Review Summary: Fall Out Boy ditch more of their hardcore roots and play up to their pop sensibilities. Properly, this time.
Fall Out Boy’s recent courtship of hip hop has been well-documented, and they’ve made no real effort to hide their desperation, with bassist Pete Wentz name-dropping rappers like Lil’ Wayne and Kanye West with increasing frequency in the run-up to Infinity On High
’s release, and hyping Timbaland at any available opportunity. So what a relief, then, that when “the” Jay-Z came knocking, they actually managed to restrain themselves! Jay’s cameo on ‘Thriller’ lasts just seconds and, while slightly nauseating, is easily the best guest spot he’s put together since coming out of pretend retirement.
The group’s newfound rap fetish has a notable effect on their music, but is relatively minor in the scheme of things. Infinity On High
sees Fall Out Boy move further down the path they began down with 2005’s From Under The Cork Tree
, expanding the pure pop element of their sound while once again diminishing their punk origins. The hardcore influence has become an ever more subtle tool in their belt (quite an achievement for a genre that wears its lack of subtlety as a badge of honour), limited for the most part to chunky bridge riffs and Pete’s ill-advised screaming interlude in ‘Carpal Tunnel of Love.’
Essentially, Infinity On High
is From Under The Cork Tree
, except this time done well. For once completely unashamed of their pop instincts, the melodies are sweeter and more inviting and the arrangements more involved, and as a result more interesting. Patrick Stump’s vocals have improved manifold; his tone is smoother and more well-rounded, he’s cut out the borderline screechy high-end which made parts of the previous album unlistenable and, though occasionally still nasally, his tones are far more varied and adaptable to different styles.
Retaining the production talents of From Under The Cork Tree
’s Neal Avron, the band curiously hired a couple of guests to man the decks for three of the fourteen tracks: acclaimed pop-soul producer Babyface (Boyz II Men, Janet Jackson) adds his instrumental expertise to two of the more interesting tracks on the album, while Butch Walker (Avril Lavigne) shares production duties with Stump on the new-wavey ‘Don’t You Know Who I Think I Am?’ But however welcome these cameos are, they’re less a cause than an effect of the increased sophistication in Stumpy’s pop songwriting.
The Babyface production ‘Thnks Fr Th Mmrs’ (‘Thanks for the Memories’ sans vowels) best demonstrates the point. Beginning with tense Elfman-inspired strings and horns and taking in ‘Cry Me a River’-style climbing harmonies, mandolin and acoustically-strummed flamenco chords, the constant re-invention gives a sense of just what the group are capable of when pushed far enough. Babyface’s second production, ‘I’m Like a Lawyer with the Way I’m Always Trying to Get You Off,’ strays even further from Fall Out Boy’s usual territory, featuring sparse instrumentation and a smooth vocal that’s closer to D’Angelo or Timberlake territory than anything we’ve come to expect, while lead single ‘This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race’ contains a delicious ‘Señorita’-inspired crowd participation bit that’s only disappointing for the absence of a “and ladies go…” section.
In a similar vein, ‘You’re Crashing But You’re No Wave’ succeeds where both Scott Stapp and John Grisham have fallen so many times, describing a court scene with genuine intensity. Though featuring a guest vocal from Butch Walker (in character, as the foreman of the jury), the track is Stump’s and Stump’s alone, showing the full extent of his vocal range with an ease he’s never demonstrated before. Describing the rigged trial of a black man in pre-civil rights America, it’s very well-written track, welcome respite from the one-liners which permeate the majority of the record. The church choir adds an almost comical sense of melodrama, but nonetheless it’s among the most accomplished track they’ve managed to record.
Lyricist Pete Wentz is as sharp as ever, throwing out Morrisseyisms with no regard for the carnage caused. ‘Thriller’ and ‘Arms Race’ each mark attempts by Pete to salvage his indie cred, the latter containing a number of veiled criticisms of the phoniness which surrounds the scene they supposedly lead. On ‘Thriller’ he announces ”crowds are lost and crowds are won but our hearts beat for the diehards,”
while ‘I’ve Got All This Ringing in my Ears but None on my Finger’ sees him jibe ”sorrow is just all the rage,”
a none-too-subtle shot at the more Aiden-ly-inclined bands of the moment.
However, often, and forgive me for paraphrasing South Park, “the jokes have nothing to do with the plot.” At times, as it has on previous albums, there’s a sense that Wentz is trying to live up to his reputation as the guy who composes lyrics entirely of clever puns and wordplay, and the continuity suffers as a result. Additionally, some tracks seem to adhere to the “less is more” philosophy in the lyrical sense, with barely more than two short verses and a chorus on offer, but it’s difficult to defend this approach having repeated the chorus nine times. Tracks like ‘Arms Race’ and ‘The Take Over, The Breaks Over’ are overly repetitive, sacrificing the replay factor for catchiness.
Tracklisting is also a problem. ‘Golden’ is a beautiful track, exceptionally presented with a stunning vocal, but sandwiched in the middle of the album, it kills much of the momentum built to that point, and at fourteen tracks (fifteen in the UK), the album would benefit immensely if pared down. Distinctiveness is also lacking: ‘Bang the Doldrums,’ by all accounts, could be an AFI song, ‘Fame > Infamy’ apes My Chemical Romance and ‘The (After) Life of the Party’ sees Stump borrow Billie Joe Armstrong’s vocal chords. And is the riff from ‘The Take Over’ really only a couple of notes away from Ashlee Simpson’s ‘Boyfriend’? Seriously, Joe Simpson wants to sue.
With Infinity On High
, Fall Out Boy have demonstrated they have the tools to make a genuinely top-class, original pop album. How about you cut the crap and actually do it next time, eh?