ALBUM REVIEW: Fall Out Boy – ‘So Much (For) Stardust’

Artwork for Fall Out Boy’s ‘So Much (For) Stardust’ - a painting of a dog trying to catch bubbles

So, how long have Fall Out Boy been overreaching for? The answer will likely vary depending on who you ask, but it’ll probably fall somewhere within the last decade, post-hiatus where they’ve been at their most divisive. Save Rock And Roll was a weird return that deviated into pure pop, totally at odds with its grandstanding title; American Beauty / American Psycho took that even further, between supreme unevenness and some of their most blatant mainstream ploys ever; M A N I A was just a mess.

In truth though, there’s never really been a point where Fall Out Boy have ‘overreached’, because that’s just who they are. They’ve always been flamboyant and too clever for their own good (or not as clever as they think, depending on the situation), and their most recent run of work is no different. As pop-rock has tilted into pop, Fall Out Boy putting a spin on that that’s defiantly theirs is the most natural thing they can do, and while it might rub some the wrong way, they can generally pull it off. It’s what’s made it almost as easy to be a Fall Out Boy defender as a detractor; like it or not, this is exactly the route that was always laid out for them.

Now, that’s not to immediately absolve them of some of the most questionable creative decisions they’ve made. Especially on M A N I A, the pliability of that sentiment was tested far more than it previously had been, to where its own splintering was pretty unavoidable. At the same time though, it’s worth remembering that Young And Menace—the de facto totem for the ire towards every bad decision Fall Out Boy have made in the last ten years—was an outlier, and an anomaly as far as how wrong things can go. If there wasn’t the meticulous behind-the-scenes planning that’s so easy to suspect, that would’ve likely been the jumping-off point for another album much sooner than this.

Because, at the end of the day, Fall Out Boy aren’t stupid. Not only have they seen pop-punk and pop-rock reshaped since 2001, but they’ve been at the epicentre of it, and with a presence and visibility that most bands would never have in their wildest dreams, they know what works. As much as they decried nostalgia when going into So Much (For) Stardust, it’d be incredibly naive to expect them to mean it. It’s not like they couldn’t have seen the reactions coming after all—when the narrative of both Love From The Other Side and Heartbreak Feels So Good has been usurped by a summation of ‘Fall Out Boy, but with guitars again’, the knee-jerk reaction of expecting pre-hiatus sound and quality can’t come as a surprise. From a business sense, banking off that is a no-brainer; from a creative sense, the possibility of being built up unsustainably high can’t be ruled out.

But that isn’t what this is, not even slightly. If previous albums might’ve indicated an impenetrable ceiling looming over this current incarnation of Fall Out Boy, So Much (For) Stardust is the sledgehammer tearing it down chunk by chunk. Especially coming directly after M A N I A, this is the sort of about-face that’s borderline alien for a band in their exact position. Neither Paramore or Panic! At The Disco could do it, two acts for whom the reputation of 2000s pop-rock standard-bearers had generally been carried over a lot more cleanly. Fall Out Boy, though…this is not the direction they’ve been threatening for years, but it’s all the better for it.

Might as well get the big talking point out the way first then—Jesus Christ, is it good to hear Fall Out Boy being a rock band again! With no half-measures or uncertainty, guitars are back in full force, as are the loosened pop-rock boundaries that defined albums like Infinity On High or Folie à Deux. In fact, the latter arguably has the cleanest parallel, in the prevalence of sweeping strings and flourishes of pop and soul. After all, it’s not like Patrick Stump’s standing as a classicist has gone away, and this time it’s fed through the ornate Motown swing of What A Time To Be Alive, or one of the clearest Michael Jackson parallels in the band’s entire catalogue in Hold Me Like A Grudge and its Smooth Criminal-cribbing bassline.

Compared to what preceded it (which is a sentiment that’ll be echoed through the bulk of this album’s analysis, most likely), So Much (For) Stardust just has an opulence and an expensiveness about it that’s so refreshing to hear. What was often Fall Out Boy’s raison d’être among their pop-rock peers has come back, and in new ways too. Very little of this album feels like a retread, pleasingly, as it taps into a variety of tones and sonic palettes that Fall Out Boy have rarely touched. Even from the opener Love On The Other Side, it kicks off with minor piano flutters and a more solemn string section, before cranking up and darkening the guitars significantly. It’s a mood that’s reprised with Heaven, Iowa’s pounding, thunderous depth, or what appears to be them trying their hand at Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir with how crushing the strings and percussion are on I Am My Own Muse.

