American Beauty/American Psycho: One Year On

When I was about thirteen, I became aware of bands like Panic! at the Disco and Fall Out Boy, but I never really bothered to listen to their music. To this day, I am not entirely sure why, because it turns out that 22 year old me really enjoys it, and Fall Out Boy is now my favourite band.

But growing up in the 2000s – particularly the middle chunk of them – was interesting when it came to the medium anyway. The teen pop era of the 90s was dissipating in favour of more sullen, almost lyrically epistemological fare that seemed the most content when it was most angry. 2004 brought about one of the most memorable changes in the industry for me, with the release of Green Day’s American Idiot – an album sporting singles that experienced considerable airplay for several years and managed to create a certain image of the modern rock musician.

It was catharsis, and a contradictory experience, to say the least. While it wouldn’t feel good to revel in grief, it was empowering to take control of how one was consuming music. In my circles, it was by choosing the “raw and emotional”, and “organically”-produced music while rejecting the supposedly spurious creations that spawned from talent contests, electronic instruments, and frivolous pop lyrics.

All those quotation marks have a point, because in 2016, it seems everything is coming full circle with Fall Out Boy’s most recent album effort, American Beauty/American Psycho. In its mix of unmistakable influences ranging from pop to hip-hop to the band’s punkier roots, it’s both exceedingly experimental for them yet very familiar.

In a span of a year, American Beauty/American Psycho seems to have broken even more ground in mainstream success than their previous album, Save Rock & Roll, even did. Historically, Fall Out Boy has never shied away from the merging of genres in their music, but the salience of these two albums in the general public consciousness have been due to the band’s concentrated effort in welcoming even more crossover than before. It’s been a whirlwind three years for the band since their reunification in 2013, dropping the undeniably infectious, riotous “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark” in early February of that year. It was a rock track with a hook perfectly suited for radio. Much of that and more can be said about the tracks in American Beauty/American Psycho.

Some of the tracks on the record continue to hold up a year on simply because they’re very catchy and in a way, timeless. “Uma Thurman” is a party anthem name-dropping one of the most visually memorable film stars in the last twenty years. Moreover, its instrumentation – employing what seem like hand claps, for example – provides a top 40 vibe that wouldn’t be out of place on a dance pop mix. Songs like “Centuries” and “Jet Pack Blues” literally play on the motif of the irrelevance of time, the former lyrically so while the latter sounds like an updated take on classic arena rock. These are the kinds of songs you’d perform live with pyro and fireworks in the background.

That’s part of the charm of the renaissance of Fall Out Boy. “We danced to Rancid/Danzig,” sings Patrick Stump in the track “Favorite Record”. He does so with such belief and clarity that the juxtaposition of those much older references with the incredibly polished production of the song are starker than usual. It almost forms a whimsical situation in which the modern audience could dance to Misfits or Operation Ivy, even though they are so completely sonically different.

This nod back to a different period of musical history doesn’t lessen the forward-looking impact the album as a whole aims for. It doesn’t exclude the people who perhaps don’t care as much about old school punk rock as these guys or a good portion of its audience do. Much of American Beauty/American Psycho has something for everyone, from the brash strangeness of the title track to its creepy closer “Twin Skeletons” – the latter of which seems reminiscent of days gone by for the band (I personally associate it with something that could be on Folie à Deux).

The band has professed American Beauty/American Psycho to be more cohesive than Save Rock & Roll – that it is a record with an “‘all songs of the same moment’ quality.” (source). Having listened to both those records consistently, I don’t agree with their sentiment completely. I don’t necessarily think one is less of a collective experience than the other. Of course picking out “Miss Missing You” would automatically make me think of Save Rock & Roll. Not even because I’ve personally listened to it too many times, but because there is no Fall Out Boy track like it, and there is no other place for it.

The same goes for something like “Fourth of July”; it’s probably the band’s most distinctive and sonically interesting attempt post-hiatus. There is a reason it’s still my favourite song on American Beauty/American Psycho – it’s just a very sustainable track. It’s got replay value without being overbearing, without being so simple it’s boring, and without being sickly sweet or incredibly depressing. It’s the track with the most balance without letting go of the album’s overall theme of unabashed experimentation.

That said, the band is very aware of where it stands in the industry, and how precarious their position will always be. “We could be immortals, just not for long.” That line could refer to so many things. Of course, “Immortals” was written specifically for the Disney film Big Hero 6. But despite its primary relevance as a background track for a film about superheroes and possibility, its lyrics highlight a sensitivity towards change more generally. Being creatives that rely so heavily on a loyal fanbase can be difficult, especially when it comes to evolution. American Beauty/American Psycho‘s quest to be more radio-friendly while retaining the defiant spirit of punk rock surely doesn’t sit well with some – it’s inevitable.

So what’s a band to do? Put out the same album, remixed and made even more unrecognisable to its original brand than before. Make a tongue-in-cheek reference to a disastrous presidential election. This is what makes Fall Out Boy so interesting, yet they don’t easily let go of what got them here in the first place. They’re not opposed to growing up and taking their music to a different place because it’s the logical next step (even if it appears random on first listen). Bringing rappers on tour with them? A fantastic move. Embracing hip-hop culture by inviting artists1 to enhance American Beauty/American Psycho – for better or for worse, that’s up to personal opinion – and collaborating with pop stars like Demi Lovato? I remember reading a comment on that particular rework of “Irresistible” that basically said something along the lines of, “Well so now they’ve killed rock and roll.”

I disagree.

Fall Out Boy sustaining their salience in pop culture after over ten years of being a band doesn’t take away the inherent fringeness of their lyricism and the fact they’re four guys who still aren’t the most flashy, glitzy people even when they’re next to Victoria Secret supermodels and performing at sports events. I suppose this relationship between wanting to be in the limelight and “relevant” – per Pete Wentz’s own words – yet remaining the same regular Joes (no pun intended) will always be tenuously received. These days – as far as I’m aware – they only make news for their music, as opposed to pre-hiatus shenanigans related to being young and reckless. But when the notion of celebrity almost requires the export of personal life regardless of the cultural products any creative puts out, it can seem supposedly “irrelevant” in the end.

But I obviously don’t think it’s true. I’ve devoted over a thousand words to it already, but American Beauty/American Psycho is an experience of fragments drawn together; Save Rock & Roll musically amped up a ton of notches. It’s meant to be played in stadiums to bursts of colour, as well as amongst the smell of mud and grass at a festival. It straddles two seemingly separate worlds in the industry that for some reason are barely allowed to interact with each other, despite sounding so good together.

Also, Patrick hits the most delectable high note in “Novocaine” – if nothing else, listen to that. Please.

  1. Obviously, Fall Out Boy are no strangers to this, having done so as early as the Infinity On High era.

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