When I say “emo”, a very specific image probably comes to mind: Black hair with long, side swept bangs covering one or both eyes, black clothing, and lots and lots of eyeliner. And no band is more commonly associated with this style and emo as a whole than My Chemical Romance. Formed in 2001 as frontman Gerard Way’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, MCR quickly gained a following due to their dark appearance and dramatic style. Their sophomore album, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge turned them into rock radio darlings with hits like “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” and “Helena”.
However, 2006 would see MCR release their most ambitious project yet: The Black Parade, a rock opera about a young man reflecting on his life as he dies from cancer. This ambition would pay off, becoming the most commercially successful and iconic album of their career. Now, with the band reunited after their 2013 breakup, finally embarking on a twice-delayed tour and releasing their first new song in nearly a decade, it seems appropriate to revisit MCR’s magnum opus.
The album opens with a track ironically titled, “The End.” While it’s commonplace for albums to begin with something high-energy and catchy, perhaps even the lead single, “The End.”opens with the sound of a heart monitor beeping, leading into an acoustic ballad that sounds like the song of a medieval minstrel. On this track, Gerard Way introduces himself as the protagonist and primary narrator of The Black Parade, The Patient. This enchantingly unique opener eventually swells into a full band performance right at the end before abruptly cutting off.
In one of the best transitions in rock music, the sudden cutoff of “The End.” is followed by the sound of the aforementioned heart monitor flatlining that opens the aptly titled “Dead!”. This track introduces the plot, with a doctor telling The Patient that he’s as good as dead, with just two weeks to live. Despite the somber subject matter, “Dead!” is fast-paced and high energy, featuring punchy guitars played by guitarists Frank Iero and Ray Toro. Combined with an infectiously fun solo by Toro and childlike “la la la”s by Gerard to close out the track, “Dead!” sets a perfectly blended tone that’s both cynical and tongue-in-cheek.
The energy and theatrics continue throughout the next few tracks, leading up to the album’s lead single and the band;’s most iconic song, “Welcome to the Black Parade”. Inspired by Gerard Way’s belief that death comes in the form of one’s fondest memory (in the case of The Patient, seeing a marching band as a young boy), “Welcome to the Black Parade” is a summary of everything that makes this album great. The track shifts from a piano ballad to a pop-punk banger without sacrificing any of the drama. Gerard Way’s triumphant calls of “we’ll carry on” in the chorus give the song an irresistible fist-pumping energy and introduce the primary theme of the album: perseverance. With Bob Bryar’s marching band-inspired drums thematically tying the track together at the end of the piano intro, during the bridge, and throughout the outro, “Welcome to the Black Parade” is a microcosm for the album as a whole that puts the whole band’s talents on full display.
While The Black Parade excels in performance, writing, and style, it falls short in organization. Most artists don’t have to worry much about the order in which songs appear on their album; however, proper organization is essential on a concept album like The Black Parade. When an album wants to tell a story, it’s important the pages of that story, the songs, are correctly ordered. Perhaps the biggest offender on this album is “House of Wolves”, a menacing yet danceable track where The Patient contemplates whether or not he’s going to Hell after he dies, set to a jazz-inspired rhythm. While I have no particular complaints about the concept nor the execution, this track was placed between “I Don’t Love You”, a heartbreaking power ballad, and “Cancer”, a piano-led track featuring the album’s most brutally blunt lyrics. The similar style of these tracks makes them a natural choice to be put together in the track listing, but “House of Wolves” completely interrupts the flow in both the narrative and the musical style. The track would’ve been much better placed earlier in the album with the other high-energy tracks between “Dead!” and “Welcome to the Black Parade”.
Despite being a clear contender for MCR’s second most iconic song, track 11, “Teenagers” suffers from a similar issue. It’s a great song, featuring snarly vocals and bluesy guitars dripping with teenage angst and aggression. Unfortunately, the lyrical content that details the mutually terrifying adversarial relationship between teenagers and adult authority figures seems entirely unrelated to The Patient’s story. The song’s bluesy style is not matched anywhere else on the album either. And just like “House of Wolves”, it interrupts the flow between two tonally and sonically similar songs, “Sleep” and “Disenchanted”. As much as I love “Teenagers”, it should have been relegated to the B-sides, or perhaps a one-off single.
Upon first listen, it may seem that track 9, “Mama” is also out of place. The song is about a young soldier at war acknowledging his imminent death in combat, feeling disgusted by the things he’s had to do as a soldier and trying to patch up his relationship with his equally-disgusted mother before he never sees her again. While the story seems unrelated to that of The Patient, the essential message is not only relevant, but essential to the narrative of The Black Parade. Previous tracks show The Patient reflecting on his reckless and inconsiderate life choices and wondering how they’ll affect his fate in the afterlife. In “Mama”, he comes to a conclusion: he’s going to Hell. With instrumentals that sound like a twisted carnival and Way’s wailing vocals, “Mama” is easily the most theatrical track on The Black Parade and my personal pick for the album’s strongest moment.
In a dramatic and theatrical album like The Black Parade, a grand finale is essential. The closing track, “Famous Last Words”, is just that. Similarly to “Welcome to the Black Parade”, “Famous Last Words” is a light of hope in an otherwise cynical album, pushing the album’s theme of perseverance with the powerful line of “I am not afraid to keep on living”; over the years this line would become a battle cry for young emos plagued by mental illness. But what really sells the message is the hidden track that follows it: “Blood”. 90 seconds of silence follow the triumphant conclusion of “Famous Last Words” and thus, The Black Parade, before starting “Blood”, a chipper, old-timey song only featuring Gerard Way’s vocals and piano. The song’s bitter and tongue-in-cheek lyrics carry a simple message: this world sucks the life out of you, and living kinda blows. It’s this message that helps “Famous Last Words” feel so genuine. MCR encourages listeners to choose life while not sugar coating how awful it often is.
To this day, My Chemical Romance rejects the label of “emo”, and with the awful connotations the term carried in the 2000s, those feelings are unsurprising. Despite this, The Black Parade holds up 16 years later as the quintessential emo album and one of the greatest rock albums of the 21st century.