It’s hard to figure out what Fall Out Boy wants to be these days. The real answer is probably a little bit of everything. When the Illinois band emerged from a three-year hiatus with 2013’s Save Rock and Roll — an absurd title, even if you wanted to believe it — they were something quite different from a rock ‘n’ roll band. The video for that album’s lead single, “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light ‘Em Up)”, featured rapper 2 Chainz, and the song’s pummeling hip-hop beat threw an odd bone to the jocks who might have relished kicking Fall Out Boy’s asses in high school.
Somewhat miraculously, the rest of Save Rock and Roll was not a disaster, but rather a series of small triumphs and admirable stumbles. Still, nobody could quite answer the question lurking beneath the album’s slick veneer: Is Fall Out Boy brave, or are they trolling? 2013’s self-consciously aggressive Pax Am Days EP only cast the matter into further doubt with a back-to-basics approach to hardcore that somehow felt more cynical than reverent. If anything, Pax Am Days cast into relief the band’s identity crisis and opened the door to an even more interesting question than the first: Can a band succeed (wildly, even) without knowing what the hell it is?
In this context, the literal duality of American Beauty/American Psycho is almost too perfect — a gift to the critic if there ever was one. It is a gift that sadly cannot be reciprocated, because Fall Out Boy loses its way more often than not in its latest stab at rock radio dominance. Songwriting and sheer talent have alternately functioned as the band’s saving grace throughout the years (say what you will, but Pete Wentz and Patrick Stump know how to write a lethal hook). The songwriting on AB/AP isn’t exactly dead on arrival, but it’s asphyxiated by the band’s overzealous urge to sample anything they can get their hands on.
Sampling is, in fact, one of the album’s most defining characteristics. Lead single “Centuries” is one place where it actually works, with Suzanne Vega’s understated “do do do” playing nicely against Stump’s straining, silly declarations of immortality. Still, you suspect that the only way this song will be memorialized is in the background of a SportsCenter montage. The sampling really goes askew in the title track, which features (for God’s sake! this is 2015!) a mutated version of Mötley Crüe’s “Too Fast for Love”. It’s a measurably worse song than its glam-punk predecessor and, like much of the album, draws upon pop culture detritus left over from decades that almost certainly predate the band’s young demographic.
The same weirdness rears its head on “Uma Thurman”, a predestined hit and probably the album’s catchiest track. “She wants to dance like Uma Thurman,” Stump wails, backed by horns and a guitar lick that seems tastefully sexy until you realize it’s from the opening credits of 1960s sitcom The Munsters.
All of these lighthearted, wink-wink references would work better if Stump didn’t sound so damn angry all the time. He’s an undeniably talented vocalist, in possession of a herky-jerky soulfulness that he once channeled into lyrics straddling the line between heartfelt and cynical. On AB/AP, Stump instead wields his voice like an awkward broadsword, going for the kill with every spittle-laced turn of hipsterish phrase (“You look so Seattle/ But you feel so LA”) or bludgeoning “whoa-oh-oh” chorus. When he finally settles down and stops packing his lines like carry-on suitcases, we get a slowed-down pop gem like “The Kids Aren’t Alright”. When he doesn’t, we get a hot mess like “Fourth of July”, in which he’s literally singing over himself at points.
Fall Out Boy seem to think they’re revolutionaries for taking rock music into the nightclub, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that they’re simply confused. When you’re writing songs called “Immortals” that sound like Rihanna B-sides, maybe it’s time to reevaluate how the revolution’s going, you know? With that said, the band’s talent and the occasional strike of inspiration make it impossible to write off AB/AP entirely. Let’s just hope they eventually strike a balance that’s true to themselves and doesn’t come off like a mainstream radio retread. And, really, not to belabor a point that’s been made at length, but some more guitars would be nice.
Essential Tracks: “Centuries”, “The Kids Aren’t Alright”, and “Uma Thurman”