Friday Flashback: The Black Parade

When I decided to use this week’s Song of the Week to promote Honeyblood’s new album, Babes Never Die, I did so without realizing that it was the tenth anniversary of My Chemical Romance’s seminal album The Black Parade. So I decided to make up for it with a full album review.

For those who don’t know, the album is a concept album telling the story of The Patient, who is dying of cancer. The album chronicles his death, journey through the afterlife, and his reflections on his life. Gerard Way based the story on his own idea that death comes to people in the form of their fondest memory — hence the titular parade. This review will contain some of my own interpretations of the songs and their roles in the story, so if you have different ideas, feel free to express them in the comments.

I don’t really understand how some of the tracks fit in the narrative, but I’ll do my best to figure out whatever I can and address it.

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  1. “The End” — Given that the theme of the album is a dying cancer patient, opening with a heart rate monitor is appropriate. I feel like the softer, cleaner parts of the song have a bit of a country vibe. The whole thing is very theatrical and serves as a great opening track, especially with how much the lyrics sound like some sort of carnival barker inviting people to a show. The song transitions perfectly with a flatline into…

  2. “Dead!” — Narrative-wise, I think it’s pretty obvious where this fits. It’s a raucous rock track, and though it’s only one voice I would argue it’s sort of a conversation with death. It’s full of doubt — just look at the chorus — and incredulity, perhaps, of the idea of being dead. The ending is almost mocking the idea of life as something important, and mocking  The Patient as he learns of his apparent death.

  3. “This Is How I Disappear” — I assume this song is a sort of farewell to those left behind, and a reluctant acceptance of an eternity in the afterlife without those loved ones. It hearkens back in a lot of ways to their previous album, Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge. Way’s vocals get pretty rough around the bridge. It’s not one of my favorites, but it’s a good track.

  4. “The Sharpest Lives” — This one honestly feels like it could have been on Three Cheers. I’m not sure how it fits into the story, but I have a lot of fun listening to it nonetheless. It also makes me wonder why the band seems to like vampires so much. The slip mentions of them into a few songs here and there. And while it makes sense with “Vampire Money,” given that it’s a barely-veiled jab at the Twilight movies, the others seem like it was done for the hell of it.

  5. “Welcome to the Black Parade” — This is it. The core of the album and the band’s magnum opus. If I were asked to pick one song to describe a rock opera, this would be my second choice, but only because “Bohemian Rhapsody” exists. As I mentioned earlier, the afterlife comes for The Patient in the form of a parade. The Black Parade is the march through death into the great beyond. The lines “And one day I’ll leave you a phantom/To lead you in the summer/To join the black parade” particularly interesting. I guess because I like the image of The Patient’s father as a ghost leading him to the afterlife, the Virgil to The Patient’s Dante. The song is musically perfect, matching the cadence of the opening verses with a military-style drum beat as the parade marches on. The military drums return during the defiant bridge, as The Patient declares that he isn’t afraid of what lies ahead. The song is everything the centerpiece of a concept album should be.

  6. “I Don’t Love You” — I’d imagine this falls under the category of “reflections on life,” and that the song is about a nasty break-up. It feels uncharacteristically mellow, which is odd since it’s not the only slower song on the album. But maybe that’s just me. At any rate, it’s a good song, though for such a relatively soft track, some of the lyrics are particularly cutting.

  7. “House of Wolves” — If I had to guess, and I suppose I do, I’d guess our Patient had a loss of faith in a big way. Possibly because of the whole dying-of-an-incurable-disease thing. That would do it. “House of Wolves” is one of the hardest tracks on the album, opening with a “Sing, Sing, Sing” style drum pattern and not letting go until the last chord. You can almost see Gerard Way standing at a pulpit and shouting this one out like one of those TV preachers selling fire and brimstone. Which means it pairs very nicely with Green Day’s “East Jesus Nowhere.”

