Every time I play a Fall Out Boy LP, I’m reminded of the pernicious influence that Weezer and Green Day had on a generation of emo and pop-punk bands. Sure, Weezer’s first two albums – 1994’s Weezer (aka “Blue Album”) and 1996’s Pinkerton – were stone-cold classics. But frontman Rivers Cuomo introduced a whiny and over-emotive singing style that worked pretty much only in the context of his first two albums, while sounding shallow and forced in the mouths of vocalists who didn’t share his early ability to write meaningful lyrics.
Green Day’s 1994 release, Dookie, was and perhaps still is the blueprint for contemporary pop punk. Billie Joe Armstrong wrote punk-influenced songs with all the enthusiasm that he could muster. Unfortunately, he was so inspired by The Jam and The Buzzcocks that he sang in a fake English accent and transformed angst, which his contemporaries Cuomo and Kurt Cobain maturely explored on their records, into adolescent emoting.
Despite Armstrong’s aping of his heroes on Dookie, he did write a collection of catchy tunes – and he eventually grew as a songwriter to the point where he could write a mature masterpiece like 2004’s American Idiot. Cuomo, on the other hand, never could recapture the songwriting prowess that he showed on his first two records, so that Weezer’s subsequent decline makes you think that perhaps Rivers just got lucky on his first two outings.
All of this Weezer-Green Day verbiage brings us to Save Rock and Roll, the first new release by Fall Out Boy since 2008’s Folie à Deux. In the years between their 2003 debut LP Take You to Your Grave, which featured the Green Day-Weezer-inflected single “Dead on Arrival” (did Armstrong actually write the vocal melody?), the band made competent but uninspired records that put them in the same league as Jimmy Eat World, Dashboard Confessional, and My Chemical Romance.
Folie à Deux was different, though – a surprise that demonstrated that the band wanted to grow. Ambitious to the point of being bombastic, the record featured strings, cameos by the likes of Deborah Harry and Lil Wayne, metal riffs, new wave synths, and a smidgen of R&B. Folie à Deux was a creative change, but it was so over-the-top that you had to wonder whether leader Pete Wentz and the boys were kidding. Their hero Armstrong definitely wasn’t when he took his game to a new level of maturity with American Idiot.
Fall Out Boy must have been exhausted after Folie à Deux because they went on hiatus and took five years to release Save Rock and Roll.
An album’s first single is always important, especially when a band has been out of the public spotlight for five years, so “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up)” has to say a lot about how Fall Out Boy wishes to be perceived in 2013. The track is aggressive and employs the same everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that hampered Folie à Deux. It combines Patrick Stump’s hip hop-delivered lyrics, metal riffs, and electronics. As in a lot of hip hop, the sung vocals sound strangely generic and auto-tuned.
“My Songs” sets the tone for the rest of the album in that it employs so many stylistically disparate elements that you end up playing “spot-the-influences” and not hearing the songs. The problem here is that the songs sound like exercises in duplicating better and/or more popular bands. Defenders might say that Wentz – who never saw a musical reference he didn’t like – is being ironic and postmodern. But detractors will definitely say that he’s being outdated and childish.
Fall Out Boy, in actuality, are still mimics, only now they’re copying different bands than Green Day and Weezer. Take, for example, “Miss Missing You” and “Young Volcanoes.” A synth-pop line, which is so generic that Martin L. Gore has probably already thought of it and dismissed it sometime in his life, forms the foundation of “Miss Missing You.” And “Young Volcanoes” sounds just like (yikes!) Mumford & Sons, right down to that band’s over-emotive singing and frantically strummed guitars.
Well, subtlety was never Fall Out Boy’s forte. Neither was their use of guest artists, four of whom show up on Save Rock and Roll (I get it now! The title is ironic!). Courtney Love shows up on “Rat a Tat” and – I’m not making this up – starts off the track by rapping, “It’s Courtney, bitch!” (I know – more irony), before she delivers what has to be the worst rap you’ve ever heard. Cusses abound as the boys in the band back her by shouting “rat a tat” over and over again.
Sir Elton John makes an appearance on the title track. What starts as an almost pretty piano ballad turns hilariously dumb when Stump belts out “So fuck you, go cry me an ocean, and leave me be!” John enters at just short of the two-minute mark, and listening to the good knight (who can sing) and Stump (who can’t sing) vocalize together would test the endurance of anyone with a sense of pitch. Let’s just say that Elton and the boys attempt a key change – which, to put it kindly, they shouldn’t have tried.
The other guest appearances – by Foxes and Big Sean – are unsurprisingly uninspired, just like the rest of Save Rock and Roll. The record’s unintentionally hilarious, and its use of irony is adolescent in the extreme. If you make the mistake of listening to this record, just remember that Fall Out Boy are in their thirties. Enough said.