Friday, April 12, 2013

album review: 'save rock and roll' by fall out boy

From the majority of people I've spoken to, here's the general consensus: if you're my age, you're expected to hate Fall Out Boy.

Well, that's not entirely the case - you're supposed to have some general distaste for the 'emo/scene' culture that began in the early 2000s and lasted until about 2009, at least within the mainstream music scene. Brought upon by what has been coined as 'the death of irony' in the wake of 9/11, the eruption of acts like Jimmy Eat World, The All-American Rejects, Simple Plan, My Chemical Romance, Marianas Trench, Panic! At The Disco, and yes, Fall Out Boy, was the 'rock music' paradigm on the Hot 100, battling it out with post-grunge and the brief indie rock spurt in 2004. These bands ruled the airwaves during my teenage years, and while I never went emo and sported the skinny jeans and bad haircuts and dye jobs, I knew a lot of people who did. But when placed in comparison to the more 'mature' indie rock that has sprung up after the club boom, most people my age have dismissed the  pop rock of the past decade as 'inconsequential', 'pissy', 'self-obsessed', or, more generally, 'shit'.

Now I could make the comment that most music aimed at teenagers can be described as such: the garage rock of the 70s, the synthpop of the 80s, and yes, the grunge explosion and punk revival of the 90s all had their fair share of self-obsessed whinging and whining. Hell, Green Day covered two separate decades of it with their breakthrough in the 90s and their massive comeback with American Idiot in 2004. And like those decades, there is a fair share of great, good, mediocre, and shit music that came out of the pop rock of the early 2000s. Yes, there was a lot of awful, but all things considered, I'd rather listen to Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco over Three Days Grace, Seether, and Theory Of A Deadman any day of the goddamn week.

So yeah, I'll come out and say it: even today, with the benefit of hindsight and a couple of years since their boom in the mid-2000s, I like Fall Out Boy. Like their label-mates and partners in style Panic! At The Disco, both acts liked to blend a variety of musical styles and intricately constructed lyrics into a theatrical explosion, and I'd argue both bands got better as the years went on. Panic! At The Disco followed their Canadian counterparts Marianas Trench by drawing influences from the past and exploring bigger concepts for album statements that actually turned out to be pretty damn awesome. No, I'm serious: for late-period pop rock, Panic! At The Disco pulled a Brian Wilson-esque style shift for 2008's Pretty, Odd and 2011's Vices & Virtues, and Marianas Trench blew their theatrical stylings up to eleven with 2009's superb Masterpiece Theater and the interesting concept album in 2011 Ever After. Seriously, check all four of these albums out, they're all excellent and highly recommended.

Fall Out Boy, meanwhile... sort of went away.

Well, that's not quite true. They reached their commercial breakthrough a little earlier than the other acts, with From Under The Cork Tree in 2005, and achieved massive success with their follow-up Infinity On High in 2007, although due to the turbulence in the music industry, it didn't quite sell as well. And their next record, Folie a Deux, a hard-edged bit of brilliant societal commentary, sold even worse, even though many critics thought it was their best album (I think poor sales could also be linked to the fact that the pop rock boom was entering its downward slide). But after its poor performance, the band disappeared for five years, with the members going onto solo projects with mixed levels of success. In the mean time, pop rock vanished, the club boom happened, and the teenagers who adored acts like Fall Out Boy began to dismiss or ridicule the band in disparaging terms.

And really, I don't entirely blame them. Fall Out Boy achieved mainstream success at the height of the boom, and unlike Green Day, lyricist Pete Wentz's self-obsession initially lacked the social commentary or level of grandiose angst to make it accessible. That was always the interesting thing about Fall Out Boy - their musical themes and delivery were self-obsessed to the point of narcissism, but there wasn't that same level of whininess or 'my life is pain' thematic elements, particularly in comparison to My Chemical Romance. If anything, that's why I think Fall Out Boy's music has aged better than that of most of its peers - while the self-absorption might seem adolescent, it's more tolerable without the teenage insufferability that came with acts like Simple Plan.

People still hated Fall Out Boy for that self-absorption, though, and Fall Out Boy was more often than not lumped in and dismissed with the rest of the emo/scene acts - which, the more I think about it, isn't really an apt comparison when it comes to the music. Fall Out Boy tended towards more genre hopping and exploration, particularly on their later albums, and the lyrics were certainly more thought-provoking. But they wore the same 'scene/emo' image, and they did share a fanbase with the other acts - which is where I think the majority of the hatred of the band is really directed. It's not about hating Fall Out Boy as much as it's about hating the people who were fans of Fall Out Boy, and hating the subculture that Fall Out Boy contributed to with their image and their self-absorption.

