What’s one thing most of today’s popular rock bands have in common? They don’t sound much like rock bands. Coldplay’s most successful recent moments have come with EDM collaborators. Paramore’s latest felt like Hayley Williams pulling a Gwen Stefani solo move, but keeping the group moniker. Imagine Dragons, Twenty One Pilots, and Panic! at the Disco have collectively inspired zero children to buy a Fender. Will the last commercially successful mainstream rocker actually wielding a guitar turn out the lights? (That’d be you, Dave Grohl.)
So it’s no surprise that one-time pop-punk band Fall Out Boy is now just a pop band. Not that there were exactly any remnants of their hardcore-scene beginnings in their last effort, 2015’s “American Beauty/American Psycho,” but they’ve really and truly dropped all but a few vestiges of a guitar-based sound for “M A N I A,” their newly released seventh album (we’ll drop the eccentric spacing and just call it “MANIA” on subsequent mentions, if that’s okay). Its first single, “Young and Menace,” released all the way back in April 2017, announced a possible radical shift: Think “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down Into a Bass Drop.” The distinctly EDM touches of that teaser track don’t really show up anywhere else in the new album, but there’s still a heavily produced, electronic wash over the whole affair.
It ain’t “rock,” but it ain’t bad. At least, I don’t think there’s any great tragedy to be found in the group spurning that overfamiliar guitar chug, when pop-punk bands are still a dime a dozen on the margins of rock. Patrick Stump’s voice was always too big to fit in with a subgenre where vocal whininess is part of the job description. It’s still not clear that they’ve decided what kind of band to be after all these years, but at least the album’s growing pains provide some growing pleasures, even as you might wish they’d stretched themselves further still.
The most clear and present danger after the last album was that they’d take the success of the single “Centuries” to heart and go all-inspirational, all the time. That song was the love-it-or-hate-it (full disclosure: I hated it) modern rock anthem of the past few years, crossing over from KROQ-style stations to become intro or bumper music on seemingly every televised sports program in the country. There is a less grandiose stab in that direction with the new “Champion,” but lightning has not struck twice; it’s the most skippable track on the album.
Sporty glee does not come naturally to Pete Wentz, the group’s bassist and primary lyricist, so even on “Champion,” he’s peppering the uplift with confessions like, “I got rage every day on the inside” and “I’m trying to blow out the pilot light.” The album’s title, “MANIA,” is meant to signal to fans that, however light the music might get, Wentz’s lyrics will still be deeply informed by his long-public struggle with bipolar disorder. It’s a short leap back from that condition to the everyday angst that Fall Out Boy’s fans might experience, so there are a lot of references on the album to how, as one song says, “Even at the best of times, I’m out of my mind.” Sometimes even in the same song — say, “Young and Menace” — these allusions are both serious (“There’s a madness that’s just coursing through me”) and flippant (“I’m just here for the psych assessment”).
Is there a psych evaluation that boils down to movie-crazed? Not for the first time, a Fall Out Boy album is filled with pop culture references. James Cameron’s “Aliens” alone provides a touchstone for two separate song titles, “Bishops Knife Trick” and “Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea.” “Wilson (Expensive Mistakes)” is at least half-named after Tom Hanks’ volleyball in “Castaway.” That song also borrows a line from Wes Anderson’s “Moonlight Kingdom” — “I hope the roof flies off and I get blown out into space,” as previously intoned by Bill Murray — and the chorus tag line, “I’ll stop wearing black when they make a darker color,” is right out of Christina Ricci’s mouth from “The Addams Family.” Presumably the line “I’m about to go Tonya Harding on the whole world’s knee” was inspired by 2017 movie trailers. It’s fun to play spot the reference, though it does threaten to make the album into a game of Trivial Pursuit.
There’s some irony in hearing Stump sing Wednesday Addams’ signature quote: That song comes off as a carefree sing-along, not a black-clad goth excursion, and the album in general feels pretty cheerful, even withstanding lines like, “My head is stripped just like a screw that’s been tightened too many times.”
Any mania in “MANIA” is limited to the lyrics, while the band’s music is even-tempered and hardly given to extremes. “Stay Frosty” has enough pounding force to serve as a concert opener in years to come. But you also get relatively mellow tracks like “Heaven’s Gate,” a love song/morality ballad with a gospel/R&B feel, and “Church,” which brings in bells and a sampled choir to further establish that a woman’s love is sanctuary enough. When the tempo is upped into something frantic on “The Last of the Real Ones,” produced by Illangelo (The Weeknd), the slickness of the arrangement suggests that “that ultra kind of love” is never really going to get out of control. Even the darkest track, “Sunshine Riptide,” with a guest verse by Nigeria’s Burma boy, is more about the sun than the undertow.
If the album doesn’t feel very jagged or weighty, that’s not necessarily a knock. Lyrical depression and feel-good music have always been natural partners, and it’s more interesting to hear Fall Out Boy explore some of those feelings in pop than it was in a punky setting that seemed more jerry-rigged for teen anxiety. The best track on “MANIA” might be its last — “Bishops Knife Trick,” a pretty, lush, mid-tempo ballad that’s as close to adult-contemporary as they’ve ever come, but also surprisingly confessional. There, Wentz, a guy who just opened up his home and family life for a People spread, writes, “I’ve got a feeling inside that I can’t domesticate… a feeling that I can’t housebreak.” If the band ever decides to keep writing about that kind of angst while just fully turning on the AC, that might really be punk-rock.
Fall Out Boy
“M A N I A”