Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Albums You Should Own, Part the Third

My Chemical Romance - The Black Parade

Believe me, this one was as much of a surprise to me at the time as it probably is for you. Most of the reviews I have read for Gerard Way's very good Umbrella Academy series for Dark House usually begin with some kind of dismissal of Way's day job, i.e. as singer and songwriter for My Chemical Romance, one of the most popular rock acts of the last five years or so who aren't named Nickleback. I don't listen to a lot - read, hardly any - hard rock anymore, but something about MCR grabbed my attention from the first time I heard their single "Helena", off 2004's Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge.

In the first place, the music is incredibly tuneful. One of the reasons why so much contemporary hard rock leaves me cold is that it just isn't very interesting. Pop music of all varieties lives and breathes on the strength of its hooks. Hooks can be wildly different depending on what genre of music you're listening to - certainly, Leonard Cohen circa 1969 wrote vastly different kinds of songs than Metallica circa 1986, but both Songs From A Room and Master of Puppets are filled with hooks. Whether we're talking about the subtle, deceptively gentle Vaudeville stage hook at the turn of "Bird on the Wire" or the violent, flesh-rending meat hook of "Master of Puppets, there's something there that grabs the listener's interest, something visceral that makes the songs themselves dynamic and alive in a way that remains separate from - albeit extraordinarily complementary to - the lyrical or sonic qualities. I've heard loads and loads of literate, well-written contemporary folk that is obviously heartfelt and even compelling on a lyrical basis that is nevertheless about as interesting to listen to as drying paint. For all Dylan's lyrical acumen, he understood that "Desolation Row" wouldn't have been at all interesting if the words weren't wrapped up in a compelling, deceptively placid melody - one of Dylan's best, actually. Similarly, strong hooks and compelling energy have salvaged any number of rock albums beset by poor lyrics - I mean, seriously, I love David Bowie like a house on fire, but if you printed the complete lyrics to Aladdin Sane in a chapbook completely separate from their music context, they would be laughable. (Admittedly, that's probably Bowie's weakest album - lyrically - from his classic period, but Bowie has never been a great lyricist, and is in fact probably the weakest lyricist among all of his peers in the "classic" rock canon, despite having recorded far more than his share of the greatest rock albums ever.)

So, for all Gerard Way's "weakness" as a lyricist he nevertheless understands the emotive power of pop music like few of his contemporary peers. In some ways, yes, the band betrays its roots in the regrettable early to mid 00s swamp of light metal / punk influenced "emo", a branch of music so enduringly uninteresting to me that I can't even recall the names of any of the bands I don't like. But there's something fresh in My Chemical Romance's sound that sets them apart from any of the similar bands with whom they might be compared. If I had to pinpoint what that "X" factor was, I'd probably say something to the effect that MCR seem to have a healthier relation to their forebears and influences than most contemporary rock acts. Because, if we're honest, we'll admit that almost all pop music is highly derivative of what came before - it's just that some bands manage to be more endearing and honest in their filching than others.

This is, roughly, the same kind of attitude Way uses to approach The Umbrella Academy. It's obvious that Way grew up reading the same "classic" mainstream books that most superhero fans of his age range did - Claremont's Uncanny X-Men, Wolfman & Perez's Teen Titans, Miller's Daredevil. But most contemporary superhero comics fail for the simple reason that they try to pretend they're somehow something radically different from their forebears. Secret Invasion tried to pretend it was something besides a warmed-over version of Invasion! mixed with bits and bobs of every other paranoid late 80s crossover from either company. In the end it couldn't mask the fact that all those other stories at least had a strong enough grasp on the basics of craft and engineering required to tell superhero stories on an epic scale that they remain - if not high art - at least readable and coherent, whereas Secret Invasion was neither readable nor coherent, and couldn't mask these basic faults with all the David Mamet dialogue in the world. The Umbrella Academy makes no bones about its influences - for all intents and purposes it's the jam comic that Claremont and Wolfman never got to make, with some of Grant Morrison's early verve thrown in for good measure. But Way doesn't disregard the mechanical necessities of producing this kind of comic in favor of pretending what he's doing is somehow all that different. It's not, not really. But where it succeeds as more than a pastiche is the way Way uses his influences as the solid foundation for what comes after your influences, that is, his own personal spin on the well-trod territory of a cobbled together post-nuclear family of modern superheroes with deep oedipal issues concerning their father figures. What happens in The Umbrella Academy isn't particularly novel, but I want to read more about those characters and their adventures in a way I haven't cared about the actual X-Men or Teen Titans in decades.

