by Katherine Simon The early 2000s was arguably the peak of emo music’s popularity. While the origins of emo date as far back as the mid-1980s; the start of the millennium would be when the genre entered mainstream popularity, and the emo subculture as we know it today would be formed. This was due in part to the success of emo bands like Paramore, All-American Rejects, and arguably the face of the whole emo subculture: My Chemical Romance. Formed in 2002 by lead singer/songwriter Gerard Way and drummer Matt Pelisser, MCR went on to become one of the most prominent emo bands of the 2000s, and is probably the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of the genre. If you were an angsty, hormonal teenager like me, chances are you spent a lot of time listening to their music and ended up resonating with their brand of angsty songwriting with surprisingly hopeful and positive messages. With the band recently reunited, I thought it would be a good idea to look back on their discography and see what made them stand out from the crowd.
I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me My Love (2002)Starting off with MCR’s debut album, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love was a pretty rough start for the band. This isn’t to say that the album was bad—since it does have some genuine bangers—but it’s very obvious that the band was still trying to find their sound at this point in time. The best way to describe the album is that it has more of a messy garage-band kind of feel, compared to the more refined sound of their later music—which while not inherently a bad thing, led to the album having a very amateurish sound. To be fair to MCR, I Brought You My Bullets was recorded before they signed on with a major record label, and was given out for free on sites like MySpace (which was basically the early 2000s equivalent of Soundcloud rappers trying to get people to listen to their mixtape), so the lower production quality is to be expected. However, it can be jarring to go back to this album after getting used to the more refined sounds of their later work. Unlike the band’s later albums, I Brought You My Bullets didn't focus on one specific theme, and instead opted for a “throw stuff at a wall and see what works” approach, which makes it one of their most thematically diverse albums, for better and for worse. Since the album didn't tie into an overarching narrative, this allowed Gerard and the rest of the band to explore various subject matters and experiment with. Songs like “Vampires Will Never Hurt You,” and “Early Sunsets Over Monroeville” showcase some incredibly strong lyrical storytelling, and show off Gerard’s ability to work with creative song concepts. “Skylines and Turnstiles” stands out as the most interesting song on the record, as it deals with the impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on Gerard, which was what ended up inspiring him to form MCR. While I Brought You My Bullets does feature some great songs, it’s biggest problem is that a lot of the songs aren’t very memorable and end up blending together in my head. Arguably the greatest strength of MCR’s music is being able to write some insanely catchy hooks, which makes songs like “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” and “Teenagers” really fun to listen to, despite the dark subject matter. Unfortunately, a lot of the songs on the album lack that hook and end up being kind of forgettable. Outside of maybe three or four songs, I could not tell you what a lot of the tracks on this album sounded like off the top of my head. The issue probably stems from a lot of the songs having a very similar style of progression and not doing a great job at building up to the main chorus, as well as the general messiness of the vocals and instrumentation. It definitely helps that Gerard decided to dial back on the screaming since Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, because most of the lyrics being screamed really didn’t help with the progression issues. I Brought You My Bullets is an interesting album to look back on, but there’s a reason it isn’t as fondly remembered as the band’s later outings.
Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge (2004)Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge was really when MCR started to come into their own. It improves on almost every aspect of I Brought You My Bullets, and overall feels like a more refined and cohesive work. This was the band’s first album after being signed with a major record label, and was also the first of their albums to tell an overarching story (which would become a trend for the band’s work moving forward). Continuing the story setup in the song “Drowning Lessons,” Three Cheers focuses on a man who was separated from his lover by death, and ends up making a deal with the devil so he can be reunited with her. This deal involves the protagonist having to kill a thousand evil men and bring their souls to the devil in order to be reunited with his lost partner. Since the songs in this album contribute to a larger narrative, Three Cheers ends up feeling like a much more thematically cohesive album than I Brought You My Bullets. While the latter might’ve allowed the band more room to experiment, Three Cheers is more focused and does a better job conveying a message. Looking beyond the surface of the story, Three Cheers is ultimately about dealing with grief and not letting it take over, which is what ended up happening to the protagonist. Although not directly connected to Three Cheers’ storyline, the album’s opening track, “Helena,” perfectly encapsulates the message of the album by saying that losing a loved one can be tough; it’s okay to grieve, but it’s best to move on and live for their sake, in contrast to the protagonist who becomes more consumed by grief as the album progresses. The song was dedicated to Gerard’s late grandmother Elena, who was a huge creative influence for him. Even if the song doesn’t directly contribute to the plot, “Helena” still captures its thematic essence and provides a more personal perspective from Gerard as someone who had recently experienced a loss of his own. The production on this album is a huge step up from I Brought You My Bullets. The instrumentation on each song sounds way more distinct, and Gerard’s vocals sound much cleaner. It’s clear that MCR signing to a major label really helped the production quality and direction of this album. Aside from “Helena,” the album has no shortage of fantastic songs. “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” was the definitive mid-2000s emo anthem for a reason, thanks to its wonderfully catchy hook and poignant message about being open with one’s emotions. “The Ghost of You” is an emotionally powerful song that expresses the emptiness left by the death of a loved one, and “To The End” is an incredibly catchy song, which parallels the short story “A Rose for Emily,” of all things. While not every song is a banger and I personally find the second half of the album to be a bit weaker than the first, the quality of Three Cheers is way more consistent than I Brought You My Bullets, and is easier to recommend.
