Before I listened to this album, I’d thought of My Chemical Romance as a fairly typical emo band, just another soundalike in one of the most monotonous genres in pop music today. It’s not that I dislike emo music, it’s more that the various songs I’ve heard sound so similar, nothing I’d heard had enticed me to dig deeper. But, after hearing a lot of critical praise for My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade, I decided to give it a listen, and was pleasantly surprised to discover an album that aims for the epic style of 70s concept albums, but manages to do so in a completely modern fashion. It’s a triumph, one of the best rock records of recent years.
The band has been open about their debt to '70s bands, like Pink Floyd and Queen, who pioneered the sort of over the top concept centered epics that this album joins. Right from the first song, the debt is evident. “The End” sounds just like “In the Flesh?,” the opener of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and also has a bit of David Bowie’s “Five Years” in there as well. The title track, and first single, “Welcome to the Black Parade,” is a multipart epic that recalls Queen during it’s exploding guitar backed finale.
That’s not to say that the album is entirely centered on aping classic rock. “This is How I Disappear” and “I Don’t Love You” both draw more on contemporary emo music, but with enough variation within the songs that they still feel fresh and unique. The breakdown three quarters of the way through “This is How I Disappear” is a highlight, where the band cuts loose into a nasty heavy section. “Dead!” has a similar moment towards the end. The heaviness works because it’s a contrast to the more measured chorus. It is in the variation that these songs find meaning.
The album’s concept is centered around a man with cancer, named ‘The Patient.’ Some of the tracks are more overtly connected to him, like “Cancer” and “Mama,” others have little apparent link with the concept. Listening to music, I pay more attention to the sound than the lyrics, but some connections do come through, and that gives the album a more united feel. The songs are laid out to build to a definitive conclusion with “Famous Last Words,” and that final track really does resolve the arc in a nice way.
A track like “The Sharpest Lives” is ambiguous enough that it can work outside of the concept, but ties in well when read as part of the overall narrative. Part of the problem with concept albums is that you can wind up with piecemeal tracks that work as part of the whole, but aren’t much on their own. Parts of The Wall are like this, small snippets rather than fully developed songs.
Releasing “Welcome to the Black Parade” as the first single was a bold choice, it’s like nothing else you’ll hear on the radio today, but it works as a declaration of purpose. The more recent single, “I Don’t Love You” would have been a more conventional choice, but putting out “Parade” indicated that this was a serious album, and an artistic leap forward. I’m not sure where the band will go in the future, but the growth from their previous work is analogous to Radiohead’s move from Pablo Honey to The Bends, a total artistic reinvention. I actually enjoy their previous album, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, but this one song has more grandeur and feeling than that entire album.
“Welcome to the Black Parade” begins with a slow, almost spoken word section, then blows up into an emo sounding driving rock section. This goes on for a while before things slow down to a Queen like declaration of purpose. There’s a rising, guitar in the background building things back up to the chorus, before slowing down again for the finale. It’s a powerful song, and if you’re skeptical about the band, just listen to this song.
I prefer the more outré songs on the album, along with “Parade,” "Mama" is another epic, weird one. Clearly inspired by Pink Floyd’s “The Trial,” this track slinks through a cabaret style vocal, ascending into a great heavier section, then slowing down for a Liza Minelli guest appearance. It’s a testament to the weird world they’ve created that her cameo barely raises an eyebrow. It makes perfect sense in the world they’ve created.
“Cancer” features the most powerful lyrics on the album, sung from the perspective of a cancer victim. It’s backed by some gorgeous layered vocals and lush strings. It’s a song that has very sentimental content, but isn’t played in a downbeat way, instead his cancer feels like a triumph.
Ultimately, I think what makes this album stand out from both the band’s previous work and most emo work is the variety and contrast present in the album. There’s all kinds of sounds and tempos, and the songs are structured to maximize variation within each passage. “Sleep” opens slow, then explodes in a really satisfying moment. By juxtaposing the more typical emo stuff with other styles each feels fresher and means more.
Seventies bands are frequently criticized for their concept album excesses, and that led to a decline in bands’ ambitions. Punk bands hated Pink Floyd, and it’s their legacy that eventually led to the emo culture that gave us My Chemical Romance. That’s why it’s ironic that MCR, and Green Day before them, should be the ones to revive the ambition and thematic cohesion of the concept album. Everything comes full circle, and now it’s up to punk’s children to rehabilitate the legacy of the bands that their forefathers denigrated.
I love rock music, but I don’t listen to that much contemporary rock. But this album does a fantastic job of adapting the sound of the best classic rock for today. While they do directly adapt some classic rock moments, those homages flow out of something uniquely contemporary. They’ve managed to fuse the best traits of emo with the best traits of classic rock to create an album that’s really outstanding. It’s an ambitious, sonically varied, and emotionally involving album. This is the perfect album to cross generational lines, to bridge the gap between classic rock loving parents and their emo children.
And it’s an album you can feel good about liking. This is a band that’s stretching itself, creating a challenging, far reaching work that raises the bar for what they’re capable of. I’m eager to hear the band’s next work, and there’s plenty in here to keep me listening until then.Powered by Sidelines