The strongest thesis supporting U2′s brand synergy with Apple earlier this month didn’t come from a thinkpiece, or from any of the rushed, doggedly unimpressed analyses of the record’s music: It came from the rock radio station I listen to in the shower. The mid-afternoon DJ, a chatty sort who has a special segment where he plays relative rarities from his own personal iPod, talked about the album coming out effusively, saying that he was happy to hear about new music from one of his favorite bands. He then played a U2 song — not one from the new album, but “Vertigo,” the 2004 track that accompanied the launch of the band’s co-branded iPod.
Such are the indignities of being a rock band of a certain stature in 2014 — a band with, say, enough catalog sales and major-label experience to have been at least a fleeting presence in Us, or People, at one time. They’re operating in a genre that, according to pundits and balance sheets, is on the decline, a perception that’s only enhanced by the way the collective mass of “classic” rock radio stations outweighs those specializing in newer material. They’re putting new music into a content ecosystem that rewards dramatic knee-jerk reactions instead of close analyses, particularly when they’re exaggerated “who cares?” gestures that can be illustrated by GIFs. And their past successes have made them dismissible to consumers who consider themselves more “indie”-minded than, say, people who might be excited about new music from U2.
This is the environment that Gerard Way, the former frontman of My Chemical Romance, is crash-landing into with his first solo effort, Hesitant Alien. Though My Chemical Romance was saddled with the “emo” tag early on, they were known for their big ambitions and stadium-shaking choruses, playing more like a really solid arena-rock outfit. Their best songs shoot punk spirit through homage to stompy glam (“Teenagers”), pomp-filled anthems (“Helena”) and rock operas in miniature (“Welcome to the Black Parade”).
Hesitant Alien has traces of the high points of Way’s former band, although it trades in snot-nosed brattiness for the ever-so-slightly-more refined sensibilities of 120 Minutes‘ prime era; that brief window when “alternative rock” represented a tent big enough to welcome in Elastica’s swagger, Velocity Girl’s sweet fuzz and Dinosaur Jr.’s ability to conjure pop bliss from a slew of effects pedals. (Not to mention the three-piece-suit cool of Jarvis Cocker.) It’s a refreshingly straightforward rock record, with Way’s acidic voice serving as the bridge between the hip-shaking confidence of glam and the more reserved, yet just as guitar-heroic nature of Lollapalooza ’95 side-stage acts like Yo La Tengo and Hum.
“Action Cat,” Hesitant Alien‘s first single, serves as an appropriate introduction; it’s simultaneously cuddly and muscular, the cloud of fuzzed-out guitar barely obscuring a “Cherry Bomb” homage chugging beneath. The record’s best tracks split the difference between distortion-pedal haze and the sort of taut rock that defined the pre-arena glam period. “No Shows” buries its “Teenagers”-like jitteriness underneath smoky riffs, while “Zero Zero” sounds beamed in from the alternate-future world created by the Los Angeles glam pioneer Zolar X. Meanwhile, “Juarez” adds extra distortion to a Bolan-era stomper, while the snaky verses of “Get the Gang Together” are punctuated by a fists-in-the-air chorus and saxophone skronking. There’s also power balladry, as was required on the hard rock albums of yore — “Drugstore Perfume,” which is part lighter-raiser, part prom theme. There are also some nods to music from across the pond; “Brother” recalls a pub sing-along, only with lyrics that describe immediate regret, while “How it’s Going to Be” has a carefree feel that brings to mind the more folk-inspired offerings of the Waterboys.
Hesitant Alien isn’t going to, as one of Way’s band’s fellow travelers put it, save rock ‘n’ roll — it’s probably too late to do that, and one look at the rock landscape makes one realize that the effort probably isn’t worth it. But as far as efforts to synthesize not just Way’s own past, but the work of those bands who were having too much fun to mire themselves in self-loathing and pomposity, the liberated-sounding, hummable Hesitant Alien is an excellent entrant, its ambitions realizing themselves in sometimes-surprising ways.