There’s something impressive about the prolonged second act of Fall Out Boy’s career, but it’s certainly not the music. The fact that a band who once existed solely to blare about of laptop speakers whenever a MySpace profile was clicked on has found new life as middle of the road arena rockers with permanent placements on video game soundtracks and sporting event playlists is laudable. It’s just so sad that they’ve lost so much of what made them interesting to begin with. Their latest, Mania, feels like a Fall Out Boy album in name only, equidistant to their roots as New Order was to Joy Division.
For a lot of folks, Fall Out Boy was never interesting. Their particular brand of emo pop punk appealed to a certain subsection of listeners who easily outgrew the outfit’s winking, self aware take on the genre. But the band’s first few releases are chock full of half time choruses, memorable verses and John Hughes-y odes to angst. They have since metamorphosed into something broader, experimental only in relation to their former formula. Now, they make music for soda commercials, with the edges artfully sanded down into this weird, hybrid of anthemic pop rock with odd drum programming and hip hop flourishes. Their tours do well and someone’s buying the records, but it’s entirely possible no one is actually listening to these new songs, because they’re largely terrible. 2013’s Save Rock and Roll had its charms, but 2015’s American Beauty/American Psycho was a disaster. Mania follows in that last release’s footsteps, with some minor alterations, both good and bad.
In the negative column, much of the new album’s runtime bleeds together in forgettable fashion. Take single “Champion,” a raucous, thumping number that’ll sound great in a trailer for a movie about a high school sports team overcoming some kind of adversity, but could easily have been made by 10 other bands. There’s nothing actively wrong with the song, but it’s the textbook definition of empty calories. Alongside “Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea,” the track sticks to a boring new script, with basic hooks ripped from motivational cat posters. “The only thing stopping me is me.” “If I can live through this, I can do anything.” It’s a far cry from lyrically quoting Closer and Wes Anderson movies, that’s for sure.
On “Young and Menace,” lead vocalist/chief architect of the band’s sound Patrick Stump sings “We’ve gone way too fast for way too long,” and he’s not wrong. They’re not the insecure scene boys of their youth. They fathered a whole school of skinny jeaned softbois who wrote lyrics on their Sidekicks, but now they’re more brand than band. It used to be that bassist/lyricist Pete Wentz would write bits of verses as drunk text messages and Stump would use his blue eyed soul instincts to transform those solipsistic missives into pop art. That’s still kind of the methodology, but those disparate lines have never come together as poorly as they do here. A track like “Hold Me Tight or Don’t,” with its misplaced island vibe, sounds like something that would have been a rough draft for the band 10 years ago and probably wouldn’t have made the final cut.
The restless sense of invention and creative versatility displayed on Stump’s solo excursion Soul Punk seems to have left him forever, as now he’s pretty content to steer the band in whatever direction will keep them getting paid. The music is serviceable enough to be palatable, but it’s critic proof. Either you want to play it loud at some sort of social function or you don’t want to hear it at all. Currently, there’s more than enough of the former, and the latter has better things to do than voice any issues with it.
Which makes a really thrilling little trilogy of songs in the album’s middle all the more heartbreaking. After the flash of the old boys on “The Last of the Real Ones,” “Wilson (Expensive Mistakes)” feels like it could have gone toe to toe with most of Infinity On High’s b-sides. Cutesy lyrical reference to a ‘90s movie (in this case, The Addams Family)? Check. Throwback, woah-woah chorus best sung loud and shamelessly? Check. An adorably relatable sense of reflection bordering on self flagellation? Yep, it’s all there.
Although not released as a single, “Church” hits the same beats but fits even better with their current aesthetic, proving they are still capable of being themselves while selling Mountain Dew and copies of the new Madden or whatever it is they do now. It’s the most undeniable banger on the album and makes most of the other tracks all the more offensive for their toothlessness. But maybe the most shining bit on the whole LP is “Heaven’s Gate,” a drastic departure from the band’s usual sound that finds them at their most naturally melodic. This may sound like a weird comparison, but it calls to mind the ballads of late period Aerosmith. You know, all the ones with Alicia Silverstone in the video helping a nation of youths through puberty.
These little glimmers of the band in their pure form are pleasant reminders of what made them famous in the first place. Maybe in between contractually obligated stadium rockers sponsored by Monster energy drinks, they can get back to some of that on the next album.