A concept album devoted to death? Yeah, those are always fun.
But New Jersey rock darlings My Chemical Romance stared death in the face and decided to send out for Liza Minnelli, who sounds right at home on an album that feels like something Alice Cooper might have done around the time of Welcome to My Nightmare an infectious blast of gallows humor with sing-along choruses, a decidedly '70s-centric sense of grandeur, and an upbeat glam-rock swagger to its step. It's brilliant, really, from the Bowie-esque waltz of the opening cut, "The End" (which sets the stage for camp with "Now come one and all to this tragic affair/Wipe off that makeup, what's in is despair") to "Mama," where Minnelli guests as Mother War in a night at the Eastern European opera.
The death toll is high, but then so are their spirits, a juxtaposition bassist Mikey Way sees as par for the course for My Chemical Romance, who did, after all, name their previous disc Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge. "We're a tongue-in-cheek band," he explains, "with a black sense of humor."
And what could be blacker than death, the final punch line?
"It's something that probably runs through people's heads every day," Way says. "That there's a ticking time clock right above your head and that at any time, something could happen to you. It could be disease. It could be an accident. But that's the equalizer. That you're eventually going to die."
Gerard Way, Mikey's brother and the group's lead singer, has described the image they came up with for the album and subsequent tour as the death-rock version of Sgt. Pepper. And that album, as it turns out, was a major inspiration for the making of The Black Parade. But it's those echoes of the '70s that really make their presence known, from any given Alice Cooper album to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, The Wall, and A Night at the Opera (dig those Brian May guitar leads).
It's no wonder David Fricke at Rolling Stone responded by proclaiming The Black Parade "the best mid-'70s record of 2006."
Which doesn't bother Mikey Way one bit. "You can see it all over the record," he says. "I mean, 'Teenagers' is like Creedence or T. Rex. And all those ballads are kind of like '70s rock ballads. There's some Journey. I think "Disenchanted," personally, has a major Journey vibe. That's just me, though. I might be outvoted."
Not by anyone who's heard a Journey record, although "Teenagers," it should be pointed out, is closer to T. Rex than any CCR song. It's all in the "Jeepster" guitar groove.
"That's when rock 'n' roll was at its best," Way says. "Back then. We've always been fans of it. And this time, we were like, 'Well, why don't we explore some stuff like that?' Because it's not around and that's a shame."
For all those echoes of the distant past, though, it's the way they've dressed those echoes up in the sounds of today that's made it such an unexpected hit with critics, topping 2006 year-end album lists at Blender and the New York Times.
"It's reminiscent of a lot of things," Way says. "I think that's why a lot of people from different generations are excited. People that were fans of stuff like that in the '70s and early '80s were like, 'Oh, wow, this is something like I used to listen to.' And people that are younger now can still connect with the My Chemical Romance sound and vibe and lyrics."
While they knew they'd made a special record, Way says they expected it to take a while to find an audience. They even worried, briefly, that it could become their Weezer Pinkerton "everybody's favorite record that nobody bought."
Instead, they topped the UK singles chart with "Welcome to the Black Parade," and the album's already been certified platinum here in the States. "We all thought it would take a while for people to understand it," Way says. "But they understood it right away. I think it's because people wanted us to eventually make that album and we made it. Everybody saw that in us."
Even Green Day, who took the band out as an opening act in support of their big concept album, American Idiot, saw it in them.
"Green Day proved with that album that it can be done," Way says. "Smart music can succeed. We've always looked up to Green Day. They were our heroes when we were 14, 15. I think everybody in our age group has been directly affected by Green Day. They were the Led Zeppelin of our time."
It was on the American Idiot tour that Green Day invited their producer, Rob Cavallo, out to see My Chemical Romance. "And from that minute on," Way says, "Rob was just super into our band. In magazines, he was always like 'I'm not doing another project until I do the My Chemical Romance record.'"
In the end, Cavallo co-produced The Black Parade with the band, arriving at a densely textured triumph of kitschy theatrical bombast with an all-important side of primal punk abandon.
It's their finest hour, and with any luck, it might just help them move beyond that emo-by-association image that's been dogging them since day one.
"I think we transcended it, finally," Way says. "We had gotten pigeonholed early on as a, quote-unquote, scene band, because all of our friends would take us on tour and they were all scene bands. But it was so clear from the start that we were night and day. The only reason people would even put us in that category is our vocals were kind of cathartic and our lyrics were kind of introspective. Things like that get mistaken for emo or whatever. And it's like 'No, that's actually been done forever by so many bands.'"
Even Journey, who, one could argue, was emo as fuck for the '80s.