FOBMC #4: "Folie à Deux"

Pete Wentz goes Hollywood, but this one isn't about him.

FOBMC #4: "Folie à Deux"

Welcome back to the Fall Out Boy Music Club! It’s the official fall of Fall Out Boy here at Friendmendations — every other week, we’ll analyze the discography of Chicago’s angstiest export. Share the link on social media! Get all your former emo friends to join the club!

So far, we’ve looked at the band’s first album, Take This to Your Grave, their breakthrough hit, From Under the Cork Tree, and the R&B-influenced Infinity on High (plus the debut of their protégés, Panic! at the Disco.) This week, things get weird on Fall Out Boy’s fourth album, Folie à Deux.

Why am I doing this?!

I thought it would be fun! I thought we’d all have a good time reminiscing about emo’s peak and laughing at Pete’s ridiculous lyrics. I knew I’d have a lot to say; when considering a follow-up to my episode-by-episode blog Lizzie McGuire Reviewed, I’d actually toyed with the idea of writing Fall Out Boy Reviewed, where I’d spend each post breaking down all the weird choices in one of their songs until I’d covered their entire discography. (I also considered Katy Perry Reviewed, which was the inspiration for one of my first posts for this newsletter.)

My feelings on Fall Out Boy have always been complicated. Rarely have I so loved something that made me cringe so hard. Even at 14, when I bought my first Fall Out Boy album, I was confused and annoyed by about a third of the choices the band made while fully enjoying it as a whole. I’d borrow the family laptop to look up interviews with Pete and Patrick to figure out why the songs sounded like their lyrics had been written by someone with no connection to the musicians, dropped in a paper shredder, and shoddily rearranged. But I still blasted those songs on the boombox in my room. I loved the poppier moments on Cork Tree, delighted in trying on angst like a costume with Take This to Your Grave, and enjoyed the pretty sparkle of Infinity on High, their best album to play through the speakers on our desktop computer in the finished attic when I was doing homework late into the night.

Where did the Fall Out Boy Music Club go wrong? I was sure that this would be a fun series making fun of what was always so mockable about Fall Out Boy (Pete) but also discussing what made them so great (everyone else). I didn’t know how bleak it would get. I didn’t know that Pete had written the albums that I loved as a high school girl about a different high school girl, one who has since called the relationship “really fucked up and really unhealthy.” I didn’t know that my research would lead me to learning more about Cobra Starship, the Decaydance signees with the world’s worst origin story, or having to stomach an interview with Pete Wentz in which he reminisces about jerking off to a magazine cover of Ashlee Simpson before they ever met. This series has become a burden. It truly brings me no pleasure to report any of this.

Anyway, Fall Out Boy’s fourth album was 2008’s Folie à Deux and it’s probably my favorite Fall Out Boy album.

Critics hated it, and I get it: it’s a weird one. I’d argue, though, that they started getting weird as soon as they were signed to a major label. I get the sense that Patrick was continually trying to figure out how many genres he could get away with cramming onto a Fall Out Boy album. “Dance, Dance” has swing influences! Jay-Z opened Infinity on High! The band hadn’t been straight pop punk since their debut. I was never actually emo (I listened to FOB or My Chemical Romance as often I listened to the Killers, OK Go, Regina Spektor, or Gaga at the time) so I was always more open to their pop experimentation. Sure, objectively, Take This to Your Grave is their most cohesive, and Cork Tree is understandably the fan favorite for its iconic singles. But I love Folie’s sound, with its big choruses and grand instrumentation. Its emotionality is genuinely moving at times, unlike the brattiness or overwrought angst of their previous albums.

I still think Folie à Deux sounds fucking incredible. Infinity’s sheen had flattened its sound, with mixing that sounded more pop than rock. And too many sonic ideas had meant that many didn’t pay off, something Patrick admitted when discussing Folie’s release. “I was dominating on the last record, just very self-indulgent,” he said. Clearly he was reined in more for this one, resulting in fewer misses. It also probably helped that Joe was more involved with composition again. He had sat down with Patrick before its recording to discuss his concerns about getting sidelined. “I felt, ‘Man, this isn’t my band anymore.’ It’s no one’s fault, and I don’t want to make it seem that way. It was more of a complex I developed based off of stuff I was reading,” he said, adding that much of the online discussion about the band suggested that “‘Joe and Andy are just along for the ride.’” Neal Avron was executive producer for the third and last time, and he and Patrick struck a much better balance of pop and soul without compromising Joe and Andy’s sound. The drums are punchy and Joe contributed “these different weird guitar parts,” as he put it, that show his increased creative control. Even “w.a.m.s,” the song guest produced by the Neptunes, feels cohesive within the album. The only hint that they were involved is Pharrell’s signature four-count intro, easy to miss if you’re not looking for it.

