by Brook Gardner-Durbin
Fall Out Boy (FOB) never expected to last this long. The group, founded in 2001, was originally meant to be a side project, a fun diversion for its members from their “real” bands. Their first album, “Take This to Your Grave,” did well enough to convince them to take the side project seriously, and their follow up (2005’s “From Under the Cork Tree”) went double-platinum and made the group household names.
Since then FOB has released four more albums, most recently “American Beauty/American Psycho” on Jan. 20. The album is an interesting work, at times seeming both the group’s most commercial and poppy effort to date and a return to their heavier roots. While the “Simpsons”-named group claims allegiance to louder, edgier artists than can be found on today’s Top 40 charts, including Metallica, The Ramones and early Green Day or New Found Glory, they have never denied their pop ambitions. Bassist Pete Wentz has described the group as “hardcore kids that couldn’t quite cut it as hardcore,” preferring the term “softcore” — hardcore punk with a mix of pop.
The tension between their two influences can be heard throughout “American Beauty/American Psycho,” as several songs seems to awkwardly stutter from one genre to another. “Novocaine,” for example, opens with the lyrics “This is a black, black ski mask song/so put all of your anger on” over a pounding, threatening chant before sliding into perhaps their most poppy chorus yet: “If you knew, knew what the bluebird sang at you.” “Jet Pack Blues” plays a similar game, moving from a quiet tune featuring a subdued voice over drums to a chorus with unleashed guitars and screaming vocals and back again without warning. While the group has done similar shifts before, here it sounds as if one member recorded half a pop song while another did half a punk track, and the two were simply stapled together.
Elsewhere, however, FOB is in fine form. “The Kids Aren’t Alright,” is a letter directly to their fans, addressing the group’s ever-fluctuating popularity and their uncertainty of success with this (or any) album. Vocalist Patrick Stump deftly demonstrates his range as he leaves the customary aggression behind, instead gently easing his way over one of FOB’s most gentle tracks since “Golden” from “Infinity on High.” The result is nothing if not beautiful and among the best of the group’s catalogue.
“Favorite Record” is another highlight. “You were the song stuck in my head,” sings Stump to a past love, comparing her to “every song that I’ve ever loved.” The lyrics are bittersweet as Stump implies FOB’s success is at least partially responsible for the relationship’s end, remarking that “you can get what you want but it’s never enough.”
“American Beauty/American Psycho” also features the single “Centuries” which has done well since release. “Centuries,” like “The Kids Aren’t Alright,” is about FOB and its place in popular culture. “Centuries,” however, is less hesitant or worried, replacing self-doubt and unease with emphatic demands: “You will remember me/remember me for centuries,” Stump sings, before adding that he “can’t stop till the whole world knows [his] name.” The track stands as the album’s most catchy and dance-ready song, with a pounding, insistent chorus built on Andy Hurley’s heavy drums and a driving piano riff. The song also features a sample of Suzanne Vega’s 1987 hit “Tom’s Diner.”
“American Beauty/American Psycho” is unmistakably Fall Out Boy but is equally clearly a departure from their previous work. The album pushes further from their safe zone than 2013’s “Save Rock and Roll,” resulting in a louder, more aggressive overall sound than most of their previous albums. There are interesting samples and sounds throughout, some of which work and some of which don’t. The majority of the songs are enjoyable individually, but much of the album blurs together because many of the songs sound quite similar to one another. “American Beauty/American Psycho” will keep the dedicated fans sated until the group’s next release with a number of excellent additions to FOB playlists, but it is unlikely to win the group any new converts.