“[Sobriety] became such a thing,” he says. “It was so goddamn important to everyone but me. You start to feel like the two guys in the Smiths who wanted to eat cheeseburgers but had to pretend not to. I understand that kids look up to me, that some people might have gotten sober because of me. But it’s not an important thing for me anymore.” You’re no one’s savior, you mean. “Hell no.” He pauses. “But that was a fun image to play with. Because even if you miss the mark, you’re probably gonna be a pretty remarkable person. Shoot for savior, and end up being rad.”
— Gerard Way, SPIN December 2010 cover story
It’s a strange thing to say, but it seems that My Chemical Romance could’ve learned a few lessons from Green Day.
Although few people would have guessed that Green Day’s 2004 rock opera American Idiot could have revived their sagging commercial fortunes, we were all proved wrong as the album turned into the band’s biggest success since Dookie, going so far as to garner the band multiple Grammy wins and a hit Broadway musical as well. Then again, the songs were solid, the storyline wasn’t too far out there, and square in the middle of Bush’s presidency, a little musical rebellion never hurt anyone. When it came time to follow a commercial juggernaut like that, however, all Green Day could muster was a watered down retread of those same themes some five years later, and although 2009’s 21st Century Breakdown wasn’t bad by any means, it assuredly wasn’t the homerun that Idiot was, as its story was harder to follow, its message was hard to interpret, and — to be downright blunt — its songs just weren’t as good. At least Idiot had a sense of urgency to it; after all, following a few underperforming albums, the band had something to prove. With Breakdown, you could see Billie Joe and co. settle into a bit of a comfort zone.
Now, with Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, it’s clear that My Chemical Romance is having extremely similar “rock opera follow up” problems, even though the circumstances are notably different.
When My Chemical Romance broke through with 2004’s Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, the ludicrously-catchy singles “I’m Not OK (I Promise)” and “Helena” (aided by its fantastic video) got the band notice, and before long MCR had become emo-rock darlings, which was a title that frontman Gerard Way would take, even if he wasn’t 100% happy with it. Although Three Cheers and 2002’s debut I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love were considered concept albums by the band and their fans, those discs generally worked because they didn’t hew too strongly to the idea that every song must have characters and subplots and whathaveyou. Even without those considerations, most of MCR’s songs still contained a heavy sense of drama, no doubt aided by Way’s comic-book background. Really, those first two discs more closely paralleled something like the Smashing Pumpkins’ Machina: if you really wanted to find a storyline in there, you could, but for casual fans, it was still a rocking-good time.
Yet when MCR re-emerged in 2006 with The Black Parade, it soon became obvious that their ambitions stretched much farther than the pages of Alternative Press. With its Liza Minnelli cameos, hidden tracks, and new touchstones in the form of Queen and Mark Bolan, the group took a huge risk in reinventing themselves, but it was a gamble that paid off brilliantly, as not only did the clearly-defined concept hold water, but the songs themselves were remarkably considered, resulting in some of their best tracks to date (with the ridiculously simple single “Teenagers” standing out well above them all). Yet creating an epic rock opera and living it every day of their lives were two very different realities, and after two years of relentless touring under the concept, the band was exhausted. When they eventually reconvened in the studio with uber-producer Brendan O’Brien, the dark, sludgy sessions they made proved to be not up to snuff for the group, and so they brought back Black Parade producer Rob Cavallo (who, incidentally, produced American Idiot as well), and before long, the multi-colored, desert-washed, post-apocalyptic concept album Danger Days emerged.
Gone is black eyeliner and moody introspection, and in its place is a much more synth-happy, pop-ready form of MCR, here crafting the most deliberately upbeat set of songs they’ve ever penned. As lead single “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)” proves, the group is all into surging tempos this time around, creating songs that are almost deliberately innocuous, but never too far divorced from Way’s unique lyrical bents (“Let me tell you ’bout the sad man / Shut up and let me see your jazz hands / Remember when you were a mad man? / Thought you was Batman / And hit the party with a gas can? / Kiss me you animal!”). Notice how during the bridge, the noodling guitar solo sounds like it was ripped almost verbatim from the pre-chorus of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers theme song. Given the album’s concept about fighting creatures called Draculoids, attacking an evil multi-national corporation called Better Living Industries, and how the promo music videos so far have shown the band having intense laser gun fights in the desert, it all begins to make sense: the band isn’t going for Umbrella Academy seriousness with this disc — just some out-and-out fanboy fun. (Order the album’s deluxe edition, and you’ll even get a ray gun for yourself!)
Unfortunately, it is at this point that Danger Days begins to fall apart. Of the album’s 15 tracks, three are devoted to DJ Dr. Death Defy’s pirate radio broadcasts which are, presumably, supposed to update us on how the album’s story is unfolding — but these tracks prove to be more annoying than enlightening. The band is obviously trying to go the concept album route here — never reaching full on rock-opera bombast, mind you — but by mixing radio anthems with spoken-word interludes, all without any true sense of character mixed in to the lyrics (just more vague “me” and “you” references, like any rock album), MCR defeat their own concept before it even launches off the ground.
Take wannabe anthem “SING” for example: it’s a passable mid-tempo rocker, but with lines like “For every time that they want to count you out / Then use your voice every single time you open up your mouth”, it’s obvious that MCR have suddenly gone MOR. It’s as if every genuine exciting moment on Danger Days is balanced out by some hackneyed, generic attempt to write that one killer crossover track; for every stomper like “DESTROYA”, there’s a powerfully underwhelming tune like “The Only Hope for Me is You”. And although tracks like “Bulletproof Heart” and “Save Yourself, I’ll Hold Them Back” aren’t bad by any means, it’s still obvious that the band isn’t showcasing the chops that brought them to where they are today.
It’s strange, then, that for all of the talk of this disc being the band’s attempt at “synth-pop” (which isn’t really true at all), the strongest tracks are actually stepped in a very specific, unusual influence: Britpop. Listen to unquestionable highlight “Planetary (GO!)”, whose danceable chorus and club-oriented style sound like it was updated wholesale from Blur’s “Girls & Boys”. Instead of merely aping Blur’s classic, though, MCR synthesize it into something that’s entirely their own, fueling it with enough drama and paranoia to make it one of the most lyrically biting tracks on the album, filled with hope and young despair despite the colorful, towering synths all around it. “S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W”, meanwhile, could very well pass for a mid-era Oasis composition (well, at least one written by Gem Archer), while the stunning pop nugget “The Kids From Yesterday” may have very well been a cover of a Pulp track, circa His ‘n’ Hers era. Amidst all the colored masks and post-apocalyptic hubbub, it’s easy to forget that a band like My Chemical Romance don’t hide their influences as much as they put them front-and-center: it’s just a lot more fun for people (us rock critics included) to write about Draculoids than where they’re finding new musical inspirations from.
With that said, though, Danger Days is a far cry from the artistic plane that The Black Parade sits on: it’s a decent pop-rock album, a disastrously confused concept album, and even with its marketing, much is left to be desired (for a Better Living Industries promo video, this is the best they could come up with?). Danger Days is an interesting diversion, and perhaps a needed break from a band whose stock and trade has been doom and gloom for the better part of last decade, but this is not the guilty-pleasure masterpiece that MCR is desperately hoping it will be. Even on the order page for that aforementioned Deluxe Edition, it notes how although fans will receive the album soon, the rest of the box set won’t ship until early next year, due to “manufacturing issues with the ray guns”, showing that even with good intentions and a giddy sense of fanboy fun, creating a whole new universe for people to dive into requires some solid ideas to begin with.