Saturday, March 26, 2016

Fall Out Boy - American Beauty/American Psycho

The first time I pushed play on Fall Out Boy's American Beauty/American Psycho, I was at the gym, running on a treadmill. That's not the most glamorous first listen story in the world, but it more or less epitomizes what this album is, which is a pulse-pounding, blood-pumping, ass-kicking set of songs that never once lets up after it starts. The fact that the record pushed me to run something like three miles in 18 minutes—a speed I don't think I've run consistently since my high school cross country days—explains perfectly why Fall Out Boy's music has become favored soundtrack material at sporting venues: these are songs meant for cranking your adrenaline up to 11.

But American Beauty/American Psycho is also a lot more than just jock jams. Much like Fall Out Boy's 2013 comeback album, Save Rock and Roll, this record is an audacious, ambitious, and thoroughly impressive pop album. In fact, American Beauty/American Psycho may even be a step up from its predecessor—which is saying quite a lot. On Save Rock and Roll, Fall Out Boy slipped the shackles and ties of their former pop punk identity and forged something more adventurous. Rather than playing by the rules of the genre that made them stars, Fall Out Boy learned to bend genre rules to their will, tossing decades of pop music in the blender to see what would come of it all.

Understandably, then, Save Rock and Roll was a bit of a spitball album, a record that tried everything from theatrical bombast ("The Phoenix") to infectious folk pop ("Young Volcanoes"). Not every song worked, with guest features from Big Sean and Courtney Love serving as special sorts of train wrecks. But the band ultimately achieved their mission by raising themselves from the dead and building a new world where they could be relevant and popular once again.

American Beauty/American Psycho benefits from the fact that Fall Out Boy's new world has already been established. Last time around, the band had to be at least partially worried about whether or not anyone would still care about them after five years away. This time, they were able to go to work without any of those apprehensions, and the result is an album that is just a hell of a lot more fun than anything they've ever released before. Case-in-point is the split-personality title track, a raucous runaway train of a song that changes changes moods and melodic themes like a college freshman changes majors. It feels like the whole thing is only barely holding together by a single thread, but that's part of the charm.

The fun doesn't stop with the title track, either. "Irresistible" kick-starts the album with a regal horn call before exploding into a legitimately funny song about lovers caught in a fatal attraction, while songs like "Centuries" and "Uma Thurman" use menacing samples (from Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner" and The Munsters theme song, respectively) as the backbone to sky-scraping pop songs. The former has already become a world-beating single and sports arena standard, thanks to an instantly memorable shout-along chorus. The latter is arguably the best song on this record, a foot-tapping, hand-clapping gem that transports us back to the dance floor of Pulp Fiction's Jack Rabbit Slim's for a twist contest. "She wants to dance like Uma Thurman, bury me 'til I confess," Patrick Stump howls at the beginning of the song. It's a line that could only possibly work in a Fall Out Boy number, just like the Munsters sample is something that only these guys would think to use in a pop song. Both gambles pay off.

"Uma Thurman" forms just one piece of this album's incredibly well-executed mid-section. Starting with the whistle-driven "The Kids Aren't Alright" and ending with the explosive "Fourth of July," this stretch of five songs is the strongest in the band's entire career. "Kids" might be Fall Out Boy's purest pop song, a driving mid-tempo power ballad with a chorus that can only be described as euphoric. Even in lesser hands—without Stump's effortless high notes, Pete Wentz's booming bass foundation, or Joe Trohman's ricochet guitar part—the song would be great. At its core, "Kids" is just a damn fine melody coupled with some of Wentz's finest lyrical work. (The way the line "All those people in those old photographs I've seen are dead" twists the knife on nostalgia is particularly effective.)

Also appearing during the spotless mid-section run are "Jet Pack Blues" and "Novocaine." The former is a percussive should-be single, featuring a stunning bridge that cuts the tempo in half for a moment to allow for a spot of atmospheric guitar work. The latter has been compared to "The Phoenix" for its ferocious aggression, and for the unhinged reckless abandon of Patrick's vocal performance. Both songs keep the party going without missing a beat. They both sound great, too, which can be at least partially credited to Jake Sinclair, who serves as primary producer throughout American Beauty/American Psycho.

Sinclair, an old protégé and engineer for Butch Walker, took over production duties when Walker went off to make his own record (though Butch still gets a couple of credits here, on "Irresistible" and album weak point, "Immortals"). Sinclair, who co-wrote Five Seconds to Summer's "She Looks So Perfect" and produced Matt Nathanson's Last of the Great Pretenders, should become a well-known and in-demand commodity with his work on this record. In addition to providing a few co-writes (on "Uma Thurman" and "Novocaine"), he manages the balancing act that makes all of the disparate pieces of the American Beauty/American Psycho sound—from the arena rock riffs to the whistles, claps, and samples—work as pieces of a cohesive whole. If Sinclair has a weakness, it's putting Andy Hurley's career-best drum work too low in the mix—particularly on the rhythmically dynamic "Fourth of July." But he also pushes Patrick Stump to his best and most potent vocal work ever, something I wouldn't have thought possible after Stump raised the bar on Save Rock and Roll. Suffice to say that one listen to "The Kids Aren’t Alright" or "Twin Skeleton's (Hotel in NYC)" should prove that Stump is in the conversation for best male vocalist working in pop music right now.

One of the most commonly recited anecdotes about American Beauty/American Psycho (in the reviews that were published in timely fashion, at least!) was that Fall Out Boy had gone into a studio and banged out this album in three weeks. For some listeners, that was an excuse to write off the finished product as something rushed and poorly thought out. Lines like "It was recorded in three weeks, and it shows!" were common. The truth is, the quick recording session does show, but not in the way you might expect. Instead of being sloppy and half-formed, American Beauty/American Psycho is a meticulously crafted and fully realized work of pop art, a towering mélange of hooks, samples, and boatloads of different influences that celebrates the possibilities of pop music instead of just following its trends. Where the three-week anecdote makes a difference is in the spontaneity and passion the band fuels into their sound. The goal of any artist should be to spend enough time in the studio to realize their ambitions, but not so much that they lose the fire that makes a good song great. And from track 1 to track 11, this album is never lacking in fire. It may not have a standalone track as great as "Save Rock and Roll" (hey, you can't get Elton John to guest star on your album every time), but on the whole, American Beauty/American Psycho is Fall Out Boy's most consistent and bottom-line best album ever.

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