On art vs. decay

Hi. In case you haven’t heard the news, My Chemical Romance is back.

Technically they’ve been back since 2019, when they announced their reunion and launched a (since-postponed) world tour. But The Foundations of Decay” is their first new song in nearly a decade, and it hit me like a brick thrown through a window. I was not expecting new music. I was expecting a big triumphant tour and a bunch of adoring press, a careful burnishing of the band’s legacy. New music is a risk: the guys are older and more isolated and therefore liable to be out of touch with the zeitgeist, even more so now that their fanbase has found an afterlife on TikTok, the most efficient trend-churning machine known to humankind. If they were going to do new music, I feared it would be either a too-familiar retread of the territory they once introduced to the rest of us, or—even worse—a painfully disingenuous attempt at chart/stream relevance. Either option would suck.

But hey: the new song does not suck. It’s really, really good. I love the bursts of static and guitar feedback that begin and end the song. I love Gerard Way’s trademark histrionics, his thrashy screams on the bridge and the outro. It sounds soupy and dirgelike and venomous, a midtempo headbanger that fits in right beside Sleep” or The Ghost of You” or The Light Behind Your Eyes.” And like all the best MCR songs, it is about the band. On the second verse, Gerard sings: He was there the day the towers fell. Any seasoned fan can tell you this is a reference to the founding myth of the band, according to which Gerard decided to save the world through music after witnessing the events of 9/11.

I can so clearly imagine where the guys’ heads must have been at while they made this song. They were no doubt thinking about their history, from their superheroic beginning to their crushing end to their uncanny return from the grave. Their whole arc as a band, their ethos of destruction and renewal, is summed up in these six minutes. It’s a work of legacy as much as it is a movement towards something new.

And it does mark a new era for the band, one that is more mature, more weathered, more aware of death in a deep and somatic way. The guys who made this song are not the same traumatized kids from New Jersey who made Skylines and Turnstiles” two decades ago. They’re fathers now, with gray hair and healing injuries and a million good reasons not to go back to being My Chemical Romance. What would they accomplish by doing so? Clearly the world hasn’t been saved—not by them, not by anyone.

Right at the end of The Foundations of Decay,” when everything is starting to get quiet again after the aforementioned thrashy bridge, the guys give us their reason for returning to life. We hear the last words of the final chorus fade out: Yes, it comforts me much more to lay in the foundations of decay. Then those onslaughts of guitar slam back in, and Gerard snarls, nasty and stinging like a taunt: GET! UP! COWARD!

It is a truly bracing moment. It thrills me every time I hear it, in a physical sense: the hair on my arms stands up. I am not religious, but it kind of feels like being addressed by God. These words cannot be ignored, not when the voice that carries them reaches out and grabs you by the throat like this. You are perceived by this voice, seen in all your wretchedness, and you are hailed, and you are given work to do.

And as much as GET UP, COWARD! arrests the listener, I also think it is the band speaking to themselves. It reminds me of the message that Octavia Butler wrote in one of her notebooks, an exhortation to do the work required for literary success: So be it! See to it!

No one else had this kind of faith in Octavia. No one else was going to make sure she got up every day and opened her notebook and wrote down the stories that lived only in her head. She had to command herself into action, to create for herself a sacred mission, whose stakes mattered only to her. I think this is what making art is about. Despite the lure of passivity, of letting the world just spin on around its deadly axis, you find a reason to make your mark. You imagine a reason, if you have to. And then you force yourself to do the work.

GET UP, COWARD! is the mission statement of this new era of MCR. After all that tragic history, all that wallowing in the rot, the band leaves both you and themselves with this dictum: Stand up. Drag yourself out of that hole. Be not afraid. You’ve seen death, and after all the shit the world has heaped upon you, maybe death is a comfort. But life is not quite done with you yet, so dust off your corpse and keep moving.

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