Spin Control

October 29, 2006




The massive bank account aside, most of us can relate to Sean Lennon's challenges growing up in dad's shadow. But his troubles run even deeper on his second album, the long-overdue follow-up to "Into the Sun" (1998). In one melancholy, piano- and acoustic guitar-driven ballad after another, Lennon finds catharsis from a sad series of events that started when his longtime girlfriend, actress Bijou Phillips, cheated on him with his best friend, who then died in a motorcycle accident.

As psychodramas go, this one is potentially rich turf for a talented artist to mine as Papa John's famous issues with his mum, but the now 30-year-old Sean is hardly singer and much less songwriter enough to give us a "Julia" or a "Mother." "If life is just a dream / Which of us is dreaming / And who will wake up screaming / 'Cause if I had to die tonight / I'd rather be with you," he sings in "Parachute," which, like most of the songs here, falls far short of baring the painful emotions its author seemed to think he was sharing.

Sean is aiming for Elliott Smith or Rufus Wainwright, but the other comparison is inevitable, and it would be even if he'd issued this disc under a pseudonym: The slippery, post-psychedelic arrangements and the breathy vocals veritably scream "early Beatles solo efforts," referencing Paul McCartney as often as his father, and making one wonder why, if he really didn't want the comparisons, he didn't turn to virtually any other sound, from electronica to crunk, to try to make his own mark as an artist.

My Chemical Romance, "The Black Parade" (Reprise)

This New Jersey quintet is hardly the only teen-hero group at the top of the charts sporting black eyeliner and bringing Gothic melodrama into the mainstream. But My Chemical Romance rocks a lot harder and packs much heavier hooks than Evanescence, and it's both more ambitious and more tongue-in-cheek about its bombast than AFI. To be sure, it's plenty silly. Yet it's much harder to dismiss out of hand.

The group's third album, the follow-up to its 2004 breakthrough "Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge," is a bona fide rock opera focusing on a protagonist, The Patient, whose life was turned upside-down by 9/11 and who is now looking back on his fears and regrets as he's dying of cancer. Bandleader Gerard Way cites classic-rock epics such as Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and Queen's "A Night at the Opera" as his inspirations, but there's also the more obvious connection to Green Day: The band tapped thucer of "American Idiot," Rob Cavallo to juggle absurdly over-the-top strings, horns, a marching band, a booming cannon ... and a vocal cameo by Liza Minnelli during a Kurt Weill-flavored tune called "Mama."

In the end, "The Black Parade" is much closer to Meat Loaf's original Wagnerian take on teenage angst, "Bat Out of Hell," than any of those antecedents, and it's just as much of a guilty pleasure.

Sure, it's hard not to laugh at Way's messianic aspirations and whinier-than-Billy Corgan crooning in a song like "Welcome to the Black Parade." ("When I was a young boy / My father took me into the city / To see a marching band / He said, 'Son, when you grow up, will you be the savior of the broken / The beaten and the damned.' ") But Way actually wants us to chuckle, and he's laughing at his own cult following in the song "Teenagers," where he frankly confesses, "Teenagers scare the living s--- out of me!" You won't hear AFI saying the same of its legions in the Despair Faction.

Every generation of tormented teens needs its own overwrought headphones epic to dissect and parse for meaning deep in the night, and "The Black Parade" may be the one for Generation Y: It has the perfect mix of silly and semi-serious lyrics and just the right balance of operatic filigree and hard-driving pop-punk. And if the kids will one day be embarrassed to say how much it meant to them at the time, the rest of us can say the same of like-minded efforts from Phil Spector through "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" and simply enjoy humming along.