Until recently, I was only dimly aware of My Chemical Romance. Their name had popped up from time to time over the last year in mainstream rock mags, usually when said mag was trying to tap into the groundswell that has lately occurred in the wake of Dashboard Confessional's success. Yes, once again I am talking about "emo", though with Dashboard Confessional's status as an actual practitioner of said genre being debatable at best, I tend not to expect much from mainstream rock mags where concerns getting a reliable idea of what the genre actually is. Generally, if a mainstream rock mag's article about "The Next Big Things In Emo" is the first place I hear of a band, I write them off as illegitimate; some label constructed cash-in attempt made up of musicians who were probably ripping off Creed six months earlier, nothing more. Hearing My Chemical Romance's name frequently associated with The Used, whose recent attempt at self-reinvention as "screamo" isn't fooling anyone, only weakened them even further in my eyes, and even though I'd never actually heard them, I wrote them off as lame.
I got the first hint that I might have written them off too soon when a teenage female acquaintance of mine began raving about how amazing they were a couple months ago. She and I don't see eye to eye on everything--for example, she has no idea why I love Pig Destroyer so much--but when it comes to emo and indie rock, she's never steered me wrong. In fact, she was the one who got me to admit that Maroon 5 really aren't that bad (what? They're really not!). So I couldn't help but think that anything in this style that she was into must have some merit.
That didn't stop me from wanting to preserve my initial opinion, though. By now I'd seen a video of theirs and been weirded out by it. The band jumped around and swung their guitars like they were playing brutal metalcore, and even had the black clothes, eye makeup, and dyed hair to go with it. But despite some metal-sounding guitar flourishes, the overall sound was way too polished and poppy to fit the image. My condemnation of My Chemical Romance as a label created band of poseurs was only reaffirmed. "Besides," I told my friend on the phone one night, "they're even touring with The Used now!" "Yeah, well, that new Used album is actually pretty good," my friend returned, unwilling to yield. "What?!" I cried, startled into laughter. I couldn't imagine that The Used had any merit any more than I could imagine My Chemical Romance having merit--all I could think of was their dirtbag singer and his fling with Kelly Osbourne. I couldn't help but wonder if my friend was just losing her touch where this stuff was concerned.
They got me in the end, though. My friend would still occasionally rant about how good My Chemical Romance were, but she'd given up on convincing me, and I was perfectly content never to hear them again. But then, one morning a few weeks ago, my clock-radio woke me with the beginning of a song I'd never heard before. Usually, even the best stuff I hear on the local "new rock" radio station is only mildly enjoyable, and the only reason I actually keep the dial set there is because the music they play is the most blandly tolerable offering of my local airwaves. However, this song I'd never heard before was legitimately good--so good, in fact, that I had to know what it was. I made a mental note of a standout lyric, got out of bed, and Googled it. Well, I'm sure you can all see right where this is going... the song was called "I'm Not OK (I Promise)", and it was by My Chemical Romance.
Now, I'm not generally one to hold onto a viewpoint after it's been proven false, but that said, I have a hell of a hard time admitting that I'm wrong. The only way I could reconcile my enjoyment of "I'm Not OK (I Promise)" with my previous antipathy towards My Chemical Romance was to assume that I only liked that one song by them. I downloaded it and had it burned to a CD by the time I left for work that morning, and I played it over and over again all day, but all the while I assured myself that this did not constitute changing my mind, that I was still safe in my ability to hold an unwavering opinion about this band.
I could only be sure I would stick with that opinion, though, if I avoided the inconvenient reality of the rest of their album. If I never listened to it, I would never have to find out if I actually did like the entire album. I would never have to deal with the possibility that it was only their makeup and clothes that had ever turned me off to them. I wasn't even considering this thought process on a conscious level, but it was definitely in the back of my mind, acting as a motivator. When I informed my teenage female friend of my grudging enjoyment of "I'm Not OK", she of course encouraged me to download the entire album and check it out. Of course, it took a week of her nagging me about it before I actually did, and then it took another week for me to get around to listening to it. When I did, I was horrified to find that my worst fears were realized. Yes, despite months of skepticism and apprehension, I have to admit that "Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge" by My Chemical Romance is a really good album.
