Review: Fall Out Boy Have the Wrong Ideas About Pissing Off Punk Purists
Fall Out Boy have always been more interested in being popular than cool, and the longer they stick around, the better that philosophy functions as a survival mechanism. Fifteen years since the Illinois emo quartet’s debut album, and a few years into their comeback as one of the most famous rock bands in the world, the Fall Out Boy of 2018 are, for better or worse, essentially Aerosmith in the late ’80s. “All my childhood heroes have fallen off or died,” frontman Patrick Stump sings at one point on Fall Out Boy’s seventh album M A N I A, no doubt aware that for a few kids out there, he’s one of the heroes that fell off too.
M A N I A stumbled out of the gate after missing its initial release date last September, following the muted reaction to early singles like “Young and Menace,” which wedded EDM drops to heavy metal bombast. Bassist-lyricist Pete Wentz reassured fans that it would be the only song on the album that “sounds vaguely like a kitten chasing a laser around,” but the track still opens M A N I A, and feels like a gutsy line drawn in the sand. The next single, “Champions,” co-written with Sia, was a failed attempt to continue the jock jam ubiquity of 2013’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark” and 2014’s “Centuries,” which made the poster boys for guyliner an unlikely staple of sporting events.
The only other time Fall Out Boy released a major label record with this little commercial momentum, 2009’s Folie a Deux quietly turned into one of the band’s best and most varied albums, in part because of its grand gestures and broad strokes. M A N I A takes similar chances to more mixed results, as Stump belts out absurdly verbose lyrics over glossy, overstuffed tracks. But the album’s more experimental moments aren’t necessarily its strong suit, as evidenced by the fact that the best song, the anthemic midtempo track “Wilson (Expensive Mistakes),” is strongly reminiscent of a highlight from their last album, American Beauty/American Psycho’s “The Kids Aren’t Alright.”
Although Fall Out Boy’s music has featured more programmed beats and concessions to Top 40 fads over time, they’ve never gone full Maroon 5, throwing Stump in the studio with superproducers while the band takes a smoke break. It speaks volumes that The Weeknd producer Illangelo’s contribution to M A N I A, “The Last of the Real Ones,” actually turns out to be one of the album’s most propulsive rock tracks. Drummer Andy Hurley sounds like he’s having a ball playing spastic drum fills over programmed beats on “Young and Menace” and “Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea.” And the trendy trop house vibes of “Hold Me Tight or Don’t” also contain shades of the jittery neurotic intensity of an Elvis Costello cod reggae track.
At 35 minutes, M A N I A is Fall Out Boy’s shortest album, and the longest song title is six words, a far cry from the absurd sentence-length titles that were once the band’s signature. Pete Wentz hasn’t abandoned his penchant for flashy wordplay and shameless self-mythologizing, and Stump still gamely sells bizarre Wentzisms like “I’m ’bout to go Tonya Harding on the whole world’s knee.” The brevity of the album also helps hold together a far-ranging set of songs, featuring Nigerian dancehall star Burna Boy on one track and folk singer Audra Mae on another, that would likely feel exhausting over a longer running time.
M A N I A hits its stride in the second half, with a pair of tracks that toy with religious imagery and waltz tempos, “Church” and “Heaven’s Gate.” Both songs let the group stretch its legs a little away from the drum machines, and allow Stump his most relaxed vocal performances on an album where he often seems to be straining to be heard over the band. Fall Out Boy can never go “back to basics”—although 2013’s PAX AM Days EP was an entertaining detour into lo-fi hardcore—and they shouldn’t. But in their restless quest to achieve pop immortality and piss off punk purists, they should remember that classic rock grandeur does the trick just as well as a dance beat.