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COMMENTARY

There Is Something In Fall Out Boy’s Teeth

Notes on the continued life of a band no one thought would make it this far

There’s a story I like a lot about Kobe Bryant, who was nearing the end of his career with the Lakers, talking to a young Anthony Davis, then just starting his career with the Pelicans. The story rests on an analogy about teeth. Kobe says, If you’re out with your guys and one of them has something in his teeth, a lot of your boys might just let him be. I’m going to be the guy who tells you that you’ve got something in your teeth. If you want to walk around looking stupid, that’s on you. But I’m going to give you the information.

The idea here has to do with leadership in uncomfortable positions, or the idea that if one person looks bad, it brings down the collective unit, or the idea that Kobe Bryant is a bit of an asshole, but it comes from a good place. The one thing I have always found certain in this analogy is that I am, decidedly, one of the boys who might just let whatever is in your teeth stay in your teeth. I am not the friend to tell you that something is in your teeth, but I am the friend who will be very happy that you’ve eaten. I won’t tell you that your new and somewhat experimental haircut looks uncomfortably odd, but I will be glad that you’re taking risks.

This brings us to the new Fall Out Boy song, “Young and Menace,” released just over a week ago. The song is a mess of sounds that have brief moments where they align to sound moderately pleasing. But in other parts, most notably in the heart of the chorus, it sounds like what would happen if you opened several tabs, set them each to a different random YouTube video, and pressed play all at once.

Fall Out Boy may never get bigger than they are right now — their last album, 2015's American Beauty/American Psycho, has sold more than 500,000 copies in the U.S. in an era when few artists can count on doing the same. And the refrain, echoed over the years by the band’s bassist and longtime focal point Pete Wentz, is that they were never supposed to be this big in the first place. It was never supposed to go this far, he said when From Under the Cork Tree was a surprise hit in 2005. We were never supposed to be this big, he said as Jay Z lent his vocals to 2007’s Infinity on High. We never thought we’d make it to this, he said when, after a hiatus of a few years, the band released “ My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up)” to critical and commercial success, not to mention the arenas that let it rattle off of their walls for the better part of two years.

The band can certainly stay as big as they are right now for some time to come, but I think a good argument can be made that they’ve sacrificed all that they could sacrifice, within their respective skill sets, to arrive at the mountaintop they’re on now, and they’re occupying a space that, in a lot of ways, is theirs and theirs alone. All of this is to say that “Young and Menace” feels like the move of a band that still can’t quite believe that they’re as big as they are.

And look, I get it. I was there, perhaps with you, in the early 2000s. In Chicago, or LaGrange, or Cleveland, or anywhere in between. I was there, as you maybe were, to watch the frantic and unpolished band that rose from the ashes of other Chicago hardcore bands and threw a nervous kid with a shaky soul voice in front of the microphone. When Wentz talks about how Fall Out Boy was never supposed to make it this far, I believe that sentiment is genuine, because I was there in crowds of 20 people when they’d get heckled, and someone would lean over and joke, “These guys are fun, but they’re never going to make it.”

To have gotten in on the ground floor of Fall Out Boy was to be consistently confused, though mostly delighted by their sonic shifts throughout their first iteration. With all of the flailing about regarding how different they’ve been since returning from hiatus in 2013, I think it does a disservice to the fact that their first four pre-hiatus albums were all, also, strikingly different from one another. The risks were just inside of somewhat similar boxes to the one they arrived in in the first place.

What has changed since their hiatus ended, mostly, is that they’ve grown up. Really grown up, not the performance of angst-drenched growing up that is achieved in the lyrics of sad boys who really have no interest in growth. They’re adults now — with families and children — and so they craft songs that seem to be turned more toward sustaining both a career and a life, which could be either admirable or shameful, depending on the era in which you fell into the band’s arms. The most potent line in “Young and Menace” is the first, the one that would have once sounded like a boast but now sounds like an exhausted plea for mercy: “We’ve gone way too fast for way too long.”