I'm not sure I would have figured this out right away, or even at all, if it weren't for my accidental, unprejudiced enjoyment of "I'm Not OK." As it turns out, the video I had seen, the one that had bothered me so badly, had been for that very same song. I don't know exactly why I couldn't stand the song then, but liked it a lot when I heard it on the radio, but I have a theory. By the time I saw the video, I had already read a decent amount of press concerning My Chemical Romance, and the relative inability of that press to place them into their proper context had prepared me for something quite different than what I got from them. They didn't deliver what I'd been prepared to expect, so I initially perceived their music as failing at what it attempted to do. However, the problem wasn't with the music at all, but with my expectations. All music really needs to do at any time in order to be successful is to be good, and whether or not it fits into the limits of any particular genre is beside the point. In fact, this is a primary lesson that needs to be learned if one is ever going to be able to evaluate music honestly, but I should probably leave it at that, because if I take this tangent any farther I fear I shall never return.
My Chemical Romance's "Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge" differs considerably from what I was led to expect; it is both more and less emo and more and less metal than I expected. I don't know how much sense that statement makes even to me, let alone to anyone who isn't inside my head, so rather than continue evaluating this album in comparison to anything anyone else has said, I'll just go ahead and tackle it in terms of what it is.
To begin with, "I'm Not OK" is not too atypical of emo as it stands in the year 2005. It isn't doing anything no one's ever heard before, but it has great lyrics, catchy riffs, and a solid song structure, and that's enough to make it stand out. There are occasional hints, though, of the more interesting and unusual aspects of My Chemical Romance's music. The twin-guitar harmony solo that shows up out of nowhere after the second chorus is straight out of the Iron Maiden songbook; no matter how conventionally emo the bulk of My Chemical Romance's sound is, it's obvious that in their past somewhere lurks a healthy dose of 80s metal. Meanwhile, vocalist Gerard Way's melodramatic ranting as the band builds to the song's climax seems descended far less from any popular music tropes than it does from the conventions of musical theater. One can't help but imagine him in a previous life as a major drama geek--the kind of guy who missed his senior prom because he had to rehearse for an upcoming starring role in his school's production of "West Side Story."
Then again, maybe "Guys and Dolls" is a more appropriate reference. "You Know What They Do To Guys Like Us In Prison" starts out sounding like something a reincarnated Frank Sinatra would sing in some 21st century update of that particular classic. A piano backs up a jaunty guitar line as the rhythm section lays down a swinging backbeat and the song gradually builds into full-on emocore while never losing the jazzy swing. Eventually, the guitarists lay down duelling solos that sound like something off a prime era Queen record before the song ends in an all-too-brief pounding moshcore crescendo.
The always-dormant metal influence doesn't jump to the fore and take over entire songs nearly as often, but the beginning of "To The End" is one of the more overtly metal moments here. As Gerard Way gasps out the opening verse as if sharing a particularly juicy piece of gossip, the guitarists pick out impressive single-note runs that are sometimes matching and sometimes in harmony with each other. The song gets heavier as it goes along, but the verses continue to be a showcase for the chops of both guitarists, who were obviously exposed to a lot more than the standard emo influences when they were developing their styles.
In the end, this is the main ingredient that makes My Chemical Romance's music so enjoyable to listen to: the talent of the musicians. Rather than just being a band of emo kids, My Chemical Romance are musicians who happen to be playing in an emo style right now. Their ability to look beyond genre when creating their songs frees them up to use concepts and ideas that they've taken from other styles of music and helps them keep their songs fresh, original, and exciting. One listen to "Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge" makes this obvious: "Helena" and "The Jetset Life Is Gonna Kill You" are uptempo, melodic anthems in the tradition of "I'm Not OK (I Promise)", but there's a lot more than that here. "Thank You For the Venom" combines chunky metal riffs with a catchy melodic chorus, while "Hang Em High" mixes more of that melodramatic theater feel with more conventional emo riffs and metallic solos, and "The Ghost of You" layers heartfelt vocals over bombastic yet powerful guitar riffs to become the album's centerpiece and emotional heart. One might be suspicious that the unusual ingredients in My Chemical Romance's sound would cause them to lose focus and dilute the power of their songs, but if anything, the opposite is what occurs. The uniqueness of "Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge" differentiates My Chemical Romance from the many other bands working in the same style right now, and helps them rise to the top of the emo heap. No matter what misgivings their press might cause, this is not an album to be missed.