Let’s start with something potentially embarrassing: every day, I try to read about one Pitchfork review. The review doesn’t have to be for an act I know of, I don’t have to agree with it or disagree with it, I don’t have to listen to the album afterward; it’s just part of my routine. The music itself is beside the point; I just like seeing how people write, and sometimes I’ll find a new idea or phrase I like. A few years back now, I was reading Ian Cohen on Wavves’ then-new EP Life Sux, and at one point, Cohen makes the off-hand remark that maybe Wavves’ previous album King of the Beach was “the record he was put on this earth to make.”
Tabling discussion on the merits of Nathan Williams’ discography, the idea of a given album being the record a band was put on this earth to make has always stayed with me, and I don’t think there’s a truer instance of it than with My Chemical Romance’s 3rd album The Black Parade, which turns 10 today. That it’s the band’s best album is a foregone conclusion; it’s also their best-selling (double platinum in the US and UK, platinum in 5 other countries), the purest distillation of their essence, and it still has a cultural footprint. Go to a theme park for a day, and you’ll still see at least one kid sporting a My Chem shirt with that marching band skeleton on it.
And that marching band skeleton matters because aesthetic has always counted for a lot (like, a lot) for My Chemical Romance. It’s largely immaterial that their heavy makeup look, red and black wardrobe, and campy horror/sci-fi overtones borrow heavily from The Misfits and horror punk/’80s goth in general, the point is they adapted it with near perfection for the MySpace generation with 2004’s Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge. As that album caught on, more and more scene kids started getting into ornate all black outfits and black fingerless gloves. You can even see MCR’s immediate impact on their contemporaries’ aesthetic: Fall Out Boy look like normal dudes in a band for their “Sugar, We’re Going Down” video, MCR’s highly stylized/Tim Burton-ized/choreographed video for “Helena” comes a month later, and suddenly someone’s giving FOB’s extras dance lessons and bought Pete Wentz some eyeliner (side note: FOB’s lowkey careerism is almost inspiring). By 2006, MCR lead singer Gerard Way was responsible for more eye makeup and black hair dye than Billie Joe Armstrong.
It was a surprise, then, when Way first appeared bleach blond, and with the band in matching marching band uniforms to ring in The Black Parade era. The “Welcome to the Black Parade” video was a blindsider: this band had sounded and looked more or less true to life before, but here they are leading a parade as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Death Cult Band that is supposed to guide someone to the afterlife? And Way bleached his hair to become the album’s protagonist The Patient, who is dying of cancer? The song itself was a change-up, too; these scuzzy, former hardcore punk kids were back with a polished song that dared include a piano introduction, martial drumming, and downright Queen-esque guitar solos. “Welcome to the Black Parade”–all 5 minutes of it–was stock pop-punk underneath it all, but the clarity of execution and grander scale caught lots of fans off-guard. Way had telegraphed this, though, in an interview the year before by saying that MCR was patterning their career after The Smashing Pumpkins, that the first album was discovering their sound, the second was refining it for a broader audience, and the third would be actualization.
Now, as a Pumpkins lifer and My Chem casual, I feel like Way compared my favorite album ever to a decent if filler-heavy record just to one day piss me off, but after the fanrage subsides, I admit there’s something to equating The Black Parade to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. They both lead with quietish intro tracks that segue into explosive numbers, and in spite of both records being the most stylistically diverse that each band got, they’re incredibly front-loaded with straight ahead rockers whose momentum crests with lead singles. Each gets deliberately kooky in their back half, which sees the band do some of their quietest and loudest work, although Billy Corgan never thought to have a Liza Minnelli cameo buried in with his heavy metal histrionics. But, more than structural similarities, what Mellon Collie and The Black Parade share is an expansive, edge of the world ideology. You can hear each band push every idea they have as far as possible on these albums. Wanna do a slash and burn power ballad? Okay, here’s “Sleep.” Three Cheers-style, bashed-out wailers? Enjoy “The Sharpest Lives.” Not only does My Chem lean into their theatric side with the cabaret of “Mama” (hi, Liza!), but they mash it up with Iron Maiden worship, too. And “Teenagers” isolates the strands of sarcastic, stooge-y (and Stooges-y) DNA in the band’s composition.
Just as the Bald Man justified Mellon Collie‘s scope by calling guitar rock passe, MCR’s Queen, Pink Floyd, Bowie, and Beatles influences on The Black Parade can be explained at least in part by the band trying to get as far afield from the “emo” tag as possible. This ended up being a right place/right time move: in hindsight, 2006 is the line in the sand between the cathartic, hard-charging stuff of the emo breakthrough and the poppier, less engaged (read: shittier) dance-influenced stuff that would eventually devolve into scene-pop. Similar to how My Chem distanced themselves from emo with classic rock on TBP, FOB would go further into arena rock and soul, original breakthrough acts like Taking Back Sunday and Jimmy Eat World spent the mid to late ’00s making “mature” records, and even carpet baggers Panic! at the Disco laid low in their own Sgt. Peppers’ disguises for their next album. Gerard Way would eventually take things even further by declaring emo to be “A pile of shit” in a post-Black Parade world.
Even if not everything on the album works, an awful lot of it does. Opening on a The Wall-inspired note with “The End.” and launching into the zany “Dead!” is MCR’s most satisfying one-two, “House of Wolves” is a still a reliable venom spitter, and “Sleep” is a one-up on Three Cheers‘ “The Ghost of You.” “Mama” might be the most off-kilter thing on here and thrives because of it, and I like the string and piano ballad “Cancer” so much that not even an abysmal Twenty One Pilots cover can sink it (second side note: my reaction to Twenty One Pilots covering MCR shouldn’t be “Huh, this needs to be more melodramatic and obnoxious,” but here we are). “Cancer” works so well because it conveys how tortured and shriveled The Patient is through the writing and performance, not blustery volume; as far as macabre lyrics go, it’s hard to top “Baby, I’m just soggy from the chemo.” Elsewhere, the not-quite-filler stuff like “This Is How I Disappear” or “Disenchanted” still sounds fine due to Rob Cavallo’s production.
You can tell The Black Parade is the album My Chemical Romance was put on this earth to make, not just because it’s a culmination of everything they’d done before, but because they had such a hard time following it up. The band originally planned on a hard and fast follow-up recorded with rock producer Brendan O’Brien, but those sessions were shelved due to the band’s dissatisfaction with the end product. After scrapping more material, Way started working in January of 2010 on what would be released that fall as Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, a concept album about desert renegades fighting against a corporate dystopia (10 songs from the O’Brien sessions would be later released as a compilation album). Taking the The Smashing Pumpkins’ comparison further than Way intended, MCR never made their “falling from the peak in slow motion” record ala Adore, but Danger Days is definitely their Machina: the flailing, end of the line, rawk album unaware of its own desperation. MCR would break up in 2013 without another proper record.
I haven’t heard any chatter about Danger Days since its release, but The Black Parade ended up making waves again earlier this year. A teaser video of sorts went up on MCR’s YouTube page in July, and immediately the internet went wild with speculation over a possible reunion tour. In the end, the teaser was for a not especially interesting looking TBP special edition that came and went without much other promotion, but the instant hype around even a potential tour proved this band and this album resonated with a lot of people, and it still does. I get why: it’s a melodramatic rock album with camp for days, and perfectly tailored for anyone whose ever felt angsty and grandiose, and kids will never stop being part of that parade.