My Chemical Romance may be the oldest young band in America. None of the members — singer Gerard Way, his brother and bassist Mikey, drummer Bob Bryar and guitarists Ray Toro and Frank Iero — is old enough to have bought David Bowie's Diamond Dogs on the day it came out. But The Black Parade, the New Jersey group's third studio album, is the best mid-Seventies record of 2006, a rabid, ingenious paraphrasing of echoes and kitsch from rock's golden age of bombast.
The opening fanfare, "The End," blows up like an outtake from Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies, with glam-Godzilla guitars and spook-choir hurrahs. "Dead!" is a sleek, bleak bruiser, like Queen's "Keep Yourself Alive" in widow's weeds. And in the hyperoperatic "Mama," Way — playing a soldier up to his neck in blood, raging against the woman who gave him life — briefly duets with Liza Minnelli, who belts her two big lines only to have Way sing back at her with vicious obscenity. It is brassy casting, as if Minnelli has been dropped into a Glenn Danzig production of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children. It also sounds like an idea Alice Cooper (the singer) might have had in 1976 while golfing with George Burns.
But this is not the Seventies, and My Chemical Romance are very much a band of their time — post-9/11. The first song Way wrote for the group (with ex-drummer Matt Pelisser) was "Skylines and Turnstiles," based on his experience that day in New York, watching the Twin Towers fall in front of him. There is a lot of fire and rubble in these songs, too. And there are bodies all over the place — dead in the streets ("Welcome to the Black Parade"); near death in hospital beds ("Dead!" and "Cancer"); or just too numb to give a shit about morality ("House of Wolves") or forgiveness ("I Don't Love You"). Starting with a riff that stabs and stutters like an old Buzzcocks lick and packing a bridge that is pure Iron Maiden, "This Is How I Disappear" is an exciting, perverse goodbye, from one lost soul to the object of his suffocating affection. "And without you is how I disappear/And live my life alone/Forever now," Way sings from the depths of obsession — and, it seems, his grave. The poetry is rickety, but the self-pity is arena-ready.
Next to that, My Chemical Romance's 2004 album, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, is orthodox buzz-saw misery. Apparently, the band — which co-produced the vacuum-packed overkill of The Black Parade with Rob Cavallo, who also worked on Green Day's punk-suite hit, American Idiot — now believes that if you're going to feel sorry for yourself, you might as well do it with gusto. "When I grow up, I want to be nothing at all!" Way wails in "The End," surrounded by what sounds like ELO with a case of G n' R. The excess comes with diminishing returns. Cavallo and the group over-rely on the avenging-army drumroll shtick, and what is deliciously vintage for most of the record — Way's bright, breathless yelp, with harmonies stacked to eternity; the lightning bolts of Brian May and Mick Ronson cutting through Toro's and Iero's widescreen grind — loses luster by Tracks Twelve and Thirteen, "Disenchanted" and "Famous Last Words." The best last words should have been Track Eleven, "Teenagers," a tight fist of T. Rex-style crunch with a great punch-the-air chorus: "They said all/Teenagers scare/The living shit out of me."
Teenagers are the ones who should be scared shitless. They are about to inherit a hell on this earth that is more terrifying, day by day, than anything Way imagines here. In fact, the most realistic and contemporary thing about this album's supercharged-Seventies Armageddon is his bitter, almost jealously guarded helplessness in nearly every song. Content to be the Queen of complaint (and damn good at it), My Chemical Romance offer no answers and give no hope — except for the shot of light that comes in the second manic half of "Welcome to the Black Parade," whenever Way hits the vocal hook. "We'll carry on," he sings repeatedly, at full rock-hero tilt. He doesn't say where. But the way he says it sounds great and worth believing, no matter how old you are.
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