So Jay-Z shows up on the intro to “Thriller,” the first song on the new Fall Out Boy album, but he doesn’t have a lot to say: “We dedicate this album to anybody who said we couldn’t make it, to the fans who held us down till everybody came around.” He doesn’t rap, thank God; he limits his involvement in the song and the album to that little spoken bit and a quick but wince-worthy little “Young FOB!” interjection later in the song. It’s fun to hear Jay playing hypeman again, maybe for the first time since he emerged from behind Jaz-O, but it’s also profoundly confusing. Like, who’s the “we” Jay’s talking about? I don’t know if Jay realizes this, but Fall Out Boy stopped being underdogs at the exact moment he noticed them, which is probably pretty much the same moment I noticed them. The “Sugar We’re Going Down” video was such a cartoon-cute piece of shit that I didn’t realize how great the song was until one day when I was cleaning my living room with MTV2 on in the background; I couldn’t really listen to the song until I got a chance to hear it completely divorced from its visuals. So Fall Out Boy is a band that gets better as its considerable baggage fades into the background. But the band’s spent a couple of years now amassing tremendous amounts of baggage: spearheading the MySpace emo revolution, leaking camera-phone porn, making dumb videos that reference other dumb videos, writing song titles the length of a Richard Brautigan short story. And so they’ve gone ahead and followed up their breakthrough album with a record that’s about the band’s own baggage. In recruiting Jay to blather some nonsense at the album’s beginning, what they’re telling us is that they’ve joined the ranks of modern pop royalty. There’s no way to make an announcement like that without coming across like an absolute dickface, but the Fall Out Boy dudes, Wentz especially, aren’t afraid to be hated. But maybe they are afraid of writing a pop album as good as the one that got them noticed. The moment where Fall Out Boy’s image manipulation became more important than their music probably came with the video for “A Little Less Sixteen Candles, A Little More Touch Me,” when the vampire-slaying sound effects were pushed so high into the mix that we couldn’t even hear the song underneath it. Infinity on High is basically an album-length extension of that moment.
It’s always interesting to see how once-marginal punk-identified bands follow up their massive successes. Nirvana self-destructed almost immediately. Green Day fell into a bubble-punk journeyman groove, churning out a pile of strong but unmemorable albums before finally getting around to their shitty, pretentious world-beating concept-album apotheosis. Blink-182 may be the only one of these bands to come up with a healthy response: they honed their pop chops and came up with a better record than anyone could’ve imagined they had in them, becoming even bigger before finally going emo and breaking up. Last year, My Chemical Romance, a band whose place in the MySpace-emo revolution will always tie them to FOB, went straightaway for theatrical 70s pomp, releasing a concept-album full of showtunes about cancer. Fall Out Boy has consciously gone in the opposite direction, recruiting Jay and Babyface and an army of sound-compressors to make the slickest, shiniest Vegas album they know how to make. Listening to The Black Parade next to Infinity on High, I wish MCR and FOB had switched places. MCR’s peak comes on “Teenagers,” the one song where they go trashy and come up with a nasty, slippery bit of sneery self-awareness, whereas Infinity on High‘s best moment is “I’ve Got All This Ringing in My Ears and None On My Fingers,” a ridiculous slice of theatrical overkill, its layers of piano driving Patrick Stump’s falsetto up somewhere near heaven. These bands could learn something from each other.
Fall Out Boy has always employed a weird division on labor: prettyboy bassist Wentz carries himself as the band’s frontman even though he doesn’t contribute anything beyond the nonsensically self-obsessed lyrics, and Stump obligingly disappears off to the side even though his sharp, hooky melodies are the real reason for the band’s success. Stump is the singer, and he feeds Wentz’s lyrics through a filter of distance, delivering almost all that self-aggrandizing bullshit in the same overdriven nasal bleat. Stump tries to sing like a soul singer even though he doesn’t have the instrument for it and even though he never shows much emotional investment in the material, and that tension can do both good things and bad things for the band. On “This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race,” the flatfooted fake-techno groove totally overwhelms Stump; he ends up singing in a clenched choke, pushing so hard against the tide that his tension never finds release. “Thriller” seems to be Wentz’s “Serve the Servants” ingratitude-for-fame moment: “Make us posterboys for the scene / But we are not making our acceptance speech.” Wentz can’t write for shit, which doesn’t help anything. But there’s still something appealingly loony in the album’s reach. Babyface tosses a flamenco-guitar bridge into “Thnks fr th Mmrs,” and the chorus from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” shows up absolutely out of nowhere on “Hum Hallelujah”; I like to imagine that the dudes in the band heard the song for the first time when they were watching Shrek. All that wouldn’t mean much by itself, but Stump is constitutionally incapable of writing a chorus that does anything less than soar, which is pretty much the only thing that makes Infinity on High worth more than one listen. Incoherence in pop music is only interesting when it attaches itself to great songs. There aren’t any great songs here, but there are some good ones. Still, I’m not going to care about these guys until they have their Blink-182 epiphany and start writing weightless pop songs again. I’m not holding my breath.
Voice review: Mikael Wood on Fall Out Boy’s From Under the Cork Tree