstrong's melodies had gotten ridiculously tight, the verses and choruses so short and simple that not a second is wasted. "Brat" is the album in a nutshell, not even two minutes long, frantic, cynical and hilarious. I love how the vocals just barely avoid being swallowed up by the rest of the band, as Billie Joe spits the darkest venom at maturity itself: "Got a plan of action and cold blood and it smells of defiance / I'll just wait for Mom and Dad to die - get my inheritance".
Oh yeah, those lyrics. Not sure what was in Billie Joe's water at this point, but I think it was children and years of touring. This led to lyrics like "The world is a sick machine breeding a mass of shit", and "I'm blowin' off steam with methamphetamine". As a young metalhead who hadn't discovered metal yet, I ate this up like mashed potatoes and meat loaf. Besides, unlike a lot of pop bands with accessible melodies and confrontational lyrics, Green Day had two big advantages: Their melodies were better and the venom was very real.
Some of it was clearly directed at Armstrong and the band itself. "Walking Contradiction" is the most obvious, with Billie Joe wondering if people might be right and he really is a shill: "I beg to differ, on the contrary / Agree with every word that you say ... My wallet's fat and so is my head... I'm a walking contradiction / and I ain't got no right".
The album's title is entirely apt, drawn from the fact the Billie Joe couldn't sleep during this period, and song after song depicts a mind about to snap. Truth is, I can often relate, and this music isn't gloomy or ruminating, it's cathartic. When the world stresses me the fuck out I'm grateful to be able to crank songs like "Bab's Uvula Who" and flail like a crazy person in front of my stereo system.
"Insomniac"'s only flaw is that so many of the tracks are five-star genius that the few three-point-five-star tracks stick out like a sore thumb. "86" and "Westbound Sign" in particular are frequent victims of the skip button. But in an album that's barely half an hour long, the songs barely two minutes, it's a forgivable flaw. And none of it's actually bad. "Insomniac" is an easy entry into my personal hall of fame, and you should definitely reacquaint yourself with it if it's slipped from your memories.