Now, granted, Fall Out Boy had its fair share of problems. I'd argue there isn't as much consideration of melody in their songs as there should be, and Patrick Stump's voice could get annoying. But, let's make this statement: Pete Wentz is of the reason people hated Fall Out Boy. Partially because of his lyrics that tried too hard to be clever (and yet occasionally were pretty clever), partially because he did that terrible cover of Michael Jackson's 'Beat It' with John Mayer (yeah, that happened), and partially because Wentz has a monstrous ego. Kanye West has come out and said that Fall Out Boy is one of his favourite bands, and I can see why: both acts are completely invested in telling the story that is them and them only. Fortunately, Wentz had more common sense than Kanye (although one could argue about levels of talent) and was willing to talk about more interesting subjects on Folie a Deux, and while he did frame it all through his perspective, he at least had enough personality to make the story compelling.

But now five years have past, and Fall Out Boy has come out of the smoke of the club boom (which, if the charts are any indication, has finally shuddered to a dead halt) to save rock and roll with their album titled Save Rock And Roll. A title that immediately earned the expected eye-rolls and exasperated snorts from every music critic on the planet. And frankly, I was one of them. Yeah, I like Fall Out Boy, but I know Pete Wentz' head is up his own ass, and with the boom of indie rock, right now, I'm having a hard time believing rock needs saving.

So, does Fall Out Boy convince me?

Well, no, they don't, and the reason why might require a bit of an explanation, but for those of you who want the short version, here's my brief summary: it's good, but it definitely isn't great, mostly because it works better in pieces than as a whole. It also has the tendency to become something of an incoherent mess (one of the big reasons why this review took so long for me to write is because I had such a hard time trying to understand it).

Now, granted, part of this problem comes from the fact that Pete Wentz is something of a problematic lyricist. Yes, there are definitely snippets of wit and cool ideas in his lyrics, but far too often his lyrics tend to come across as heavily overwritten. It really is the definition of pretentious, because the ideas that Wentz is trying to convey really aren't all that complicated or deep, and while it is refreshing he did learn how to play that bass guitar in the past five years, he certainly didn't take the time to start making much sense.

So unlike my previous reviews, we need to start with the album concept and expand from there, rather than saving that for the end, mostly because the album's strengths and weaknesses are built off of that concept, both lyrically and, bizarrely enough, instrumentally. 

Quite simply, the title of this album is intended literally: Fall Out Boy want to 'save rock and roll' - and they have chosen to do this by trying to revitalize and galvanize their fanbase and along with it my generation. Now, on the surface, this isn't a bad idea - after all, in today's world a 'rock star' only really gains power and influence through their fandom. And while I could be snide and say that it's mighty arrogant of Fall Out Boy to say that they're capable of saving rock and roll, or that in their absence, rock somehow collapsed (Fall Out Boy being the lead progenitors of rock music, after all), they do have something of a point here, at least if you look at the charts. Quite frankly, there hasn't been a lot of great mainstream charting rock to come out in the five years since Fall Out Boy have been gone, and if they want to bring back the days when rock dominated the pop charts, I'm all in favour of this.

But here's the first problem: Fall Out Boy has seething contempt for its fanbase, or at the very least what has happened to their fanbase in the intervening years during their hiatus. The first album track 'The Phoenix' is half rebellion anthem and half angry derision at current trends. It gets even more pronounced on 'My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark', where Pete Wentz compares their fandom's cultural shift to treasonous adultery and he almost seems ready to dispense with them entirely. And this isn't just confined to the first two songs - this theme pops up all over the album to a rather alarming degree. 'Where Did The Party Go', 'Just One Yesterday', 'The Mighty Fall', 'Death Valley', all of these songs are overloaded with scorn and bitterness for the current generation and Fall Out Boy's fans who moved on to other trends. And it's more than a little immature that Fall Out Boy keeps trying to symbolically link their fanbase with a capricious woman - a symbol that's plainly transparent because the lyrics aren't quite clever enough to obscure the fact that there is no such girl. It's a pretty cheap way to try and shame your fanbase, Fall Out Boy, have some class.

And furthermore, there's something else here that bugs the hell out of me: Fall Out Boy, you've been gone for five goddamn years, you can't honestly think that your music was so impactful and resonant with everyone that people would hold onto it above everything else. Particularly when, I might add, your music was most popular because it was riding a pop rock trend on the charts! And this is coming from a fan of Fall Out Boy - you're not the goddamn Beatles, so I'd appreciate some perspective here.

Unfortunately, that perspective is hardly anywhere to be seen, and this leads to my second huge problem with this album: Pete Wentz' head is now so deeply shoved up his own ass that it's getting more than a little ridiculous. As I said before, arrogance and self-obsession was always a running theme in Fall Out Boy's music, but here it reaches biblical levels of narcissism, which makes some of the songs a real pain to get through. Of course he's the tortured soul who has to save rock and roll, and he's going to do it despite all the trials and tribulations and his fanbase forgetting him or turning on him. 

