CD review: ‘Hesitant Alien,’ Gerard Way

Former My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way has released his first solo album, "Hesitant Alien."

Former My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way has released his first solo album, Hesitant Alien.

Hesitant Alien
Gerard Way (Reprise)

From: Gerard Way grew up in Belleville and was living in Hudson County at the time of the formation of the act that would make him famous. Early on, My Chemical Romance fit the profile of a striving local band: the combo played basement parties along with all the other punk rock shlubs. Commercial success made Way a citizen of the globe, and let’s just say it’s been awhile since he was eligible to run for Congress in the eighth district.

Format: Eleven-track LP. Hesitant Alien is Way’s first solo album since My Chemical Romance broke up, and it’s an attempt to establish a musical identity for him outside the context of a group about which most music listeners have a definite and concrete opinion. So this isn’t like one of those Yes-member spinoff albums where Bill Bruford plays the drums and Jon Anderson gets a writing credit on the single and Roger Dean paints the cover. Frank Iero and Ray Toro do not show up on Hesitant Alien, and brother Mikey Way limits his contributions to a single backing vocal. The main musical accomplice on this set is Ian Fowles from the Aquabats, a California ska-punk group famous for goofing around in matching costumes. This is a departure.

Genre: During the ’00s, no mainstream band in America was more regularly called “emo” than My Chemical Romance, and nobody rejected the designation any more vigorously than Gerard Way. Even as he sang on In Defense of the Genre (the title track, no less), Way called emo “a pile of shit,” which probably struck fans and foes alike as protesting too much. That was Way in the “I’m Not Okay” video with the kohl around his eyes, right? To be fair, he has always had catholic tastes — Bowie to Bon Jovi to Broadway kitsch — and more than anything about his music, it was his penchant for melodrama that made an impression on casual listeners. If most of non-music-obsessed America understood emo only as a fashion statement (if the understanding was even that coherent), well, here was a guy who looked and acted the part, and never mind if the songs he was writing were more like “November Rain” than Saves the Day.  By Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, there was almost no resemblance between the music My Chemical Romance was making and garden-variety emo-pop. Instead, that album broadcast a fascination with Blur, which, given Way’s classicism and popularity in England, shouldn’t have surprised anybody. Hesitant Alien takes that obsession even farther, and the words “Britpop” and “revival” are getting thrown around in early reviews. It’s not misleading. Yet it’s notable that Hesitant Aliendoes not take its inspiration from the glory days of Britpop when the mixes were clear and gleaming, Labour was ascendant, and boys who liked girls who liked girls to be boys. Instead it sounds like the exhausted phase of late-’90s Britpop — in particular Blur’s spiky, murky self-titled album, which was a deliberate embrace of American sounds. So here you have a guy from New Jersey making like Londoners who were sick to death of Britishness. You could call that cosmopolitan, or thoroughly alienated, and you’d be right in either case, but the one thing you really can’t call it is emo. Funny that Way has made this definitive break with the genre at the very moment when emo is finally getting respect, but he’s never been one to do what the critics would have him do. And maybe he still thinks emo is a pile of shit.

Hesitant Alien: "A genuinely scary album."

Hesitant Alien: “A genuinely scary album.”

Arrangements and Sound: The first thing a longtime fan is likely to notice about Hesitant Alien — even before the reverb and the fuzzboxes and the overt nods to Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler — is the position of Way’s voice in the mixes. My Chemical Romance albums are made to sound like Way is sitting right next to you on the schoolbus and ranting directly in your ear about the exigencies of the day. On Hesitant Alien, Way’s voice is usually run through some kind of processing or adorned with the echo of an echo, occasionally doubled, distorted or partially occluded by the mid-range instruments. Even when the lead vocal is given a position of prominence, as it is on slower songs like “Brother,” it’s not EQ-ed with discursive communication in mind. Now, Way has never exactly been obsessed with intelligibility. But there are entire verses on Hesitant Alien that are bubble-wrapped and dropped in the bottom of a tank, and require some serious concentration to fish out and comprehend. Crucial words and phrases poke through the gauze: “teenage,” “metal,” “desperate summers,” “dead by 25” etc., and these signal that Way’s concerns haven’t changed all that much. Yet if you’re one of those followers who believe that unprompted oversharing is whole point of a Gerard Way, you might need a moment to adjust to the recalibrated listener expectations. Hesitant Alien is a step into the fog from a singer who never felt the need to obscure anything about himself or his writing before, and it’s often unclear whether he wants you to follow him into the murk or stand back and admire his silhouette.

