It opens with an atonal guitar, strummed as if with a fist. A weird organ picks out loose notes, noodling. And then comes a beat that sounds built of stone: pumping, humping and hard as a chaos of noise circles behind it. Finally Gerard Way announces his return with a yowl, before getting into a didactic groove as the Bureau – the opening song on his debut solo album Hesitant Alien – gets into a fuzzy strut.
It’s been a year-and-a-half since My Chemical Romance called time on their career, and just a little longer since Burn Bright’s epic mainstream rock marked the last new music the band released while still together, and in the intervening period it seems that Way has once again sought to reinvent and reinterpret. This time, for once, he’s shed layers.
For a man so adept at taking on different personas while in My Chemical Romance – the preachers, parade-leaders or post-apocalyptic bandits – it feels as if much of Hesitant Alien is an attempt to do something without those layers of fiction and pageantry. Oddly enough, it is something he attempted once before. When his former band set about making the follow-up to The Black Parade, they wanted to make pared back rock ‘n’ roll. It didn’t work and so Conventional Weapons was scrapped, replaced with the high concept Danger Days. Now, though, this stripped back Way does work.
Bureau is just the first sign that he can make music that throbs and pulses, judders and swaggers without the need for an over-arching storyline or plot. But for those looking for something to tie together all the songs on Hesitant Alien, there is one thing: fuzz. Advance publicity suggested this record borrowed from Britpop and grunge in equal measure and while both are certainly in abundance (notably on Get The Gang Together, which somehow recollects Blur and Super Furry Animals at the same time), there are perhaps more weighty influences. The buzz and howl of Jesus And The Mary Chain is perhaps one clear one: No Shows might have spit and groove, but it is underpinned by a raw guitar; Zero Zero is dominated by another pounding beat that bolts together a bedlam of feedback and noise. Drugstore Perfume, however, is the best example of that wall of noise aesthetic and slow groove. The growl of the guitars is lent pathos by wistful melody, Way both thoughtful and melancholy amid the maelstrom.
Throughout a fuzziness abounds, a sprawl of rattle and hum that points to this new music being a much looser, freer affair than My Chemical Romance were allowed to indulge in. But on top of that fuzz, lie some brilliant songs. Action Cat, the second song of the record, is the first standout. Again, it rests on chiming, overdriven guitars but it’s Way’s melody that elevates into something that is so immediately catchy, so genuinely instant that you can’t quite work out why no-one has bolted tunes like this to guitars like this so well before.
Brother, a song written about Mikey Way – as Famous Last Words once was too – is the song that most obvious recalls My Chemical Romance but is still undeniably something new. Built on a simple, descending piano, it has some of the Way sassiness of old, while still retaining an emotional core. It may be the best song on Hesitant Alien in that there’s something pure to it, something naked but grand.
There is also plenty of mania. Juarez is wild, throbbing and circling – a sense of release running throughout it. How’s It Going To Be is delightfully weird. It surfs along on a jaunty, echoey beat – like a military marching drum performing a tricksy little shuffle in a cavern – as Way’s psychedelic vocals soar over the top. It’s pretty enough, pensive even, and then from nowhere a giant synth arrives full of trills and peculiar flamboyance. It’s like an unwelcome drunk crashing the party, before very quickly becoming the life and soul of the thing. It’s wonderful, but far more experimental that Way might be expected to be.
Where so many people make mistakes in going solo is in trying to be something radically different from what they once were. Though this record stands makes very little reference to Way’s past, it never feels like it’s trying to be something it’s not. Instead it feels like someone being themselves.
My Chemical Romance had a knack of making wonderfully ambitious music that was built on their personalities, but which was then draped in superhero outfits. This, then, is Way before he goes into the phonebox to change. This is his Clark Kent or Peter Parker album, this is him without his costume on. And it’s great.
Hesitant Alien will be released via Warners on September 29 in the UK, September 30 in the US.