Well, speaking as a fan, you can't exactly blame us for some degree of antipathy when you spend songs describing us as trend-following sheep and beneath your contempt. And frankly, I'd be willing to excuse some of it if there was at least some shred of self-awareness, that Fall Out Boy recognized they might be part of the problem too or that they're at least somewhat affected by all of this. It's one of the reasons (and I apologize for continuing to come back to this) that Kacey Musgraves' album worked so well: she had both empathy and a desire to identify herself with her fans in her music. Fall Out Boy, on the other hand, want absolutely nothing to do with you, and they make that clearer with every single track. 

The two places where Fall Out Boy seems to show some empathy or attempt to connect with their audience are 'Miss Missing You' and 'Young Volcanoes' (well, 'Alone Together' tries, but doesn't quite manage it). The songs work in different ways: 'Miss Missing You' shows that Wentz misses the emotional connection that he had even as it fades away, while 'Young Volcanoes' (probably my favourite track on the album) works by casting rock stars and the youth of America as 'young volcanoes', which I think is a great metaphor that manages to both unite and not insult.

But even with the tracks that are intended to denigrate his fanbase, there's a way of making that work - hell, one of Eminem's biggest tracks was 'The Way I Am', a song where he directly attacks his fanbase and tells them to leave him the fuck alone. And there is a way to make traditional 'rock star' arrogance work: a coherent musical vision and something to actually say. And here's where we run into the third, final, and most massive problem with this album: it's a goddamn mess.

Now, granted, every Fall Out Boy has been something of a mess, mostly due to their tendencies to incorporate different sounds and instrumentation. Even on Folie A Deux, their album transitions tended to be clunky and the ideas didn't have good flow with each other. But here, the mess complaint extends not just to the transitions, but to the songs themselves. Some of this is a major production problem, with the guitars processed into a slurry and the track layering leaving me feeling underwhelmed. For an overproduced album, the songs lack a considerable amount of heft, and any attempt the band has at trying to feel epic feels painfully undercut by the production. 

It also doesn't help matters that the new instrumental vision that Fall Out Boy is bringing to the table isn't all that impressive or original. 'Miss Missing You' sounds like a lost outtake from a Killers album, and any attempt to 'modernize' the sound feels like something Imagine Dragons already did better on their debut. One of the reasons I like 'Young Volcanoes' as much as I do is because it sounds like the best possible blending of Fall Out Boy's older sound with the modern touches of today, and while it's a little silly, it's the kind of song that sounds fun both for the band and the fan. But so much of this album is so serious and sour and angry - which isn't a problem if the instrumentation can back it up, and more often than not, what should come across as rage comes across as petulant whining.

And I would be remiss to not mention the guest stars on this album, none whom really improve the songs they're on by any measurable amount. Big Sean's verse on 'The Mighty Fall' actually makes things come across even worse by undercutting the song's rhythm and theme, where he takes Fall Out Boy's aggrieved mythologizing and shows exactly what happens when the 'mighty' does fall. Which could work... except I don't think that was the point Fall Out Boy was going for. Courtney Love really doesn't do much on her featured appearance either, and while Elton John does deliver a pretty impressive performance on the title track, Patrick Stump's whining (channelling Wentz's lyrics) just comes across as painfully weak and overdone, so much so the song almost becomes self-parody. Elton almost sounds a bit embarrassed even as he throws himself into the song with impressive gusto.

But in the end, I'm left feeling confused and a little disappointed. The arrogance saturating this album makes it a little tough for me to enjoy, particularly when I don't feel Pete Wentz or the rest of Fall Out Boy have anything interesting or compelling to say. Granted, it's a good pop rock album for the most part, but it's such a cluttered, overwrought mess that I can't appreciate the good elements as much as I'd like. I'm even hesitant to recommend it as a fan to other fans, mostly because of how much time Pete Wentz shits all over his own fanbase. And I'm still left with the question of whether or not rock and rolls needs to be saved - with the burgeoning indie rock scene coming into greater prominence (where it seems even Fall Out Boy is cribbing notes), it seems like rock is coming back into the mainstream in a great way.

Fall Out Boy, you don't need to save rock and roll. Right now, I think I'm more convinced that you need to save yourselves first.


  1. This was a fascinating review. I've not been into the emo or even the rock scene for a long time, so this was a fascinating commentary on one of my favourite rock bands. Great review as always.

  2. This was a worthy read. As a newer fan of the band having only first started to care a few months ago, it's a bit difficult for me to understand the loathing some hold for them, so this was a decent explanation. But I have to disagree on your critique that the base shaming was undeserved. I agree that it was excessive, but definitely in their right. And what other angle could have the band used, anyway? Simply ignoring their reputation? Rising over and trampling it seems to leave them with a bit of dignity at least. I can only hope that in their new era in fame they will move to more solid albums, closest to Folie a Duex, and well gain general cultural respect - they deserve it, honestly.