The band itself has complicated feelings about Folie à Deux, their last record before taking a four-year hiatus from touring and recording. In a frankly overdramatic blog post in 2012, Patrick looked back on the album’s tour as “like being the last act at the vaudeville show: we were rotten vegetable targets in Clandestine hoodies” and claimed that they were “nearly booed off stages for playing new songs.” Andy and Pete, in a video retrospective about the album ten years after its release, said they were never actually booed. But Pete admitted that he wasn’t fully satisfied with it, saying, “The one thing I will say is that there were songs on Folie à Deux that feel like they were like 80% finished… they were more sketches and I wish we had been able to figure out how to complete them.”

The themes of the lyrics were broader on what Patrick called their “message record,” exploring vices through character studies instead of autobiography and commenting on addiction, materialism, Hollywood, and politics. The title, which refers to a psychological condition in which two people experience the same delusion, was intended as a metaphor for all kinds of codependencies in society. Pete was newly married to Ashlee Simpson and father to their son, Bronx Mowgli, but he was writing lyrics about something other than himself (dating a teenager) for the first time. “20 Dollar Nosebleed” has a pointed shot at Bush, for instance: “The man who would be king / goes to the desert, the same war his dad rehearsed / came back with flags on coffins and said “We won! Oh, we won!” Ballad “What A Catch, Donnie” is about his friendship and creative partnership with Patrick.

Pete’s life as a public figure was still absolutely insufferable, to be clear, and it’s laughable that so obvious a fame whore would write an album that criticized celebrity culture. (A Paris Hilton lookalike makes a statement in the video for “America’s Suitehearts,” for instance, though that statement raises questions about who, exactly, would choose to give Paris Hilton the time of day.) Lead single “I Don’t Care” had director Alan Ferguson make yet another jokey Fall Out Boy video that wasn’t actually funny. Pete’s baffling statement on its message was that “in the end, the joke is: Everyone in the world who is famous is just a WWF character. And some of you are Hulk Hogan, and some of you are the Undertaker, and it’s awesome. It’s just as great to come out to the boos.” (The randomness of the twist at the end of this video will SHOCK you, even if you keep in mind that it came out in 2009. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out what the hell it’s supposed to mean or how it relates to pro wrestling. The only message I see here is “We have famous friends now!”)

But hey, all of that is less problematic than spewing misogyny at a minor.  “Nobody wants to hear you sing about tragedy!” sings Patrick exuberantly on the opening track of Folie, and I have to agree. It’s a relief to hear the band sound like they’re having fun. The narcissistic songs are narcissistic on purpose, clearly self-deprecating and in on the joke with lyrics like “I don’t care what you think, as long as it’s about me” and “I must confess I’m in love with my own sins.”

I’m not sure which songs on this album would be considered “sketches.” There are certainly some moments that I would just consider “bad.” Pete ruins album highlight “20 Dollar Nose Bleed,” a soaring duet with Brendon Urie, with a god-awful spoken word poem at the end. (I’d fully blocked this out of my brain and was shocked to hear it on re-listening; I realized that I had edited the song in GarageBand to remove the offending section back in 2008 and re-uploaded it to my iTunes, never to think of it again for over a decade.) Another song, “w.a.m.s.,” also features an out-of-place outro. Stupid pop culture references still show up in the song titles, like opening “Disloyal Order of Water Buffaloes.” (Like Fred Flintstone’s club, but disloyal instead of loyal! It’s subversive!!) “America’s Suitehearts” and “Tiffany Blews” aren’t so much puns as misspellings. Pete’s sex lyrics gross me out, as per usual, on lines like “My body is an orphanage, we take everyone in” and the gag-inducing couplet “My head’s in heaven, my soles are in hell / let’s meet in the purgatory of my hips and get well.” Elsewhere, his metaphors are so flimsy they have to be explained, and incorrectly: “You’re just like Mars / you shine in the sky, you shine in the sky.” Does Mars technically shine? Do people? Are people in the sky?