Though I haven’t ever been immersed in Fall Out Boy’s creative process, what I’ve always loved about the idea of it was this concept that Patrick Stump and Pete Wentz exist, sometimes tensely, at the knife’s edge of the creative exchange, each pushing and pulling the other away from the blade. At their best, they’re one of their genre and generation’s most compelling songwriting teams, in part because of what they require out of each other: Pete writing words, mostly about the interior of his own mind, which Patrick has to confidently sing out loud. Where “Young and Menace” fails, it seems, is that neither of them pulled the other one back quickly enough.

When this happens in their music, it usually feels pretty obvious, and it often seems like Stump, with his quick-moving musical brain and rapid-fire ideas, is the one who goes a step too far. “Young and Menace” is at least three steps too far: It comes across almost like a handful of unfinished ideas that, extracted from the deluge, could make a few interesting songs, instead of simply one mess of a song. It continues in the trend of their post-hiatus music, getting further and further away from highlighting Stump's vocals and Andy Hurley’s drumming, the two greatest strengths of the band. Left to his own devices, Stump is an aspiring white soul artist in the vein of Michael McDonald, singing old Motown covers. His voice, at its peak and when combined with the band’s sound template, was a major draw. Here, it is stifled under programming and electronic antics that could almost certainly sound cool if they weren’t all stretched along the same canvas. Wentz is writing like someone who is maybe too old to want to be so famous and maybe too famous to still be so anxious about being loved by everyone, and maybe still too good at putting a listener through to the direct unraveling of his mind. In the song’s final verse before the chorus, he writes: “I’m just here flying off the deep end / I’m just here to become the best yet / I’m just here for the psych assessment,” and it feels like vintage Wentz — but not in a way that feels good.

A thing I think about all of the time is how I was once younger and stuffed into some shitty dive bar watching a punk band that I just found out about because they got slightly bigger than they were. I think about the moment when an older fan, positioned behind me, would scoff while the band played and complain about how they were so much cooler in some vague time frame before the one I was witnessing them in. I have no desire to stand indoors in a leather jacket in the summer while scoffing at Fall Out Boy. Fandom, especially a fandom involving a band that is rooted in some of our larger emotional moments, is really tethered to the growing up and out of everyone involved. Fandom is an exchange, I think. One that really requires a self-awareness on the part of a fan, and an understanding of what their needs are.

I’m saying that I love Fall Out Boy still, as much as I did when I’d pack myself into a car with just enough gas to get to whatever basement they were playing in back in the early 2000s. But my negotiation of that love has changed. I don’t need them, or even the idea of them in the way that I did then. I imagine this as being different than outgrowing a band. I still find Fall Out Boy to be vital. If a band saves the life of anyone you love a single time, there is less that they have to answer for from that point forward. Some bands earn a forgiveness in that way, and what I love seeing most since Fall Out Boy’s return is the way they have somehow still managed to tap into a similar youthful fan base all over again. A fan base that, like the one I was a part of, may still need them in ways they know now or will know soon.

I will never imagine any band I love changing their sound as a betrayal, even if I can’t enter the new sound as I’d like. In recent interviews, Wentz and Stump seem thrilled with the polarizing response the song has gotten. They’re as big as they’re going to get. They don’t need new fans as much as they need to expand the tastes and willingness of their current fans. In a lot of ways, I applaud that. If you are big enough to take risks and you don’t take them, then what are you?

Fall Out Boy is officially a band that can survive a flop — which doesn’t mean they should aim for one, but it definitely means they should aim at something different than they were before. Fall Out Boy would never survive today making the songs they made in 2007, and I think the fans lamenting Fall Out Boy Version 2 know this, and are hand-wringing for the sake of nostalgia. And nostalgia is great. When immersed in nostalgia, everyone makes perfect music and never changes. Everything you love in your neighborhood is still there as you remember it, and you never go to college one year and come back the next barely fitting in, wondering where the hell everything went and when everyone moved on without you.