Following the release of Fall Out Boy's 2003 full-length debut, Take This to Your Grave, the Chicago quartet was flooded with hyperbolic praise. The group, which was signed by tiny independent label Fueled by Ramen, was declared the "next big thing" by multiple media outlets, and its album sold more than 200,000 copies.
So expectations were high for the band's major-label follow-up, From Under the Cork Tree, which came out on May 3 and will debut at #9 on next week's Billboard albums chart. Some pundits predicted a groundbreaking pop-punk expedition, and others awaited a heart-rending emo excursion, but Fall Out Boy delivered neither. Weary from the pressure to produce, tired of being called "most likely to ...," they purposefully created an album that separates them from the scene that spawned them.
"A lot of bands in the scene are about the competition rather than the music," said bassist and lyricist Pete Wentz. "They're all trying to get famous like Taking Back Sunday or something, and they don't really hold their weight. A lot of that music is very formulaic, and it oversaturates the listener and waters down the bands that are doing it for real. So we chose not to compete and decided to do something different."
From Under the Cork Tree is hardly a resignation. While it may disappoint those looking for a sequel to Take This to Your Grave, it's actually a better album, one that blends the simplicity of Fountains of Wayne, the volume of My Chemical Romance, the moodiness of the Cure and the humor of Alkaline Trio.
"We wanted to write a record that was a lot more developed," Wentz said. "When we did Take This to Your Grave, we were really young, we had two weeks to do it and it was like, make it or break it, this is your only shot. This time we had more time to sit with the songs and make them work and more of a chance to plan things out" (see "Fall Out Boy No Longer Forced To Sleep On Strangers' Floors").
There was just one big problem. When they started writing new songs two years ago, Fall Out Boy knew exactly what they didn't want to sound like, but they weren't exactly sure what they did want. In fact, just two weeks before they started recording, they scrapped 10 songs and wrote eight more, including the first single, "Sugar, We're Goin Down."
"Originally, we wanted to write stuff like all these other bands we like, but they already exist, and they can do it better than we can," Wentz said. "Then, we started writing songs that were so different than anything we had ever done that it was like, 'Wow, this is just to piss people off.' But finally, everything came together."
For Wentz, "Sugar, We're Goin Down" sums up the album. Musically, the song surges and slams while resounding with sky-high melodies. Lyrically, it addresses the band's approach to Cork Tree with lines like "We're going down in the early rounds, but we're going down swinging."
"To us, we're throwing the fight, but we didn't write a record that's throwing a fight," Wentz explained. "We wrote a record that means a lot to us but maybe isn't going to mean a lot to the people who are hyping us as the next big thing. And that's fine. We don't want to be the saviors of anything — we just want to be ourselves."
Fortunately, the frustrating process of reinventing Fall Out Boy's sound hasn't affected Wentz's sense of humor. Even the song titles on From Under the Cork Tree are rife with sarcasm and wit, including silly tracks like "I Slept With Someone in Fall Out Boy and All I Got Was This Stupid Song Written About Me" and "Sophomore Slump or Comeback of the Year." Then, there are the film references, including "Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner" (from "Dirty Dancing") and "Of All the Gin Joints in All the World" (from "Casablanca").
"I think a lot of that comes from not taking ourselves too seriously," Wentz said. "On the last record, we name-checked [the movie] 'Rushmore,' and there were people who came up to me later and said, 'Oh, yeah, I saw this movie and there was a Fall Out Boy line in it.' And it's like, 'No, you heard this song and there's a "Rushmore" line in it.' I just think it's cool to make a nod to something I like that might make other people check it out."
One song title that wasn't just a goof was "Our Lawyer Made Us Change the Name of This Song So We Wouldn't Get Sued," because that's what really happened. The band was planning to call the track "My Name Is David Ruffin and These Are the Temptations," but higher forces intervened.
"It was kind of supposed to be our nod at a bio piece on the Temptations and David Ruffin and where the separation lies between being a superstar and a megalomaniac," Wentz said. "But our label said, 'You're going to get sued for doing that,' and our lawyer said, 'You're definitely going to get sued for doing that,' which totally sucked. So we said, 'OK, why don't we immortalize you in a song?' "
On From Under the Cork Tree, Fall Out Boy have effectively removed their emo/pop/punk blemishes, re-emerging from their face-lift with a product that's tighter, more radiant and practically wrinkle-free. Where they go from here is unclear. For now, they're just happy to have survived the operation.
"We made a record we really like, and that's all we ever wanted," Wentz said. "Fall Out Boy have never been about goals or ambitions. We started out just for fun, and it became this huge thing. I'd love to keep everything going, but if it all ended today, at least it went all these places it was never supposed to go in the first place."