It seems Billie Joe Armstrong would rather play music than make it. His new album, No Fun Mondays, is a compilation of cover songs the Green Day frontman has been recording throughout 2020. The songs are united not by their themes but by their swaggering pop-punk sound that Armstrong and company are well known for.
The guitars are less face-melting and more brain-melting in their stagnant simplicity. Of course, this has always been part of Armstrong’s appeal — his songs are easily replicable, meant to be played at bedsides by angsty teenagers without anything specific to complain about. The fact that Armstrong’s music is so milquetoast is actually part of its appeal: It is unassuming, unobtrusive rock music. It sits in the background, not caring if it’s even heard at all, devoid of original thought.
That part of No Fun Mondays is far and away its best trait. It has the allure of a friend picking up a guitar and playing a few of their favorite songs. It’s nothing special, but there is a sense of personal sharing that lets Armstrong generate genuine emotional interest. The music is played solely to be played, and that’s a respectable characteristic, even if it’s not necessarily a productive one.
Most of Armstrong’s attempts to reach for other genres are so adjacent to his comfort zone that they’re laughable. Over the years, “That’s Rock ’n’ Roll” has graduated from power pop to soft rock, and Armstrong’s signature pop-punk take on it can only mean that a doom metal cover of the song is right around the corner. For now, though, Armstrong’s punk stylings award him the crown for the most annoying rendition of the song, plagued by the worst of the singer’s nasally vocals and the recording’s repetitive, bland chorus.
This kind of treatment seems to be par for the course for No Fun Mondays. An ample dose of the tracks are new entries into long lineages of covers, such as “Whole Wide World,” a song performed by artists from Elvis Costello to Cage the Elephant. More often than not, though, they seem to be covers of covers rather than first-degree interpretations. Armstrong’s version of “Whole Wide World” and others are certainly palatable, but that’s part of the issue.
So many songs on No Fun Mondays are best described as good enough. Nice tries, good shows, well-meaning. But covers can’t just be reiterated, replayed songs. They need to be transformative, reimagined, new. Oftentimes, Armstrong takes the safe path, opting for simplicity or caution with songs that don’t require it. These songs have already been developed and produced — they’ve proven themselves enough. Armstrong ignores this and settles for the merely acceptable version of any given track.
Sometimes, though, it’s worse than acceptable. Armstrong’s rendition of The Clash’s “Police on My Back” takes all the realism and grit out of the song, depriving the recording of any thrashing or emotive moments it could have had. He doesn’t seem to want to reckon with the songs he’s covering or investigate their emotional or thematic purposes. Instead, he seems content to regurgitate music by simply adding a little twist of his own style. It’s not enough.
Armstrong seems aware of the fact that he’s not reinventing the wheel or transforming anything about music, and No Fun Mondays excels in these moments of lucidity. Armstrong’s attempt at Italian on “Amico” comes off as sincere, like he really wanted to do the song justice.
Instrumentally, No Fun Mondays is pretty plain. Again, it’s acceptable — blazing guitars and well-paced drums, the rock music of an artist who’s been doing this for long enough to know what works. The instruments, in fact, provide much of the album’s enjoyment as a background listening experience. The album never rages too hard and never overexerts itself — though its run time is probably longer than it needs to be.
Yes, it seems that Armstrong would rather play music than make it. His new album is uncomplicated and benign. But he deserves the break — it’s been a long year.