Friday, January 16, 2015

album review: 'american beauty/american psycho' by fall out boy

I don't think anybody knew what to expect when Fall Out Boy dropped their long-awaited comeback record in 2013. A band that was simultaneously fanatically loved and hated, they weren't exactly a band where there was much of a middle ground. Yeah, the instrumentation had bombast and tight groove-flavoured melodies, but they were clearly riding the coattails of the pop-flavoured emo movement. Yes, Patrick Stump had a great voice, when it wasn't screamingly obnoxious. And yeah, the lyrics were intricate and poetic and Pete Wentz was a gifted songwriter... but going beneath the surface revealed arrogance and self-obsession and a bad tendency to behave like condescending assholes. 

And the funny thing is that all of it is true - and yet as a critic, I was inclined to give the edge to Fall Out Boy here. For as much as they played assholes, they were at least aware of it in their framing, and it wasn't as if they didn't occasionally make solid points, especially when drifted more towards political material. And frankly, the more bombastic they got the more I could appreciate them, especially with their underrated concept album Folie a Deux. So when they came back in 2013, I was excited to see grander ambitions, and then...

Okay, look, I know from a certain academic standpoint Save Rock And Roll doesn't really work all the way through. It's over-the-top to the point of self-important silliness, it makes grand statements it can't back up, the production is a total mess, the majority of the guest stars don't work, it frequently pulls from other rock acts, and the fact that a massive portion of it is a middle finger to their fans was probably not the best of creative choices. And yet, of all the albums I've covered in 2013 in written or video form, it's been the album I've come back to the most - definitely not because it's the best but because it's downright fascinating and contains some of the band's best ever songs. And while the targets of the rage might be misplaced, you can't exactly deny that the band was throwing their all into this, for better or for worse.

As such, I had no idea what to expect from their newest record, American Beauty/ American Psycho. On the one hand, Fall Out Boy were claiming to be even more experimental and tackle more political material, but on the other hand I found the single 'Centuries' to be underwhelming and really reminiscent of Panic! At The Disco's 'Ms. Jackson', at least on the first few listens - mostly because it got the same female singer. But I'm still a fan of this band, so I made sure to give the album a fair few listens - what did we get?

Well, just like Save Rock And Roll, it's something of a complete, overloaded mess that doesn't really work - but unlike that album, I don't really see American Beauty/American Psycho holding up. I'm not going to begrudge Fall Out Boy for taking a risk, but the results are a lot more mixed than they were in 2013, and a lot of it is reflecting a band that's struggling to find their place in modern music, specifically in rock. And while there are definitely great moments, the lack of an solid unifying theme or message really means this album starts falling apart at the seams the second you start digging into its meat.

So let's start with the acknowledgement that Fall Out Boy, from melodic composition to Patrick Stump's vocal delivery to Pete Wentz' songwriting, all of it produces the foundations of a good band. Even at their most screamingly obnoxious - and they don't hit that point as often as usual on this album, which is saying something - they still are a talented and versatile rock group. And considering that this record was designed more for fist-pumping anthems in arenas, it makes sense that they'd be looking for any way they can to amp up the bombast and grandeur and raw power. And they did... but I'm not sure they did it well. Instead of thickening the bass or going for a heavier guitar tone, Fall Out Boy instead shoved the sizzle of the guitar right to the front of the mix and threw together as much hammering, noisy percussion as they could possibly get. And yet to give Fall Out Boy credit, they did fight to make sure there was a melody line at least somewhat visible through the cacophony to drive the tracks along with Patrick Stump's howls, whether it be through a strident guitar lick, keyboards, or even horns. And yet, I can't say I'm a huge fan of this overall approach, mostly because instead of letting the melody or groove drive the heaviness, it's the wall of sound that just feels clumsily mixed, almost loud enough to swallow the vocals so in response they piled fuzzes and filters all over Patrick Stump to match that production - the majority of which he doesn't need. What it leads to are songs with verses that are melodic, even beautiful, and yet with choruses that are all overexposed rough edges and overloaded mixes, and it just feels forced for me.

