We all knew this was coming. Ever since ‘Young & Menace’ was released failed to notch any real success, we all that sinking feeling of exactly what Fall Out Boy was going to do with this album, and when it was delayed from mid-September of last year to now…
Hell, let’s put all of that aside and just consider Fall Out Boy’s progression since they reunited. Going back to it Save Rock And Roll is a glorious mess and it definitely pushes its obnoxious middle finger to an audience that abandoned it, but the hooks and tunes were there, even if they threw away many of the pop rock tones that made them in the mid-2000s. But hell, they were doing that in 2008, and despite some truly questionable creative decisions, Fall Out Boy had a project that held together in concept and execution… something I can’t say about American Beauty/American Psycho. And again, that’s not a bad project either, but as I said when I reviewed it, it had the feel of a ‘now what’ record, a band successfully regaining their clout in the mainstream only to find no more mountains to climb, which led to even more slapdash production and writing as well as a continued infatuation with hip-hop on that mixtape Make America Psycho Again that doesn’t make anyone sound good. Thankfully just enough of the rock edge was still there to keep the music mostly compelling, but just as so many acts have sacrificed that tone to remain relevant, I knew Fall Out Boy’s turn would come – hell, they had been on the cusp for multiple projects now!
And with ‘Young & Menace’, I knew that moment had come: the sellout, where like Maroon 5 and Linkin Park before them their distinctive sound would be sacrificed for a chance of mainstream success… that didn’t happen. Yeah, not going to lie, the failure of that song and Fall Out Boy returning to the studio gave me a bit of hope that maybe they had seen the precipice and had swiveled away in time. But I was also being realistic: we weren’t going to get another PAX AM Days or even something close to what Andy Hurley is doing with Sect right now, it was going to a pop project with rock elements rather than the other way around. So with that in mind… is this salvageable?
Honestly… no, not really. And the thing with M A N I A is less that it’s outright awful in a way that would inspire a rant more than just a tired, exasperated shrug – not only is it not good, it’s not even particularly bad in an interesting way, reminiscent more of what Maroon 5 put out with V back in 2014 than anything. Oh don’t get me wrong, ‘Young & Menace’ is still a howling hot mess of a song – and the fact that the Britney Spears interpolations don’t seem to have gotten the same attention boggles my mind – but when you move past that, it almost seems like Fall Out Boy set up this project with all the lines that’ll be used as ironic punctuation in the reviews, almost as if subconsciously they knew it was coming.
But okay, let’s talk about what actually works on this album, because I’m still convinced there’s some core of quality to Fall Out Boy – and if you strain for it, you can hear some of those component parts. Even despite all the layers of compression and vocal filters they pile onto Patrick Stump’s voice, he’s a powerhouse of a frontman… even if he’s stuck in an incredibly nasal progression on a song like ‘Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea’. And even if this record has too much programmed percussion as a whole right at the front of the mix, Andy Hurley is a great drummer and there’s some complexity he brings to the details that highlights that. And I won’t deny the band has a knack for melody – they’ve always been solid composers in this direction, so even if the reggaeton bounce of ‘HOLD ME TIGHT OR DON’T’ with its mewling chorus gets on your nerves – and it will – it is catchy. Same thing with the tighter piano work on ‘Last Of The Real Ones’, that actually features some real groove in the low-end and might just be my favourite song here!
