So I was watching the end credits of a recent episode of The Umbrella Academy and happened to catch the name of its creator. Gerard Way? How do I know that name? A quick Google search later, and I remember: It’s that guy from My Chemical Romance, a band I’d never listened to but somehow still knew its vocalist’s name. Brains are weird.
Some people are lucky to be open minded from an early age, but that’s a quality I’ve had to cultivate (thanks, mildly intolerant upbringing!). I definitely ignored My Chemical Romance back in their early-2000s heyday. The high-key theatrics, scene-kid hairdos, gothic marching band uniforms, and druggy-sounding band name were a very hard pass for me. But now? Why not give them a chance?
I picked The Black Parade because it’s widely regarded as the band’s best and most popular album. I’ve enjoyed watching The Umbrella Academy, so I’m not sure why I expected anything less, but The Black Parade is surprisingly good! I can see why many people point to this as one of the most epic and important albums of their lives. It’s huge, theatrical, and deeply emotional, and the music is a lot more diverse and creative than the whatever-that-means “emo” label would suggest. I also didn’t expect it to rock this hard. There are elements of punk, hard rock, alternative, and classic rock, and and the influence of Queen—specifically—is readily apparent in many songs.
The Black Parade is a rock opera that finds the main character, a man called The Patient, at the end of his losing battle with cancer. Some of the songs are set in the present, some look to the future, and some are scenes of The Patient’s life flashing before his eyes. Believing he is going to Hell for all the terrible things he’s done, he reflects on his life and struggles with how to leave his relationships with his mother, his lover, and himself before he dies. Gerard is an incredible vocalist and summons amazing intensity for each of The Patient’s vignettes.
In at least two of the music videos, the band dons the persona of The Black Parade, the “marching” band that welcomes The Patient to the afterlife. Part of the album’s mythology is that death summons a person’s fondest memory, in this case The Patient’s memory of his father taking him to see a marching band when he was a kid. (Twist: this is also a memory from Gerard’s life, blurring the lines between fiction and autobiography.) Of course, death has distorted the memory into a sort of post-apocalyptic parade of the dead, perhaps mirroring The Patient’s final destination. “Welcome To The Black Parade” is one of the coolest music videos I’ve ever seen. The character designs, camera angles, and other visual treatments are extremely comic book-like, not to mention the almost inhuman passion in Gerard’s performance. It’s totally over the top and amazing.
This is all pretty dark subject matter, for sure, but it’s also strangely uplifting in places. I appreciate this record’s ambition to knit together a complex emotional narrative, like a graphic novel set to music. I found myself really getting into it, following along with the lyrics and other sources to fill in the blanks. There’s so much craft going on beneath the surface, giving body to The Patient’s terrifying burden. The way The Patient cycles between feelings of hope & hopelessness, regret & resolve, and surrender & resistance really speaks to the conflicting relationship many people have with themselves. The final song makes it unclear if The Patient is actually going to die or not, hinting that he may be ready to fight the cancer and live, despite the consequences he may face.
Time will tell if this is something I’ll come back to on the regular, but it sure was a journey to listen to this album a few times while following along with the lyrics and others’ documentation. If you’re genuinely curious, Madison Murray’s The Storyline And Intricacies Of My Chemical Romance’s 2006 Classic The Black Parade is a really great read for understanding more of the album’s backstory and mythology.