It’s the most full-bodied that Fall Out Boy have felt in a long time, and with a cognition that only feels brought about given the current situation they find themselves in. It hardly feels like a coincidence that, at their recent UK shows, there was no material from M A N I A played at all, and with a line like “I guess I’m getting bolder ‘cause I’m less pissed / We didn’t make your year-end best list”, the pieces fall rather cleanly into place. Maybe ‘redemption’ is too strong a word, but the intent is certainly to come out all guns blazing, and when this doubles up as their post-pandemic album also shaped by the weight of the past couple of years, that makes a lot of sense. The more dour deviations and embrace of knowing cynicism really isn’t territory they’ve explored before, nor is it something they’re trying to hide. So Good Right Now might present itself as a cheerful rockabilly-esque number that wouldn’t seem out of place on the Grease soundtrack in places, but it’s a clear example of forcing the most painted-on smile when its key lyric is “Feelin’ so good right now / Till we crash and burn somehow”.

For a band like Fall Out Boy, whose self-importance and borderline smugness has often moulded their work (which has never been a bad thing, to clarify), to have So Much (For) Stardust lean so radically away from that really does leap out. Even among the oft-tangled web of highfalutin nonsense that can be considered songwriting (see Pete Wentz’ utterly arrogant ‘poem’ Baby Annihilation), the intent is far easier to grasp; hell, What A Time To Be Alive barely hides it. That’s where So Much (For) Stardust can provide a real draw. If ‘earnest’ isn’t exactly accurate, the bulletproof artifice that always envelops Fall Out Boy’s work is a bit more scuffed, and this far in, on this particular career juncture, that’s interesting to say the least.

Of course, it’s also a Fall Out Boy album, meaning that the big, mainstream-ready, radio-friendly hooks and pop-rock gloss are going nowhere. Not that anyone with a vested interest would really want them to, but being anchored more deeply into the rock angle certainly helps. Surely some will see the more programmed pop elements regulated to teases as a win, like the synth-pad intro of Heartbreak Feels So Good or the trap skitter placed at the end of Flu Game, but they’re arguably just integrated more tightly than outright discarded. The faint thrums at the back of Fake Out and The Kintsugi Kid (Ten Years) don’t add much, but they do enough to flesh things out, and the coats of polish on So Good Right Now and What A Time To Be Alive are quite clearly repurposings.

Mostly though, it all hinges on the most organically-founded material that Fall Out Boy have delivered in years. The guitar heft has been touched on already but it can’t be overstated how much it makes a difference to Love From The Other Side, or the Franz Ferdinand-type riff of Hold Me Like A Grudge. Meanwhile, Andy Hurley once again remains the metal heart of the pop-rock outfit in his drumming, where he gives an unmistakable weight to I Am My Own Muse and the title track in how his percussion smashes down and carves out such an immense presence. They’re by far the album’s most calamitous moments, as any scaffolding is ripped asunder and a bold, new album is left to stand unattended, something which So Much (For) Stardust is more than equipped to do.

What’s more, that feels like an opinion with the potential to blossom even further. Sure, prisoner-of-the-moment hype has brought down so many albums in this vein in the past, but the sneaking feeling that Fall Out Boy have dodged that is significant. After all, they’re a smart band, and they know the ways to steady themselves to get the most out of a particular situation. That was needed more than ever after M A N I A, and achieved in a way that feels like genuine, desired evolution rather than simple course correction. That side of it can’t be dismissed either, mind, but it’s not the overriding feeling; Fall Out Boy have taken their own reins once again, and led with an album so inextricably keen on planting its feet in the best of both eras. The band say it themselves right here—what a time to be alive.

For fans of: Panic! At The Disco, Paramore, My Chemical Romance

‘So Much (For) Stardust’ by Fall Out Boy is out now on Fueled By Ramen.

Words by Luke Nuttall

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