It’s an inevitable fact of life for bands who stick around for long enough—for some, even just long enough to release a sophomore album—that controversy is going to arise from the musical direction they’ve chosen. Maybe it will be that they stick to what works and as a result are seen as “generic,” criticized for music that sounds the same, and cited as an example of lacking creativity. Or perhaps they branch out to a new sound, and they’re seen as selling out or just deviating too far from the sound that people expect from them.
This is a phenomenon to which Fall Out Boy has been subject for a while now, but it seems most relevant after the release of their seventh LP, MANIA. The album dropped last Friday, after its original September release date was postponed so the band could give it some more work, and the Chicago-based band has come a long way since their roots on 2003’s Take This To Your Grave, the electronic-infused arena pop of today a far cry from the pop-punk of old.
Whether or not their new sound appeals to you, it’s hard to accuse the band of being inauthentic; MANIA is undeniably different, but it still has a fundamental Fall Out Boy atmosphere to it, with biting one-liners and the same energetic determination that follows their music regardless of genre.
With that said, you can’t go into MANIA expecting their music from the mid-2000s, and you can’t even expect a simple sequel to their last full album, 2015’s American Beauty/American Psycho. That much was made clear with lead single “Young and Menace,” its unexpected Britney Spears reference and aggressive pitch distortion instantly catching fans off-guard.
For any who were strongly deterred by “Young and Menace,” the good news is that it’s the MANIA track that most strays from the band’s comfort zone. “Sunshine Riptide,” a reggae-inspired song featuring Burna Boy, is a notable shift, and the slight gospel elements of religious metaphor duo “Church” and “Heaven’s Gate” adds a twist as well, but they all make for an interesting and successful experiment, particularly with the ever-impressive vocals of lead singer Patrick Stump. The album as a whole does feel significantly more pop than even their last release, but even “Young and Menace,” once you acclimate to its disorienting breakdown, still feels like the band, with its lyrics about rediscovering your passion and your rebelliousness.
Longtime fans will probably find themselves most comfortable with the likes of “The Last Of The Real Ones” and “Wilson (Expensive Mistakes),” however, the former being the most guitar-driven track on the album and the latter a conflicted song about regrets that contains some of the album’s most notable lyrics, from the cutting “There’s nothing more cruel than to be loved by everybody but you” to the anthemically emo “I’ll stop wearing black when they make a darker color” (a quote from the 1991 The Addams Family movie). Meanwhile, the aggressive motivation of songs like “Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea” and “Champion” may feel slightly more surface-level with catchy beats and choruses repeating words of empowerment, but both contain their share of biting one-liners in the verses, and it’s not as if catchy, radio-friendly hits are foreign to the band; songs like this may take a few listens to appreciate in their own right, but they’re enjoyable and effective pieces of the album.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that your experience with the album may vary depending on the means through which you listen to it, as there are two different track listings. Back in November, the band announced a track listing, and that’s the one you’ll see on digital services like iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon Music; “Young and Menace” opens on this listing, leading into “Champion.” However, physical releases see a drastically different construction despite having the same ten tracks; according to lyricist and bassist Pete Wentz, the physical release feature the “correct” order, and the digital one is a mistake. (You can view both track lists on Wikipedia.)
Comparing the two track listings, the band’s final choice—the physical listing—comes out feeling significantly superior. The surreal world of “Young and Menace” works far better as a building penultimate track than as a relatively low-energy start. Overall, the physical order simply results in a far more even album experience; if you’re listening digitally, I recommend that you shift the tracks around, and if you gave up on the album after a disappointed listen to the digital order, I implore you to give it another go with the alternate arrangement.
But mercifully, one constant on both track listings is the placement of album closer “Bishops Knife Trick,” a song that could belong nowhere else. As someone who particularly revels in a perfectly executed ending to an album, one frustration I’ve always had with Fall Out Boy despite my love for their music is that their closing tracks tend to be hit-or-miss on truly embodying that position, but “Bishops Knife Trick” pulls it off with aplomb. From its atmospheric, echoing guitar to its conflicted introspect, among its determined declaration that “These are the last blues we’re ever gonna have” and Stump’s impressive vocals in the final chorus, it’s the perfect way to close off an album of mixed emotions and new musical ground.
While fans’ disappointed or confused reactions to MANIA’s divergences are more than understandable—on my first listen, I had no idea how to feel about the album—it would be unfair to dismiss their new direction. MANIA is different, but it’s still creative and full of passion, with a great deal to offer if you give it the chance. If you’re still out there waiting for a musical sequel to Take This To Your Grave, it’s probably past time to pack it in; but if you’re just in the pursuit of good music of any kind, MANIA stands as a compelling step into a new era for the band.