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Wipe off that makeup,” sings My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way on “The End.,” the first song on The Black Parade. “What’s in is despair.” But no one who’s followed this band since its 2002 debut would infer that a fresh complexion means melancholy is suddenly at hand. My Chemical Romance’s look—a carefully constructed amalgam of goth touchstones dating back to the ’70s—has been integral to its gloomy yet peppy music since Way left his gig as a comic-book-store clerk for rock ’n’ roll. Nonetheless, Way uses the makeup line, which follows a few seconds of a beeping heart monitor, as a way to part the curtains on an album that screams out for stage-setting.
One of the enduring tensions in emo, My Chemical Romance’s stomping grounds, is that fast, abrasive guitar rock is the default musical container for lyrical ideas that can be more sensitive or sappy than the most delicate James Taylor side. Emo emerged from punk, which explains the musical form, but The Black Parade asks a question that, understandably, has occurred to few others: Might this angst and soul-searching be better suited to the strutting pomp of a Broadway musical?
So after making two albums of tuneful but generally by-the-numbers emo, complete with goofy song titles that sounded ripped from a teen flick (“It’s Not a Fashion Statement, It’s a Deathwish”), the usual teenage self-absorption (“I’m Not Okay (I Promise)”), and some terrifically catchy hooks (“Helena”), My Chemical Romance’s announcement that a grand statement was forthcoming was pretty exciting. Way & Co. had been listening to Queen, Sgt. Pepper’s, and The Wall. They were thinking big.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that The Black Parade is a concept album. It tells the story of an unnamed man with terminal cancer contemplating his short life from his deathbed. “Welcome to the Black Parade,” the album’s leadoff single, is a pocket symphony with a dangling wallet chain, complete with martial drums to evoke the character’s forlorn recollections of seeing a marching band with his dad, a vocal break to make Jon Anderson weep, and a spine-tingling chorus hook centered on the phrase “We’ll carry on” that evokes Styx’s “Come Sail Away.” There’s tuneful punk at around the 2-minute mark, sure, but it follows a Queen-like workup replete with screaming guitar leads and a spate of throat-shredding vocals. This is music anyone who’s ever cried along to an Andrew Lloyd Webber song would be immensely comfortable with.
Way’s singing has continued to improve in tone and power (amazing how rough and flabby he sounds now on the band’s indie debut I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love) and the band has mastered the art of the evocative chord change, able to alternate between meaty midtempo ballads (“I Don’t Love You” brings to mind “Today” by Smashing Pumpkins, another big influence) and the ersatz-Aerosmith boogie of “House of Wolves” with the flick of a pickup switch. There’s even a serious curveball in the form of the vaguely Brechtian “Mama,” which starts with a Fiddler on the Roof–like jig and ends with a verse from Liza Minnelli, her voice processed to sound like her, er, mama singing down through the ages at 78 revolutions per minute. It’s an effect worthy of Tom Waits, helping to pull the album out of the harsh florescent light of the present and add a bit of sepia timelessness—or maybe it’s just professional courtesy from one expert mascara user to another.
In any event, the crackly coda of “Mama” gives a welcome dose of theater, which for this project is essential. For The Black Parade, Way chopped his trademark dyed-black locks, cut back on the eyeliner, and is now sporting a blond pate in part, he’s said, because he wants to “get in character” to bring the new record across. His method, as it were, is generally convincing. Whatever his vocal limitations, Way knows how to sell a song, and dropping his histrionic style into such shameless melodrama is a natural. “Now turn away/’Cause I’m awful just to see/’Cause all my hair’s abandoned all my body/Oh my agony,” he sings on weepy piano ballad “Cancer,” following with “Baby I’m just soggy from the chemo/But counting down the days to go.” And if he’s easy to cry along to, he also knows from uplift, soaring into the clouds on “Famous Last Words” on the back of the anthemic chorus, “I am not afraid to keep on living/I am not afraid to walk this world alone.”
Despite such pleasures, The Black Parade too often lacks the courage of its conceptual convictions. The great albums from which My Chemical Romance draw integrated popular music from across eras; The Black Parade seems stuck between about 1993, when Smashing Pumpkins released Siamese Dream and 2004, when Green Day released American Idiot. About two-thirds of it sounds like a slicker, proficient version of what the band has been doing already. It’s the kind of album that makes you feel greedy—you want it to be even bigger, to reach further, to sink lower. The violin that accompanies Way into the vocal chorus of “Cancer,” for example, cries out to be an orchestra. There’s no ceiling to how grandiose this thing should be.
As if to demonstrate some of these shortcomings, two of the better moments actually come when the concept slips into the background and My Chemical Romance resumes being a catchy rock band. “Teenagers,” despite its dubious connection to the album’s story, has the massive hook Rivers Cuomo has been trying to write ever since Weezer’s debut. “The Sharpest Lives” alludes to Shakespeare (“Juliet loves the beat and all the lust it commands/ Drop the dagger and lather the blood on your hands, Romeo”) and keeps bringing up vampires, but the best thing about it is a swooping chorus that brings to mind “You Give Love a Bad Name” by Jersey homies Bon Jovi.
My Chemical Romance still excels at pop-punk, but everything about The Black Parade—from the illustrations on the terrifically engaging packaging, which envisions MCR as a brass band marching through a Tim Burton film, to a narrative that examines loss, morality, and regret around every turn—calls for more imagination than it displays here. It may not be fair to expect so much and then be disappointed when an album swinging for the seats only manages a ground-rule double. But when a band positions itself in such lofty company as the Beatles, Queen, and Floyd, that’s the risk it takes. The face paint is different, but My Chemical Romance hasn’t changed all that much.CP