Following the release and sudden rise to superstardom after the release of major-label debut Dookie, things changed suddenly for the band. Not only were they rich and famous beyond their wildest dreams whilst being barely out of their teens, but the whole structure of their lives had changed. In complete contrast to the rock n roll stereotype these brattish hell raisers were in fact, settling down. They were having children and getting married. Whereas before they were used to playing in small, sweat-filled clubs to a few hundred fans, now they were playing to tens of thousands, but such success comes at a price. In this instance, a vocal number of old school fans turned their back on the band, declaring them to be sell-outs and betraying everything the punk scene from which they emerged stood for. At the other end of the spectrum, following the phenomenal success of Dookie the band were under intense pressure from their record label, Reprise Records, to do it again, an almost impossible feat.
Under the stresses of constant touring, hometown rejection, label expectations and of course, being a new father, Billie Joe Armstrong nearly quit the band. But in the end he relented and in 1995 the band released their follow-up .
Very much the deformed and twisted younger brother, Insomniac was a much harsher album, with the pressure squeezing the sense of fun out of the band and replacing it with speed-fuelled anxiety and self-doubt. Where the artwork for its predecessor was brightly coloured, chaotic and full of fun, the follow-up was much more uncomfortable collage of images from the 1950s. The scenes of disarray were more abstract and could almost be said to be a snapshot of the world if the Dookie street fight got out of control and all institutions started crumbling. On another level, if Dookie was a snapshot of Armstrong’s mind at that time, then this perfectly captured the warped nature of his new state. The monkeys in the former are anarchic, faeces-throwing free spirits, whereas in this work they are subjugated. Clothed and restrained, they are servants or dressed up circus animals performing for their masters.
Gone are the little cartoons and the quasi-handwritten lyrics on the inner-sleeve. Instead, there is a mass of lyrics in typewriter font, as if bashed out in a drug-fuelled, beat-era stream-of consciousness. The lines are crooked, the bold uneven and occasionally they even run across each other. This tells you straight away, this is going to be a far messier album.
Yet in many ways, it’s not. For all the pressures, the band still created a pristinely produced collection of songs, all of which are expertly crafted and as with Dookie, any of which could have been released as singles. However, there is no getting away from the far bleaker outlook on display. Whilst the former record started with a declaration of apathy, Insomniac starts with the declaration that he is “Stranded” within himself. Whilst the former was about being alone by choice, the latter is being isolated by life. This is the overall theme of the record, being returned to time and again and shows the darker side, both internally and externally. It talks of self-destructing on meth amphetamines (Geek Stink Breath), losing control under intense pressure (Bab’s Uvula Who?), of being an outsider (Stuck With Me) and of being rejected (86).
86 was written about the groups rejection by the old punk scene in which they grew up and where at the famous Gilman Street venue, someone wrote “Billie Joe is God” on the wall. Whilst Stuart and the Ave. reflects the same kind of rejection on a more personal level and this bitter tract is in fact the closest the record comes to containing a love song.
Structurally, there is not much difference on this record, but the guitar sounds are much harsher, more distorted than before. The contain a level of bitterness, not yet seen on a Green Day record and the sense of fun seems to have been extracted completely. Everything feels far more oppressive, which is metaphorically represented by Brat, in which a spoilt child waits for his parents to die to get his inheritance so he can do what he wants.
This is an excellent record and one that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. It’s raw emotional content feels more authentic and the lyrics show a progression towards maturity, even if maturity turns out to be a bitter old fuck.