Playing guitar with knives: breaking down My Chemical Romance’s “The Foundations of Decay”
Thursday evening, My Chemical Romance had the absolute audacity to drop “The Foundations Of Decay,” their first new song since 2014’s “Fake Your Death” without warning. The band fully disrupted reality as we had known it, waking slumbering souls, tearing us out of the comfort of resignation we’d been living in that new music would simply never come.
OK, that’s a little dramatic, but after nearly a decade without creative output from a band as important as MCR, it somehow felt like even more of a resurrection than even the return show itself.
Read more: My Chemical Romance release first new music since 2014, “The Foundations of Decay”—listen
This writer, an MCR devotee of nearly two decades, has been listening to the track for about 30 cumulative hours now, and boy, is there a lot to dissect. Let’s start digging…
Note: As of press time, the band have chosen not to release official lyrics. What follows is a critical analysis based on years of studying My Chemical Romance. It does not necessarily reflect the band’s intended meaning or process.
First thing’s first: What are “The Foundations Of Decay”?
The song’s title certainly paints a picture, calling to mind an open grave and the macabre march of nature, chipping away at the human form. Dark. Metaphorically, however, this could be a gruesome way of saying “the beginning of the end,” or “giving up,” a theme that makes itself apparent in the final act of the song. Oh, yes, we are thinking about this song in terms of “acts.” Buckle up.
Catholicism and Sainthood
If you’ve ever so much as glanced at the Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge era, you know Catholic imagery plays a massive role in My Chemical Romance’s art. In “Foundations,” the band very much revisit those roots, with a portion of the track devoted to death, sainthood and canonization.
Now, this is where “foundations of decay” as a literal concept becomes more interesting. One of the requirements for sainthood is not only to, uh, die, but to have an “incorruptible corpse.” Incorruptibility is a Catholic belief that divine intervention prevents a holy person’s body from decomposing. In the case of a saint, lying in “the foundations of decay” is a state of stasis. There’s no progression, no action. They are literally lying in wait for canonization. Hmm…
These new references are certainly not the first time in MCR’s oeuvre in which it appears they allude to the idea of a forced hero, savior or saint. We suggest pausing here to listen to “Heaven Help Us” because we’re not done with saints just yet.
Let’s talk about Joan Of Arc for a second…
Because this all smacks of purifying flames and the Joan Of Arc obsession that drove the making of The Black Parade. Is our dear St. Joan making a cheeky appearance in this song as well?
In a 2007 interview with Rolling Stone, Way said,
“Joan of Arc is my favorite historical-legendary-whatever figure. Number one, it’s a boyish, waifish girl in a suit of armor on a white horse, and that’s badass. I’ve always been attracted to that character because it was somebody who was willing to die for what they believed in, and they were probably fucking crazy and like, touched by the hand of God, and I believe in that shit. I totally believe in that stuff. I believe that it can happen to anybody.
Like when we started this band, there was a brief amount of time where it felt like you drank gasoline and shit glass, and you were always covered in your own sweat, somebody else’s spit or blood or something. And I felt that, you know what I mean? I would make crazy speeches that made no sense onstage — I would talk about purifying flames being shot out of our cabinets at max volume to destroy evil and shit like that.
I was, you know, touched in the head. And really, when you get touched in the head like that, I think your job at that point for the rest of your career is to remember what it was like to be touched in the head, and kind of keep that going. ‘Cause that can’t last forever, you’ll be dead, I think. Like Joan of Arc. So, yeah, I love Joan of Arc.”
While there’s been some debate among fans as to what the single artwork, created by designer Aaron Hymes, depicts, the song visualizer makes it clear that these are mounds and mounds of flies, swarming what can be assumed to be something (or someone) decaying. Yum, right?
OK, let’s take a fun break before the void swallows us. With the multitude of vermin pictured above, we can’t help but think of that fly mask Gerard is wearing in his Instagram profile picture. There could be zero thread between this and his “bug summoning” post from 2019, but we’re pointing it out because this is the same person who made a “Thank You For The Venom” shirt to wear at the band’s first show, well before the song even existed.
