My Chemical Romance

    I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love (Eyeball Records, 2002)
     Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge (Reprise/WEA, 2004)
     The Black Parade (Reprise/WEA, 2006)

My Chemical Romance are emo's great survivors—even if the most dramatic thing they've ever survived is high school. Decked out in military uniforms and bulletproof vests, these Jersey misfits combine pop-punk's tortured soul, glam-rock's theatricality, and the gallows humor of comic books, all while battling the psychological demons that drama geeks and goths have wrestled with ever since they first got beaten up after gym class. Sometimes, in their songs, those demons are real: Drug addiction turns you into a vampire. Apathy makes you a walking corpse. It's a literal take on the best joke in rock & roll: Teenagers scare the hell out of people.

Fittingly, the band began as a response to real terror. At age 24, lead singer Gerard Way was working as an animator and living in his parents' basement when the 9/11 attacks rattled him out of his sketchbook. That same day, he wrote his first song, "Skylines and Turnstiles," a hardcore punk elegy for a "broken city skyline." Raging about loss of innocence, Gerard found a favorite theme he'd return to again and again with My Chemical Romance, a band he soon formed with his brother, bassist Mickey Way, guitarists Frank Iero and Ray Toro and drummer Bob Bryar. Their 2002 debut, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love, reads like a list of all the things that forced him to grow up too fast. Two songs in, on "Honey, This Mirror Isn't Big Enough for the Two of Us," he's already confessing that "The amount of pills I'm taking counteracts the booze I'm drinking." A few tracks later, those pills are making him feel just slightly bummed out: "I think I'll blow my brains against the ceiling," he shrieks on "Headfirst for Halos," "And as the fragments of my skull begin to fall / Fall on your tongue like pixie dust / Just think happy thoughts!" Sure, it's the kind of idle threat he's more likely to carve into his desk than write in a suicide note, but that's the whole point: This is drama designed to make you feel sixteen-years-old again, experiencing every heartache as if it's on scale with the World Trade Center crumbling down. And the music helps push all those emotions into the red: aggressive thrash with piledriver drums, dragon screeches, and the kind of frenetic build-up to an over-the-top climax that you find in horror movies. It isn't for nothing that text on the album cover reads: "Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws and will result in Gerard coming to your house and sucking your blood."

This wasn't just theater. True, MCR wore ghoulish makeup and black suits while they performed. But in an era of school shootings and dirty-bomb rumors, when every homeroom class was on ADD meds, the band's dread resonated. If they made those all-too-real anxieties seem more cartoonish on 2004's Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, it was just a smart way of coping. Way contended that their sophomore release was "a concept album about a man who comes back from the dead to kill people who shut him out for not fitting in during his lifetime," and the band painted that story in saturated colors, with the demonic spaghetti western "Hang 'Em High," the tap-dance cabaret of "You Know What They Do To Guys Like Us in Prison," and the mosh-pit opera "Helena." Even the jokes were rendered in bold strokes: The song titles—"The Jetset Life is Gonna Kill You," "It's Not a Fashion Statement, It's a Death Wish"—read like the perfect bumper stickers to slap on a hearse. And yet, for all the black humor, there was also a black heart, especially on "I'm Not Okay (I Promise)," a moving anthem for the young and depressed. Its message was clear: Hey kids, it's ok that you're messed up—we'd be worried about you if you weren't.

The response was overwhelming: Three Cheers went platinum, and other emo bands like Panic at the Disco followed their lead, branding themselves as outcasts, caking on eyeliner and reaching out to fans in after-school detention. There was just one problem: When everyone's an outcast, no one's an outcast anymore. So for their next album, MCR tried to set themselves apart from the throngs of the dispossessed. Scrubbing off their makeup while Way dyed his dark hair white-blonde, they donned black marching-band uniforms like an undead Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, symbolically ditching their name and rechristening themselves The Black Parade, which was also the title of their next record. What they ended up with was an instant-classic freakshow musical: a Rocky Horror for the Operation Freedom generation.

A concept album about a cancer patient looking back on his life, MCR's rock opera began with a funeral: "The End," a sprawling power ballad heralding the death of their old band. And they really went out with a bang: Produced by Rob Cavallo, the man behind Green Day's American Idiot, the album was an atom bomb of artful bombast. Sometimes the guitar solos exuded all the stadium-throttling superpowers of Queen. Sometimes they were heavy-metal torches that MCR wielded like flamethrowers. Nothing was too much: There was never an orchestral flourish or ham-fisted allegory that the band can't make work. Liza Minelli even played a character called Mother War on "Mama." But Way was the best actor by far, playing the martyr ("Cancer"), the villain ("I Don't Love You"), the mortal ("Dead!"), and the best tragic hero of all: himself. In "Welcome to the Black Parade," he remembered his father asking him, "Would you be the savior of the broken, the beaten and the damned?" A few songs later, that's exactly what he was becoming. On "Famous Last Words," he lead his minions in a tear-stained sing-along: "I am not afraid to keep on living!" To kids born in the wake of Kurt Cobain's suicide, it's become a powerful message. And for a band who once fetishized death, it's become a statement of purpose: Forget the idea that death creates legends, it's far more heroic to carry on.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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