What’s this record about? In 1995, a gang of displaced Essex dogs called Spacehog released an album called Resident Alien. The members of the band were Brits living in New York City, and they took their feelings of dislocation as the starting point for their writing; “this is my street, too,” they’d later sing, defiantly, about Second Avenue. Resident Alien was a glam-rock revival set, and Way, who is a record collector and a glam kid himself, probably has a copy stashed in his Belleville basement. Spacehog met alienation with bravado, which is always a good strategy if you’ve got a fetching accent to hide behind. Too hesitant to claim permanent residence, Way can’t operate like that. His narrators spend half of Hesitant Alien asking for help, and the other half tacitly conceding that help isn’t going to do any good. They’re lost cases, stranded at the crossroads, taking tentative steps forward but craving reassurance a return to the safety of the familiar. “Will you drive me back?/Can you take me home?” Way begs on “Brother,” a reverie about an idealized past that picks up where MCR’s nostalgic “Kids From Yesterday” left off (it’s notable that many of the less elusive songs on the new album recall “Kids From Yesterday”). “Help me keep it together right now/can we keep it together somehow?” asks the protagonist of “Get the Gang Together,” a song about a group of friends who didn’t make the transition to adulthood with their lives, or minds, intact. The answer, as it is for “Brother,” is no: time has spoken, and what’s been shattered can’t be mended. “Action Cat,” the most immediately appealing pop song on the set, contains the line that neatly sums up Way’s conditional attitude: “Don’t ask a lot/and you won’t lose a lot/don’t ask for much,” he advises a prospective girfriend (from the fetal position, presumably). What makes matters worse for these destabilized characters is that They are always watching: usually the police, but sometimes the members of a nebulous, malicious force that won’t flash their badges quite so brazenly. The kickoff track, which is largely inscrutable beyond of its smoldering paranoia, is called “The Bureau,” and on it, Way conflates the music biz with the Feds and the boogeyman; he can’t tell where one leaves off the next picks up, and honestly, these days, who can? The angry, ugly middle of Hesitant Alien pinches language from crime drama and finds the main character at the mercy of Them — on “Zero Zero,” they’ve got his DNA down at the station, and “Juarez,” a cluster-bomb of a track, he dodges the truncheons of the police. “Jump around to the cop show sound,” he says, or seems to be saying, because many of the words are intentionally garbled, and his thoughts are scrambled, and even a turn inward won’t shake him free of the tracking devices. By “Maya the Psychic,” the final song, Way rejects madness, too; it’s an inefficient escape route, and real dissidents aren’t embarrassed to be seen shadowboxing. Much of Danger Days was dedicated to the perils of aging, and the need to stay defiant in the face of suffocating authority. What makes Hesitant Alien a genuinely scary album is Way’s sudden realization that the enemy doesn’t wear uniforms, and doesn’t have fangs: they’re everywhere, and no gang of cartoon superheroes is going to foil their plans. He can still  jump on the barricades and give Them the finger, but his backup is gone, and he may well be out all by himself, losing friends, pointing his ire in the wrong direction, and driving himself crazy.

The singer: In MCR, Way had a tendency to screech like his hair was on fire, which, again, was an essential part of the group’s identity. If you hated that — and many people did — you might consider the relative restraint of Hesitant Alien an improvement. A muffled Way turns out to be a sweeter Way, even if it’s a little like putting a nice scarf on a schnauzer. Much like Billy Joel on 52nd Street, Way has a tendency to mimic the tone and inflections of the songwriter he’s borrowing from, so “No Shows” contains a believable, forgivable Corgan imitation, and “Get the Gang Together” gets the snot-nosed delivery of the young Liam Gallagher just right. He still hasn’t figured out how to sound like Damon Albarn. That arch, cracked, world-weary sound, groaning under the weight of centuries of ruling-class guilt, might be beyond the reach of any American, and perhaps that speaks well of America.

The music: Graham Coxon might be a bigger influence on Hesitant Alien than Albarn is. It was Coxon who attempted to drag Blur toward America, or his imagined version of America, by introducing mid-range buzz and feedback to Albarn’s songs, and he did so without sacrificing the impishness and idiosyncrasy of his guitar playing. There are two guitar solos on Hesitant Alien that could have been played by Coxon himself — they both leap out of the tracks at funny angles, slash them up like a drunken fencer, and dive back into the murk. The first one punches up “No Shows,” a whirring food-processor of a song, and the second ameliorates the chaos of “Get the Gang Together,” a noisy, cluttered raver that dances on the lip of sonic disaster. The six-string signals never seem computer-processed: instead, Fowles and Way run their instruments through vintage fuzz and raid the corner music shop for distortion and tape-echo pedals. Or at least it sounds that way. Perhaps this is a digital simulation of an early-morning Robitussin-fueled Stone Roses rehearsal; if so, we may be approaching the singularity faster that I believed. My favorite solo on Hesitant Alien isn’t even played on guitar — it’s the wonky synthesized-trumpet ride that nearly tips the otherwise serious “How It’s Going to Be” into hilarity. These musicians are determined to keep things interesting, and surprise themselves, and on some level, Way probably knows that the worst thing — the only really damning thing — that was ever said about his old band was that they could be awfully predictable. Because the steps were so easy to follow, the elaborate choreography of My Chemical Romance never felt as complex, or impressive, as it was. A hesitant alien is likely to wrong-foot his dance partner out of sheer nervousness, and that makes good viewing for ordinary wallflowers.