Folie à Deux is an album with a lot of ambition, a lot of ideas, and a lot of resources. It’s unfortunately also an album that wasted much of its potential. Its guest artists, for instance, are criminally underused. Debbie fucking Harry shows up on closing track “West Coast Smoker” but sounds so unrecognizable that it would have made more sense to let Ashlee Simpson handle her part. Lil Wayne, his voice wildly processed, doesn’t rap at all but sings a few lines on “Tiffany Blews.” That’s more than Elvis Costello, Patrick Stump’s musical idol, gets. In perhaps the most offensive use of a guest star on the album, he sings just a single line on “What A Catch, Donnie,” and it’s a reprise from the previous song on the album. He’s only one guest singer on a track packed with them, as seemingly the entire Decaydance Records roster appears to sing snippets from Fall Out Boy’s previous singles, including the band’s manager. Elvis got as much time on the mic as their manager and this Cobra Starship idiot!

Okay, but… disrespect to Elvis Costello aside, “What A Catch, Donnie” is a really enjoyable song! Most of the songs on Folie à Deux are really enjoyable! I’d criticize Pete for self-mythologizing too much (the video is yet another career retrospective, just one album after the career retrospective of the “This Ain’t A Scene” video!) but I can’t really make a fuss about it in this case. He wrote the song about Patrick standing by him through suicide attempts and skyrocketing fame, so some nostalgia makes sense. “Tiffany Blews” is a jumble of ideas, including that Lil Wayne cameo, but just try to resist that chorus. And “20 Dollar Nose Bleed,” featuring friend of the band Brendon Urie, might be the most fun Fall Out Boy song ever recorded. Check out that jaunty piano! Marvel at Brendon and Patrick’s vocal acrobatics! The lyrics are probably dark — I can’t really parse them — but it sounds so joyful, an impression solidified by the adorable footage of them recording it together, just friends hanging out and making music, Pete contributing nothing of merit.

Folie à Deux works, for me at least, because it’s easier to connect to the emotionality of the music when it’s not so blatantly about Pete Wentz. When the lyrics seem to be a mismatch with the music, as usual with Fall Out Boy, it’s at least less distracting when surrounded by Folie’s sweeping production. But their thematic abstraction is a huge benefit compared to previous albums. These songs don’t reference emo scene in-fighting or internet scandals. They just convey universal feelings. The best example is “The (Shipped) Gold Standard,” one of the album’s highlights, a clear-eyed song about failure and flaws. The narrator’s dreams of escaping his problems are clearly delusional: “Sometimes I wanna quit this all and become an accountant,” he says, before acknowledging “but I’m no good at math.” He acknowledges his self-defeating tendencies with examples like “I wanna scream ‘I love you!’ at the top of my lungs / but I’m afraid that someone else will hear me.” The chorus erupts with realization, a cathartic snap-out-of-it moment: “You can only blame your problems on the world for so long / before it all becomes the same old song.”

I couldn’t get into Folie à Deux when it first came out, but I revisited it a year later. I was in college then. I hadn’t made any friends, was in a bad relationship, and had never been so miserable in my life. I’d take long walks around campus alone, listening to songs on my iPod that made me feel like I’d be okay. That chorus of “The (Shipped) Gold Standard” hit home for me, something that had never happened with a Fall Out Boy lyric before, and I printed it out and pinned it above my desk to try to keep myself from wallowing. Much later I would get a Zoloft prescription and understand that faulty brain chemistry was to blame for my misery, but back then I only had music to soothe my sadness. Folie à Deux was a really good album for that, full of soaring, triumphant moments that sound like overcoming your worst times. For the band, it had probably felt like it. They’d achieved massive success in only a few years. Pete had survived two suicide attempts, a feat commemorated by the song title “27,” an allusion to the fact that he hadn’t joined music’s 27 club after all.

At the same time as I was getting into the album, Fall Out Boy was feeling burned out after years of touring and recording. They were discouraged by the lukewarm response to the album and felt out of place in a pop landscape that was increasingly dominated by dance acts like Flo Rida and Pitbull, Lady Gaga and Ke$ha. They took a break, and it was all downhill from there.

Next time in the Fall Out Boy Music Club: they go away. And then they come back. To save rock and roll, allegedly!

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