Now that's not saying there aren't songs that can make it work - the rich horns of 'Irresistible', the eerie sample from 'Tom's Diner' by Suzanne Vega that drives 'Centuries' - of which I've warmed to a fair bit - the whistle and prominent bassline of 'The Kids Aren't All Right', the piano and bells of 'Jet Pack Blues', the dirty pummeling crunch of 'Novocaine', the spunky summer vibe of 'Favourite Record', and especially the fluttering piano and sampled guitar-and-horns of 'Uma Thurman', courtesy of The Munsters' theme! In fact, if we're looking at Fall Out Boy's biggest innovation on this album - one that shouldn't be any surprise when you see the album has production credits from JR Rotem - it's sampling - and so is it a bad thing when I say despite how great the samples might be, there are cases when I might prefer them alone over what Fall Out Boy does to them? Because when we look at the title track that samples Motley Crue's 'Too Fast For Love', it sounds like an overloaded mess - like everything else on this album, there's no subtlety to the sampling, it just feels slapdash. Granted, it's not the only place - 'Immortals' has a reedy flute opening that feels completely out of place with everything except the weedy vocal production, which doesn't sound good at all, even despite the heavier crunch of the guitars.

Now, of course, all of this could be overlooked if the lyrics held up... and if we're looking for an area where the lack of direction is really standing out, it's here. Sure, Pete Wentz is still a good songwriter with a gift for interesting lyrics and metaphors that can make up for some sloppy songwriting at points - repeating words or stuttering syllables to fill up space, he really does it a lot more than you'd think. And on first glance, the songs all seem to fit the standard Fall Out Boy template - troubled/fragmented relationships, a middle finger at the establishment with a vaguely populist vibe, and towering arrogance that's just punctured enough with self-awareness to make it palatable. Hell, on some level it falls very much in line with Save Rock And Roll - but the big difference is that American Beauty/American Psycho doesn't seem to have the same unifying themes that previous record had. Sure, the hyperbolic rage of Save Rock And Roll was ridiculous, but Fall Out Boy knew that and were still committed to it anyway, an album exploring what it was to be one of the few rock bands that could be huge in the mainstream anymore and what it would mean to win back a fanbase that had largely thrown them aside.

And the more times I listened through this album, it felt very much like a 'now what' record - the big struggle had been fought and won, so now what was Fall Out Boy going to do? Well, if we were going to stretch for a theme, it'd probably be tied to Fall Out Boy's thoughts surrounding legacy and where their band stands to go now. And what I kind of appreciate about this album is that Fall Out Boy doesn't really provide a straight answer to that question - they have songs where they might say they'll go on for centuries, but it's undercut by the constant question of whether they themselves are worth that long-term recognition, very much in vein of whether they were worthy to 'save rock and roll' on their last record. And the very end of the album, we're left a similar non sequitur answer before, where ultimately those larger questions might not matter as long as a brand of imperfect love can be found. On some level, it kind of makes sense - the Pulp Fiction references strewn across the record, the callback to Sid Vicious' doomed relationship to Nancy Spungen - even if the larger whole might be diseased and broken or not add up to much, the little moments of love and details are what really matter - it's not really about the briefcase, in other words. 

But while that's a good theme, I can't help but feel it might misplaced for a record like this. Fall Out Boy was aiming to go bigger, louder, and even more broad on this record, and undercutting all of that bombast surrounding legacy by implying it's not nearly as relevant as holding onto fragments of love strikes me as very Fall Out Boy, but not exactly handled well when none of the quiet moments you need to accentuate that point had any 'quiet' or restraint to them at all. Which means for the album as a whole... man, I'm conflicted on this. Like it or not, I still like the majority of the songs on this album with few exceptions, but whenever I try to really get deep into this album beyond 'Uma Thurman', 'Jet Pack Blues', or 'Novocaine', I get waist deep in nitpicks and problems. And I know that I prefer it when Fall Out Boy gets more conceptual, and they clearly weren't trying to do that with this record... but this record seems to be trying to force drama that's not there, and that bugs me a lot. So for me, I'm going to give this a very strong 6/10 and a recommendation - if you're a hardcore Fall Out Boy fan, of course you're going to love it, but beyond that... well, check out a few songs beyond the singles to be sure. If that doesn't win you over, it's probably not for you.

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