Granted, that’s also one of the few songs where Pete Wentz’ bass does anything interesting, and this is where we have to start talking about the production. Everyone has pilloried ‘Young & Menace’ for the overmixed, shrieking abortion of a track that it is, and when you tack on that many chipmunk vocal fragments you’ve lost any chance I’ll ever defend it, but what more interesting – and worrisome – about that track is how it highlights there’s a total lack of low-end groove to a lot of these songs, or how Joe Trohman’s guitar for as much tune it as it can bring is often flattened and compressed into grinding tuneless lumps. It’s indicative of a production approach that has less than zero interest in what the band Fall Out Boy can provide in comparison to any tacked on element that could provide some hint of bombast or grandeur – but even in comparison to their past few records, the elements here feel increasingly slapdash in their integration. Take all the symphonic bombast wedged into ‘Church’, and despite how much I am an easy sell for that sound, this is not Nightwish or Within Temptation where those tones are integrated into the mix to accentuate the riffs or bassline – for Fall Out Boy, you can the guitar and bass, but it’s obvious the producers thought they were the least important element in comparison to the bells and choir. It’s why I said early on this record is more a pop album with rock elements than the other way around – and yet there are definitely points where you can tell they went back into the studio to amp up the presence of the band in comparison with the trap snares and hi-hats or electronics whirs or reggae elements trying to be a flaccid attempt to imitate a sound that twenty-one pilots was using three years ago! But what it leaves overall are a set of songs that are incredibly overmixed, where the actual tunes become the least important thing in comparison with all the garish trappings around them – look at how the bass is crowbarred into ‘Sunshine Riptide’ opposite the claps and blubbery reggae/trap vibe opposite Burna Boy clearly not caring whatsoever, it’s a complete mess! And look, I’m not expecting Fall Out Boy to slow down or take a breath – that’s not something they’ve ever consistently done on a record – but the lumpy 3/4 bass cadence of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ sounds like a cheap attempt to replicate the genuine soul that came on ‘What A Catch, Donnie’ a decade ago, and that’s before we get the closer ‘Bishops Knife Trick’ that drowns itself in reverb and yet can’t help but feel leaden with all the bombast it tries to bring. It’s strange, for as big as Fall Out Boy wants to sound, with each record in this progression they sound smaller and smaller – which doesn’t make me angry, just sad and numb and disappointed, with memories of them being better than this.
But then we get to the songwriting, where for many critics covering Fall Out Boy is ‘seemed like they ran out of patience for Pete Wentz’s overwritten, cleverness-and-bombast-over-substance lyrics – maybe they were just able to ignore it when the songs were more catchy. Now it doesn’t bug me nearly as much – I’ve been aware of this with Fall Out Boy for years and for the most part I actually like this style; it fits the music they make and they can occasionally get some real potent moments of poetry. But here… it feels like they were writing my punchlines for me. Look at ‘Champion’ with ‘If I can live through this, I can do anything’, or on ‘Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea’ we get ‘all my childhood heroes have fallen off or died’… but even beyond cheap references, there is an air of finality to this record, that all the grandiosity has hit its peak, that Wentz has finally run out of ideas. Go to ‘Last Of The Real Ones’, a song I like but its usage of big planetary symbolism for this love story shows that once you’ve gone into space, you’ve got nowhere else to go! And with ‘Wilson (Expensive Mistakes)’, ‘Sunshine Riptide’, ‘Bishop’s Knife Trick’ and, yes, ‘Young & Menace’ we see more evidence of that creative burnout, hitting the pinnacle of success in the debauched California sunshine and it’s all downhill from there in one last conflicted relationship! And it’s also evident in songs like ‘Church’ and ‘Heaven’s Gate’, full of all the references to final endings and transcending this world – although I will say the latter has a really cute line ‘in the end if I don’t make it on the list would you slip me a wristband’. But that line is evidence of what made Fall Out Boy so damn potent in the first place: they’re always a band that’s trafficked in high melodrama and bombast – they’ve been assholes but they’ve played into it well – but for as much as they went over the top, they could still tie it back to a very small, very human core. And here… not only do the lyrics feel thinner and less refined, there are fewer of those nuggets of cleverness or human pathos, the first time I’d ever say Fall Out Boy made an underwritten album! No jokes, I was genuinely startled how little there is to deconstruct or analyze on this record – for Fall Out Boy, this is pretty straightforward and almost barebones.
And at the end of the day I don’t know who is to blame for this. Part of me wants to say the label but Fall Out Boy have their own side imprint and had some control over release timing – they’re big enough they probably didn’t get many notes there. And I wanted to say maybe they just need to aim bigger, take a little more time and make that concept album proper – it’s not like they’re afraid of doing it, even if Folie a Deux underperformed ten years ago Save Rock And Roll didn’t… but I don’t think that’s it. No, what’s sad is that it genuinely feels closer to a Maroon 5 situation: a band running critically low on creative juices, moving towards modern trends instead of setting them, and from the writing you’d think they want to move onto other things. And considering how badly this record is underperforming commercially, maybe this is the final straw. Now for me… there’s enough of a core to this record that I can’t call it bad, and songs like ‘The Last Of The Real Ones’ save this from being outright awful – and I think some of this was also tempered by much lower expectations from me and the feeling that this was coming. But this is easily Fall Out Boy’s worst record with ‘Young & Menace’ easily being their worst ever song, and it’s getting a very light 4/10 from me. Guys, I don’t know where you go from here, but if you all need to step back, take a break, work with other side projects and then come back fresh… I think your fans would appreciate it, at least more than this.