‘If a double-decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.” The line is from the Smiths’ 1986 song There Is a Light That Never Goes Out, of course, but an eighties baby could be forgiven for thinking it’s Fall Out Boy. The four-piece rock outfit from the American Midwest was embraced after its multi-platinum 2005 breakout disc, Under the Cork Tree, by swooning, hormone-addled teens who fell in love with the band’s combination of crunchy guitars, hard-core punk drums and bubblegum melodies. And yet, bassist Pete Wentz’s lyrics – delivered with lung-bursting gusto by singer Patrick Stump – and Morrissey’s raw, romantically tortured declarations seem forged in the same fire.
Indeed, Moz’s bus-crash line would fit in well in Fall Out Boy’s canon, next to, “I’m just a notch in your bedpost, but you’re just a line in a song” (Sugar, We’re Going Down Swinging from Under The Cork Tree ) or, “Baby, we should have left our love in the gutter where we found it” (The Mighty Fall, from the band’s latest album, Save Rock And Roll).
Clearly the comparison isn’t so farfetched (Wentz, a fan, even wrote a 2005 book named after another of the Smiths’ songs, The Boy With The Thorn In His Side), but mentioning Fall Out Boy in the same breath as Morrissey and Johnny Marr is akin to heresy to some, er, older folks. Not all of us, though: Fall Out Boy’s new disc features cameos from artists including Elton John, reportedly a fan; 2008’s Folie à Deux featured Elvis Costello and Lil Wayne; and 2007’s Infinity On High opened not with singer Stump, but another fan – Jay-Z.
Emo – that scarlet letter of a rock sub-genre, resigned to the dustbin of history when even Justin Bieber abandoned its signature floppy hairstyle – was less a kind of music than a tendency toward over-the-top emoting, one that was mostly unmediated by songwriting craft. One sign of the times was a popular satirical T-shirt design: the “Emo emu,” featuring an illustrated emu with the caption “If I had arms, I’d cut myself.”
Fall Out Boy was undeniably associated with the term. Now, after pursuing various extracurricular activities (Stump made an 1980s-funk solo record and married his long-time girlfriend; guitarist Joe Trohman and drummer Andy Hurley both played in other bands; Wentz created an electronic project, and divorced his then-wife, Ashlee Simpson), the group’s self-imposed hiatus is over. But if they’re here to save rock and roll, who will save them from emo?
Stump says that the band felt pressure both to reprise the sound of the era, and to abandon it. “Going into this record, there were people bringing up emo and saying, ‘oh, you should do this’ or, ‘you should make sure to be this,’ and a lot of it was revisionist history,” he says on the phone from his home in L.A. “I never had the emo haircut, you know? We never sang those kinds of songs. We sang angry songs; we didn’t sing depressed songs.”
Even though the new disc plays down the screaming guitars of their past records in favour of a palette that favours keyboards and strings, there’s no shortage of anger on Save Rock And Roll. Not with songs like Death Valley, an anthem for those who survived the party trenches of California. “Let’s get you wasted and alone,” Stump sings with villainous delight before switching roles for the defiant, self-referential chorus: “We are alive, here in death valley,” he roars over a throbbing migraine of a beat, debauched spree and hangover all at once.
“When I read [Wentz’s lyrics],” Stump says, “I thought to myself, it’s very easy to die in decadence. You make it out to California – as every entertainer ends up doing at some point, working on whatever it is. And you do end up at a party once in a while, certainly in your first year here, before you figure out how to avoid them forever.”
He insists that the band’s youthful venom is still present, it’s just better disguised. “In my family, the way we insult each other, you quietly say the most brutal thing into your scotch glass right before you take a sip. I think there’s a lot of that on this record.”
Stump is excited to work with Wentz again (“It took me a long time to really appreciate how great I think he is [as a lyricist]. So coming back to [the band] was like a gift. It’s like getting to redo your life, getting to do over your mistakes”) and to have the chance to re-imagine the band for a new era.
“When we made Cork Tree,” Stump explains, “there was a moment when we looked at each other and we all said, if we do [our previous album] again, we’re going to be doing that record till we die. And so [Cork Tree ] has some really strange departures. It might be our strangest record. I think, in that context, this album is a departure for sure, but that’s what we do, that’s our standard.
“I hope this is another record we have to escape.”
Fall Out Boy plays Toronto’s Sound Academy May 24 and Montreal’s Metropolis May 25.