The songs: Should you needed a reminder that Way is not, and has never been, a formulaic songwriter, it comes right off the bat. “The Bureau” begins with a movie-theater organ and a lurching bass guitar riff, and staggers around like reanimated Frankenstein for 2½ minutes. The song never threatens to resolves into anything pop-friendly, and slow-fades into the sound of a phone left off the hook. Nothing else on the album is built like it, but then again, nothing else has to be — notice has been served that Way is a jewel of many facets, the stone is set wobbly in the bezel, and it’s threatening to fall out. He demonstrates that he can still stay disciplined enough to write a few MCR-style pop songs, even if they are MCR-style pop songs that not-so-secretly want to be Blur songs: “Action Cat” and “Millions” are blurts of catchy, barbed guitar-rock, and “Maya” echoes the Cap’n Crunch freakouts on the backside of Danger Days. There’s a puddle of sludge in the middle of the record that smells strongly of Queens of the Stone Age, and a couple of mid-tempo ballads that reach for the exhausted, fatalistic grandeur of Britpop on the wane. The noisy production suits the rough stuff better than the more delicate material, and I’d like to call a do-over on “Drugstore Perfume,” a very pretty number built like vintage Bowie but then tied to the back of the van and dragged through the muck. I am tantalized by the suspicion that this is a terrific song, but the mix doesn’t allow me to get close enough to it to find out for sure.   

What else connects this record to the artist’s prior work? Well, Hesitant Alien is not a concept set about vampires, or a dying man, or a resistance movement in a postapocalyptic desert setting. Way approached his records with My Chemical Romance like the comic-book writer he is: his stories had beginnings, middles and ends, and they were illustrated in the boldest color he could shake out of his pen. The new set lacks a trajectory, but a through-story is still discernible through the fog, and as always, it’s full of misfits coping badly with the transition to adulthood. The alienation is still there; it’s just the hesitancy that’s new.

What’s not so good? Given a choice between a Jesus and Mary Chain song that tucks its verses behind a sheet of distortion and a Randy Newman song that hits you over the head with every syllable, I’m going to go for Randy every time. That’s a matter of personal taste, though, and I’ll admit that occlusion often brings genuine aesthetic benefits. If Way got tired of wearing his intentions around his neck with every line he sang, as he must have, it’s hard not to be sympathetic to his desire to repackage himself as a more mysterious character. That’s okay. What bugs me about Hesitant Alien is the suffocating heft of the mid-range murk. Like Kip Berman of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart — a songwriter who probably doesn’t get My Chemical Romance comparisons all that often — he seems to believe that his idealized past was noisier and more impenetrable than it really was. Berman saturates the center of his mixes with distortion and echo, too, and does so to reconstruct the imagined sound of U.K. music that was never all that hazy to begin with. This tells us something interesting about the way memory works, and maybe about the dangerous intersection between nostalgia and music. It’s ironic that Way and Berman both chose to represent a sound they learned from across the Atlantic just as Coxon did: Coxon steered Blur toward assaultive noise because that was his conception of America. Way’s latter-day Britpop proves Bernard Shaw — and Mike Skinner — right. We really are two nations divided by a common language, and united in misapprehension and mutual alienation. Which, come to think of it, is probably Way’s point.

Recommended? Provisionally. There are some MCR fans —  the ones who believe it’s all been downhill since Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge — who aren’t going to be able to get with this no matter what. Me, I’ve liked everything Way has done since the beginning, and this is no exception. As you can probably tell, I’ve spent a lot of time with this album, and I expect to listen to it more and more as the weather gets colder and I can wrap the distortion and fuzz around my shoulders like a sweater. I understand why he made this move, and I’m always glad to see Blur appreciation in action. But this is the first Way project that demands that the listener sacrifice some of his comprehension, and maybe even his enjoyment, to the demands of the aesthetic he’s chasing, and I do think that he’s better-suited as a purveyor of cheap thrills. If there was something — anything — that My Chemical Romance could do to reach you, the band would do it, and never mind if it conflicted with a sonic template the band was chasing. At times on Hesitant Alien, it feels like Way is chasing down a sound, or a mood, and that sort of thing ought to be left to lesser musical artists — those who Liza Minnelli would not recognize as a fellow traveler. This is an easy album to appreciate, but a tough one to hold close, and if it’s convinced me of anything, it’s that MCR is bound to do a Fall Out Boy-style reunion sooner rather than later. So, to sum up, I turn to Jarvis Cocker, another Way hero and poet of Britpop’s comedown, who, in 1998, hesitantly told his audience “you’re gonna like it/but not a lot.” What can I say, Gerard? I ask a lot, and if I lose a lot, well, that’s my problem, not yours.

If you’re from New Jersey, or if you grew up in New Jersey, or if you like New Jersey, and you’re interested in getting your music reviewed in this space, drop me a line at tris@trismccall.net.

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