Upon seeing all the “swarm” merch at The Eden Project, we’re feeling a little more convinced that this was by design…
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For fans, the song’s second verse is an ax swung straight through the fourth wall, but for those who don’t know their history, My Chemical Romance formed as a direct result of Gerard’s witnessing the Sept. 11 attacks. With that in mind, these lines become a lot more raw:
“He was there/The day the towers fell
And so he wandered down the road
And we would all build towers of our own
Just to watch the [roots] corrode”
Is the “he” in question Gerard in third person, and the “we” the band?
The (Anti) Hero’s Journey
In literature, there is a story structure known as “the hero’s journey” or “monomyth.” If you’re a fan of the fantasy genre (as we know several members of MCR are), you’re no doubt familiar with the structure whether you knew it had a name or not.
We’ll not put you through an English lesson here (this Ted Talk explains it pretty succinctly), but “The Foundations Of Decay” uses elements of the hero’s journey, elevating the lyrics from poetry to an epic.
The first verse seems to be in present tense, while the second verse is a reflection on the past. It happens to follow the structure nearly perfectly line-by-line:
He was there the day the towers fell (Call to adventure)
And so he wandered down the road (Adventure begins)
We would all build towers of our own (Allies Made)
Only to watch the root corrode (Trials and Ordeals)
One could even interpret the song as a whole as an extended refusal of the call-to-adventure until a supernatural force (“Wake up, coward!”) intervenes.
The breakdown and “Noise Jam Kill Em All”
During the Danger Days era, MCR used to play this filthy breakdown between songs. It was so grimy and loud that it would have been a shame for it to have been forgotten to time. Though not the same breakdown the band played onstage, many have pointed out the staccato big riff nature of the song’s heavy bridge bears a resemblance to what the band referred to as “Noise Jam,” “Noise Rock,” or our personal favorite, “Noise Jam Kill Em All” on setlists.
“GET UP, COWARD!”
The final line of the song (“GET UP, COWARD!”) is particularly standout. Not only is it a powerful statement, which Gerard’s snarling vocal delivery amplifies even further, but it also feels as though it comes from the perspective of someone who definitely isn’t the song’s previous narrator.
If we’ve followed the lyrical clues accurately, this feels like a confrontation with someone who has given up. “Yes, it comforts me much more/To lay in the foundations of decay,” Gerard gently croons in his upper register, a cue the song might be fading out softly, but My Chemical Romance shirk expectations as Way unexpectedly comes back in with the screamed “GET UP, COWARD!” This is “Stand up fucking tall/Don’t let them see your back” for the new generation.
“An Offering” Comparison
While revisiting the return, we had to do a close comparison with “An Offering.” While they are in totally different keys and have a vastly different cadence, there is certainly a vibe that feels connective between the two, especially in the latter part of both songs. Perhaps said vibe is simply the unique brilliance of Ray Toro, and we’ve been studying this for too long.
Bring More Knives
This behind-the-scenes tidbit is one of the only things we know about the creation of the song. Massive thanks to Against Me! guitarist James Bowman for letting us in on a moment that is perhaps the most My Chemical Romance thing we’ve seen since 2004. Frank Iero playing guitar with a knife and giggling? While Gerard gets stoked and yells directions in the background? Come on, that’s almost too perfect.
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“You Look Stressed Out”
Truly, bless Iero for being the only one out there giving us tiny sips of information. As debate continues circling the lyrics, he did clear up one line for us with the caption of this Instagram post: “You look stressed out...”
Initially, Genius had clocked this line, which is shouted almost as if a throwaway, before the breakdown as “Let’s flip out!” But we needed only those four words from Iero to hear it crystal clear.
This line has the same live feeling as “Vampire Money,” which fully embraced and kept studio commentary in the final mix.
If referring to watching the towers fall was axing the fourth wall, this is taking a battering ram to it.
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A New Album?
We know what you’re wondering: Is this the beginning of a new album? It’s completely unclear. Though MCR had been planning to return for years, this release feels raw and fresh, as if it were the natural result of throwing Frank, Gerard, Mikey and Ray into a room together again. Like it was destined to happen. It also remains unconfirmed if “The Foundations Of Decay” is a song revisited from The Paper Kingdom sessions. Everyone familiar with Living With Ghosts and Conventional Weapons, however, will know how drastically an MCR song can change over time — how a tiny section of a song can become a major motif for a new one. And, y’all, it has been a while.