The Black Parade (2006)If you have even a basic knowledge of MCR’s discography, chances are you’ve at least heard The Black Parade’s name mentioned once in your life. This is the album that MCR is best known for, and for good reason. The story of Black Parade follows the character of The Patient, a cancer patient who is on the verge of death and is recounting the memories and regrets in his life. The concept for the album was inspired by Gerard’s belief that death appears in the form of one’s fondest memories, which in his case is seeing a marching band as a child. While Three Cheers deals with grieving the loss of others, Black Parade takes a more personal approach and deals with coming to terms with one’s own death. I’m just going to get my personal bias out of the way here: Black Parade is one of my favorite albums of all time, if not my favorite. While Three Cheers did a decent job conveying its themes through its narrative, Black Parade shows Gerard’s lyrical storytelling at its absolute peak. While the overarching narrative might not be incredibly obvious on the first listen, repeated listens of the album make it clear that each song on the album flows into each other to tell the story of The Patient’s life, and how he ended up in a state of isolation and regret in his final moments. Just to list a few examples, “Teenagers” explores the narrator’s trauma with growing up around adults who felt resentment towards him, and both “The Sharpest Lives” and “House of Wolves” reflect on the patient’s self-destructive behavior that landed him a spot in Hell. As far as the songs themselves go, just about every track on this album fantastic. From the high-energy, yet dark tracks like “Dead!” and “Teenagers,” to more emotional ballads like “I Don’t Love You” and “Cancer,” every song on the album is incredibly memorable. Some stand-outs include “Welcome to the Black Parade,” which does an excellent job of painting a picture of Gerard’s inventive interpretation of death, “Teenagers,” a song that is especially poignant as discussions around generational divide continue to heat up, and “I Don’t Love You,” which captures the heartbreak of having to end a relationship. The closing track, “Famous Last Words,” is also a wonderfully bittersweet end to The Patient's journey that offers a hopeful message about finding the determination to see meaning in life. From start to finish, The Black Parade is an absolutely wonderful album that everyone should listen to at least once in their life, even if you’re not a fan of emo music. There’s a reason why this album is held in such high regard by many, and it is a prime example about how every genre of music—even emo—the appeals to angsty teenagers has artistic merit.
Danger Days: The True Lives of Fabulous Killjoys (2010)Danger Days would be MCR’s last studio album prior to their reunion. The band continued to release a few singles until their dissolution in 2013, but this would be the last record we’d see from the band for quite some time. That said, Danger Days is a bit of an odd one out, to say the least. The album’s story takes place during the then-far-off year of 2019, in the post-apocalyptic Battery City. The album follows a rebellious group known as the Killjoys, who are trying to take down an evil mega-corporation who is controlling the city and keeping its citizens complacent. While some of MCR’s work featured political undertones before, this is easily the band’s most politically-charged album with its very anti-consumerist message. Danger Days is a very different album from MCR’s usual fare. That’s not to say that it’s bad, but it definitely has a lot more pop than something like Three Cheers or The Black Parade. It’s a much more upbeat album that shows the band having more fun with their music, which is actually kind of refreshing to see, considering the band’s reputation of producing angst-ridden music for sad teens. Despite the album having a pretty strong anti-consumerism message, Danger Days ironically ended up being the most commercialized of MCR’s albums. Between “Sing” getting a decent amount of airtime on the radio, their songs showing up more frequently in TV and video games, and “Na Na Na” making an appearance in The Sims 3 with Gerard singing the lyrics in Simlish, it’s clear that the band wasn’t shy about marketing during the Danger Days era. While I’m on this topic, the song “Vampire Money” was made in response to the band being asked to do a song for the Twilight film series, which they were adamantly against. If you need any other reason to stan MCR, them seeing The Sims 3 and Yo Gabba Gabba as more worthwhile endeavors than appearing in the Twilight soundtrack is a good place to start. While Danger Days’ departure from the emo genre might be a point of contention for some people, it’s still an incredibly solid album with some stand-out tracks. The lighter tone works well for the whole rebellious sound the album is trying to go for, and it’s clear that MCR had a lot of fun recording it. Songs like “Na Na Na” and “Party Poison” are incredibly fun and energetic songs that I would recommend for any workout playlist, and while 11-year-old me might’ve gotten sick of hearing “Sing” on the radio ad-nauseum, it does a great job at being an uplifting. While nothing in this album is as emotionally powerful as anything from Black Parade or Three Cheers, it’s clear that that’s not what MCR was going for with this album. As great as those are, MCR wanted to move away from the angsty music and show that they could create something fun, while still retaining the creativity of their previous albums—which they accomplished in spades. There’s a reason MCR tends to be more fondly remembered than a lot of their contemporaries, and that’s because of their ability to create timeless music that strikes the perfect balance of being fun to listen to and containing a lot of thematic depth. Even if a lot of people look back and cringe at their emo phase, it’s rare that anyone will look back at MCR’s music with embarrassment because of how well a lot of it has aged. With the recent announcement of MCR being reunited, it will be interesting to see what direction the band’s music will take next. Regardless of if they continue with the more upbeat tone of Danger Days, go back to their emo roots, or go in a completely different direction entirely, whatever MCR puts out next is sure to be great and will hopefully hold up as well as their other works.
Sources: Genius, YouTube, MTV, Images: Amazon, iHeartRadio Featured Image: Katherine Simon