Way takes the same approach to his songwriting for MCR as he does The Umbrella Academy. He begins with an honest appraisal of his basic influences, and then proceeds forward with a strong understanding both of how these influences worked and how to tweak them in order to achieve his individual artistic goals. Again, all art is derivative to some extent or another - it's not a matter of being unoriginal, it's a matter of how you use your influences (because everyone starts out as little more than the sum total of their influences) as a prism to reflect your own sensibilities that dictates your success. Bendis totally failed in his two attempts as creating massive, line-wide crossover epics (House of M & Secret Invasion) because he very obviously didn't understand the basic mechanics necessary to make a story like Infinity Gauntlet or the original Crisis readable in the first place, let alone interesting. My Chemical Romance aren't trying to reinvent the wheel. Rather, they've got their influences pretty obviously written on their sleeves - Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Queen, Iron Maiden, the Smiths, a touch of early 90s pop punk in the vein of Green Day. But the most important thing is that they seem to honestly understand how these bands and albums worked, not merely on the visceral stylistic level but on the nuts-and-bolts level of practical execution necessary to make listeners care about this kind of elaborate and ornate, emotional and theatrical epic rock and roll.

It's comparable, say, to how Bendis thought his two-page spreads in Secret Invasion would work just like previous climactic spreads in previous crossovers, even though he totally failed to provide the necessary scut work to establish setting and context, and rather depended on the audience's familiarity with tropes to provide a story significance that couldn't be guessed without recourse to extra-contextual data. In the original Crisis, for instance, Wolfman goes out of his way to "sell" Superman in a way that you wouldn't think necessary in the context of a story specifically about Superman's fifty-plus years of continual publication. But he understands that every character and every concept needs its justification in the present context or it refuses to be necessary and merely becomes vestigial. Superman works as the emotional center of Wolfman's sprawling, so-big-it's-probably-sui-generis epic because Wolfman takes the time to tell us why Superman is the emotional lynchpin, why the events are important to him and therefore to the reader as well. Bendis just assumes we've already read all the build-up and tie-ins, so the result is lazy, complacent and just about dead. He assumes we care without doing the hard work necessary to ensure that we do.

That's how I'd describe the majority of rock I hear these days - when I actually hear new rock on the radio, that is. My Chemical Romance go the extra mile by not merely suggesting but insisting the listener insert as much of him or herself as possible into the emotional context of the songs. They do this the old fashioned way: constructing their songs with consummate care, not merely assuming their listeners will be familiar with their influences, but approaching every song as if it might be someone's first ever exposure to rock & roll, and therefore their best chance to convince that person of just how awesome - how evocative, how lurid, how grandiose and how epic - rock & roll can truly be. This is why, like early Bowie, Way's best lyrics arise from those simple moments when he addresses the listener themselves, making an honest emotional appeal that, despite its familiarity, never fails to convince.

It's become a cliche of music writing for the past decade, far more so in recent years than ever before, to begin a review by going down a laundry list of the act's influences and forebears (I've done it myself more than a few times). That's because, like superhero comics, rock music long ago entered a state of advanced, attenuated decadence best encapsulated by the music's dependence on the constant bartering of dead symbols to signify present significance. Little care is taken to ensure that these symbols actually remain significant, because the assumption is made that this significance is a given among the remaining, die-hard fanbase. The group's CV is offered with equal significance alongside the work itself.

What significance does a band like Vampire Weekend possess besides the list of their formidable influences? I've got the album, I've listened to it a few times, it absolutely fails to hold my attention despite the protestations of hundreds of music bloggers - including some whose opinion I actually respect - telling me that I should like it and why. The band itself doesn't seem to want to take the effort to convince me why I should care, and it shouldn't be the job of the critic to finish the work left half-accomplished by the artist. On the contrary, I've never read a single glowing review of My Chemical Romance by any member of the ostensible hipster music press, no rundown of their accomplishments and forebears besides what could be easily discerned from listening to the music itself. You've got your Queen, your Bowie, your 80s pop metal (Maiden! Priest!), your maudlin 80s indie (The Smiths! The The!) Those are obvious, and if you've got a strong dislike for any of those types of music, then MCR are not for you. But more than simply name-checking "Bohemian Rhapsody", they understand that Queen's theatricality only works if the band commits itself wholeheartedly to the artifice. They understand that the Smiths weren't just morbidly depressing, they were also fuckin' funny, and the reason why The Queen Is Dead remains such a great album almost two and a half decades later is that Morrissey's punchlines are still as funny as ever. You've got to sweat for every ounce of the audience's suspension of disbelief. You can't get by, like Billy Corrigan, on some kind of faux-grandeur undercut by winking irony. For all their faults, I have never believed anything but that My Chemical Romance are absolutely 100% committed to making the best rock & roll they know how to make, and that they've invested everything they have into making me believe in their ability to do so.

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