No One Wants to Hear You Sing About Tragedy
Perhaps Fall Out Boy’s predicament can best be illustrated by the Alternative Press issue that appeared the month preceding Folie a Deux‘s release. Though Fall Out Boy were the central focus of the issue, AP actually produced two versions of the cover: one which said “Fall Out Boy Rule!” and the other, aptly, declaring that “Fall Out Boy Sucks!” What this signified is how even in the pop-punk community, no group was more polarizing than this Illinois-bred emo four-piece.
On one hand, Fall Out Boy’s music was fast-becoming the least-interesting part of the group. Prior to the release of 2007’s Infinity on High, bassist/lyricist Pete Wentz was quickly becoming a tabloid sensation in his own right, his name soon becoming synonymous with the phrase “media whore”. That’s largely because Wentz didn’t shy away from the spotlight when it came ‘round his way, but rather outright embraced it. Nude pictures of Wentz surfaced online prior to Infinity (which was parodied in the video for lead single “This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race”), the band’s Decaydance imprint was taking off in the light of the success of signees like Panic! At the Disco (who have since dropped the exclamation point) and the Gym Class Heroes, and there was Wentz’s flash-bang marriage to pop starlet Ashlee Simpson, leading to his strange, paparazzi-baiting behavior in its wake (like wearing a paper-plate over his face in public). In any other year, FOB’s cover of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” (featuring John Mayer on guitar) would be subject to much ridicule amidst “serious” music publications, but with Wentz becoming the newest member of the Simpson family, nasal singer Patrick Stump throwing himself into remix work, and guitarist Joe Trohman and drummer Andy Hurley curiously left at the sidelines, few people outside of their massive fan base took much notice and even fewer people genuinely cared.
On the other hand, however, Fall Out Boy’s existence wasn’t without merit. Their 2003 breakthrough disc Take This to Your Grave was an underground hit in pop-punk circles, as this sharp, funny, and—yes—even witty breakup album gnashed its teeth with a fury that few emo-rock acts could compete with. Following that up with their catchy, hit-spawning major-label bow From Under the Cork Tree, the band quickly became posterboys for the post-millennial emo movement, their sense of humor and irony separating them from the pack while simultaneously making them bigger in the process. They were one of the first bands to truly “break” through MySpace, which (in turn) lead to mainstream exposure, which (in turn) made singles like “Sugar, We’re Going Down” and “Thnks fr th Mmrs” massive hits. Their songs were custom-made for instant net streaming, as they threw catchy choruses at listeners faster than you could say “the New Pornographers”. As easy as it was to hate Fall Out Boy, it was even harder to deny the fact that Stump and co. were expert hook craftsmen.
All of this comes to a head with Folie a Deux.
Though musically expanding on the high-gloss studio perfectionism that graced Infinity, Folie proves to be quite the lyrically contradictory record. Wentz spends most of his time waxing poetic on the topic of love, but he never really winds up settling on any particular stance. “Boycott love!” Stump sings during the organ-filled opener “Disloyal Order of Water Buffaloes”—a defiant cry which would make more sense if it wasn’t pressed up next to the overly poetic question “Does your husband know the way / That the sunshine beams from your wedding band?” on the very Jellyfish-indebted “Headfirst Slide into Cooperstown on a Bad Bet”. The “wedding band” line simply reeks of unrequited affection, which makes Wentz’s supposed ban of romance all the more sophomoric in reflection.
Though fans may argue that Wentz is writing from the perspectives of various characters, he has never once afforded himself that convenience, as each word he’s penned—from Evening Out with Your Girlfriend onward—can intrinsically be tied back to his personal life, best exemplified by how “This Ain’t a Scene ...” was his view about the emo “scene” that he inexplicably became a spokesperson for. On Folie, each moment of genuine optimism that Wentz expresses (“The best of us can find happiness in misery”) is matched with a statement of outright defeat (“If home is where the heart is / Then we’re all just fucked”), making us wonder if Wentz is even remotely sincere when he tells us that he will “never believe in anything again” during the storming “(Coffee’s for Closers)”. Though Folie is riddled with self-doubt and—to a lesser degree—self-loathing, all his moaning seems to contradict a mantra that Stump spells out during “Water Buffaloes”’ opening moment: “No one wants to hear you sing about tragedy.”
As the album progresses, the lyrics get weirder and weirder, first by having Wentz discuss drug use on two different occasions (“27” and “20 Dollar Nose Bleed”), and then by having Lil’ Wayne stop by in middle of “Tiffany Blews” to diss ... gravity. Though most of the album seems to be devoted towards Wentz’s romantic side, there are still moments where Fall Out Boy get a bit self-referential, most notably during the epic “What a Catch, Donnie”—a song that would be a great Blur rip-off in the hands of any other group. Though constructed as an epic power-ballad, the real oomph comes from the choir of voices at the end, in which Panic’s Brandon Urie, Cobra Starship’s Gabe Saptora, Gym Class Hero’s Travis McCoy, and Elvis Costello (!) all stop by to sing snippets of older Fall Out Boy tunes (“Grand Theft Autumn”, “Dance Dance”, etc.) for no particular reason, making for one curiously pointless meta-moment.
Yet with most of Wentz’s lyrics ready to be associated with his marriage to Simpson or his feelings towards the paparazzi (“throw your cameras in the air / and wave ‘em like you just don’t care” he writes during “Coffee”), there is inherently a sense of drama missing from the proceedings. Instead of carrying a personal vandetta like he did on Take This to Your Grave, Wentz is now dissecting the meaning of his own fame, which—to paraphrase a line from AMG’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine—is far less interesting than the drama that preceded his ascent into tabloid culture. Fans will still find much to love, haters will find much to ridicule, but—in the end—Wentz doesn’t really have much to say.
Thankfully, Folie absolutely succeeds on the musical front, adding buckets of new flavors and textures into the Fall Out Boy palette—most of which stem from Stump’s newfound discovery of vocal harmonies. Instead of his reedy pipes carrying the weight of the entire disc, Stump now supports himself with harmonized cooing and an army of “whoa-oh”‘s, making songs like the meaty hookfest “She’s My Winona” all the more memorable. “w.a.m.s.”, meanwhile, has a Pharrell-lead blues breakdown tacked onto its final moments, making for one of the more remarkable left-turns in Fall Out Boy’s history. Yet the biggest surprise comes during “20 Dollar Nose Bleed”, in which the band—at first—seem to be taking after Panic at the Disco’s newfound Beatles-love a bit too strongly (replete with bouncy pianos and orchestral flourishes), but when a horn section is brought in to punch up the already-gigantic chorus, it feels as if Fall Out Boy have crafted a song that won’t intrinsically be tied to any particular era. The chorus could would work just as well in 1985 as it will when you hear it for the first time today—something that you would be hard-pressed to say about any other Fall Out Boy song ever.
Though Folie a Deux is still riddled with problems (ending the disc with the Survivor-esque closer “West Coast Smoker” makes for a somewhat hurried conclusion), it’s still a musical leap in the right direction for the band, as it adds just enough new elements to keep things interesting while not straying too far from the sound that made them big in the first place. As such, it seems odd that Wentz—formerly the band’s biggest strength—is now Fall Out Boy’s weakest link. As much as Wentz loves analyzing his own reflection, his current lyrical output is simply not as interesting as his early work—his lovedrunk worldview has squashed much of the sarcasm that made him so intriguing a songwriter to begin with. Yet just as quickly as people change, people can change back—and for the sake of the fans, the pundits, and casual observers everywhere, let’s hope he changes sooner than later.
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