Four years after the ambitious Emily the Strange on Broadway opus The Black Parade, New Jersey’s My Chemical Romance are still experts at passing off glossy, brazen-faced, transcendent ’70s AOR bloat as punk or post-hardcore or don’t-call-me-emo emo. But unlike that album’s garish guyliner anthems about death and disease, their new Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys is a 15-track power-pop cycle that’s a lot less Queen and a lot more Styx: a retro-futuristic story arc wherein our outlaw heroes wage war against the musofacist regime with trendy robo-synths gurgling and recoiling like laser guns, and multi-part vocal harmonies triumphing above the crunch. Underlying moral message: Music ultimately saves the day. It’s a sci-fi rock opera without the power ballads, a larger-than-life Apocalypse Idiot. There’s lots of lyrics about big guns and warm car engines . . . and they’re probably actually about big guns and warm car engines. There’s a comic book on the way. Hopefully that will be better.
The lyrics really drive home the Mad Max aesthetic, a post-Armageddon wasteland of ash, broken glass, methane skies, gang wars, graffiti-dappled graves, errant fires, and—at about 26 minutes in—an actual explosion. Don’t know if the imagery stems from 2012 anxiety, the icky realities of recessionomics, or the rising Tea Party/libertarian fear of Big Government, but the four outcast heroes of Danger Days are forced to survive off the detritus of the past. MCR’s recent music videos have the boys recontextualizing Nintendo Zappers and motocross jackets, while the music itself retrofits old rock records, a dystopia-obsessed band creating new machines from scraps of FM transmissions: glitter-rock hooks, Aquanet-hardened cock-rock guitar solos, the clinical synths of ’80s new wave. Or, as frontman Gerard Way screams over some Gary Numan–styled ice-punk: “We are the kids from yesterday, today.”
But as Styx’s Tommy Shaw once put it, “Haven’t we been here before?” Very few records outside of hip-hop carry this much postmodern baggage. Our heroes “sparkle like Bowie” and “glimmer like Bolan” on “Vampire Money”—a song that parodies the “Are you ready, Steve?” intro of Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz.” Their circa-2001 return-of-the-rock garage ripper “Party Poison” sounds like Hives with NASA’s budget, and naturally borrows entire lines from both the Stooges and the MC5. On an album essentially about teenagers and wastelands, “Bulletproof Heart” is “Baba O’Riley,” down to the staccato riff and Terry Riley electro-doodles, with “Lets blow a hole in this town, Jenny” kindly replacing “Sally, take my hand.” The glittery, glam-era na na-na-nas that pepper the album are blown up into the hyperbolic gag of calling a single “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na).” It’s all so self-conscious and ironic that the band can get away with earnestly singing “Sing it for the boys, sing it for the girls/Every time that you lose it, sing it for the world” like they’re lonelyhearts trapped in U2’s cover of “Everlasting Love.”
But the reason this convoluted rock opera can’t match the Who, U2, Green Day, or even Styx is that Danger Days is a story constructed without rising or falling action. MCR’s phasers are constantly set to stun, with 12 beaming songs and three intermissions wherein glorious FM gold (and occasionally disco-lite platinum) are dressed up in punk rags. No breathers, no heart, no warmth. It’s a party record that’s more excited about party planning. Way keeps insisting “run away from here,” “run away with me,” “run, bunny, run,” “keep running,” etc., but more often than not we’re just running through his mixtapes and iTunes playlists. It turns out 2069 is just another year with too much happening and nothing to do.