  8. “Cancer” — A jarringly soft track coming on the heels of “House of Wolves,” but probably, to my mind, the most beautiful track the band ever recorded. It’s pretty obviously about The Patient’s pain as he goes through the agonizingly slow end of his life while his loved ones helplessly watch him fade away. I am well aware of the fact that that is probably the single most depressing sentence I have ever written. The acoustic version may be even more powerful than the original.

  9. “Mama” — A jaunty little tune about war, and, I’m guessing, PTSD, featuring Liza Minnelli in an altogether-too-short cameo. It’s a pretty powerful song if you take it in the context of a war song. There’s fear, regret, depression, self-loathing; basically everything you’d ever want from a song about the horrors of war. The ending, with violins and, oddly enough, an accordion, as well as a weeping Liza Minnelli, is a bit odd, though. It evokes images of Venice, to me, which feels a little weird for this track, but also somehow perfect.

  10. “Sleep” — If “Mama” isn’t about PTSD, I’m almost certain there are at least elements of it here. But there’s also a streak of accepting your past without regrets; a feeling that what’s done is done and you can’t spend your life apologizing and regretting it. It’s a song of pain and redemption. It’s also one of those tracks that’s really good when it’s on, but is kind of forgettable otherwise. The static-filled samples at the start, bridge, and end of the song evoke images of a man on a psychiatrist’s couch.

  11. “Teenagers” — I don’t even know how to guess where this fits in the story. I’ve always been under the impression that it’s about school shootings, but there’s nothing that leads me to believe The Patient was ever involved in one. “Teenagers” is one of the band’s most famous songs, and it’s easy to see why. The lyrics call on that feeling of being somehow different and excluded in high school, which, if I know their demographic, a great deal of their fans could probably relate to. The song is catchy and fun to listen to. It basically nails all of the requirements to be a hit single. For some reason I’ve always gotten a bit of a country feel from it, but I’m probably just crazy.

  12. “Disenchanted” — This is probably one of their best written songs, and the guitar riff behind the first verse is one of my favorites. While many of the songs seem to be about specific parts of The Patient’s life, “Disenchanted” takes a broad view of that life in general. It’s about past mistakes, past joys, and how growing older colors your experiences and strips them of the innocence and wonder they once held. It’s about regret in the moment of death, and about living life without those regrets. It’s about learning from the past. As I see it, the song is aimed at one of two people — The Patient’s child, assuming he has one, or The Patient’s younger self. Either way, it’s an incredibly powerful song (writing about it has me choked up a bit), and it only becomes more powerful the older you get.

  13. “Famous Last Words” — The epic ending of an epic album, “Famous Last Words” is full of raw power and intense defiance. I’d argue that it’s impossible to listen to this song and want to give up on life, or anything, for that matter. I take the song to be sung from two points of view — that of the Patient’s ghost speaking to his loved ones, and the loved ones speaking to The Patient after he’s passed from this world. I don’t think there could be a better way to end the album than bringing it full circle, right back to the hospital room it started in. Again, that’s just how I interpret it. The flow and meaning of the story is very subjective, I think.

  14. “Blood” — There’s about a minute and a half of silence before this one begins, as it’s basically a hidden bonus track. The bouncing piano and Way’s mock-British accent remind me of a carnival sideshow — but not a good one, one of those things where people in sheets wiggle around and make high-pitched moaning sounds. I’m not really sure how — or if — this fits into the story, though I do know that it’s another track with vampire imagery. At any rate, it’s a fun little bonus, and the silence before it makes sure it doesn’t ruin the perfect ending “Famous Last Words” provides.

Ten years after its release, The Black Parade holds up incredibly well, and remains one of my favorite albums. While I don’t think that it’s quite as cohesive a concept album as Green Day’s American Idiot, it is still very much a concept album. It’s broad in scope and has a theatrical feeling that only a sprawling concept album could contain. As with any album  it has highs and lows, great tracks and not-so-great tracks. But on the whole, it’s a fantastic album.

If you haven’t listened to it, I’d like to know what it’s like under that boulder you call home. Answer that, and then go march over to your nearest music source and join the Black Parade.

 

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