Fall Out Boy have become the kings of emo — without actually showing much emotion. Sure, they make all the signature emo moves: Singer Patrick Stump bellows cries of hurt, catalogs of grievances and confessions of inadequacy over guitars that hurtle toward big choruses. The group's fourth album, Folie à Deux, begins in high-angst mode, with him crooning "I'm coming apart at the seams" over a funereal organ.
But behind the melodrama there is a smirk. In the galloping "Disloyal Order of Water Buffaloes," Stump sings about nervous breakdowns and detox stints before delivering a jokey self-critique: "Nobody wants to hear you sing about tragedy." The title of "The (Shipped) Gold Standard" is an in-joke about record sales, and the chorus rises to winking couplet: "You can only blame your problems on the world for so long/Before it all becomes the same old song." In Fall Out Boy's world, tongue-in-cheek always trumps heart-on-sleeve.
That's certainly the case on Folie à Deux, their most exuberantly cheeky release yet. It's also their most rock-star-ish. The guest list boasts names that only an A-list band could corral, from emo homeboys (Gym Class Heroes' Travis McCoy) to rappers (Lil Wayne, Pharrell) to eminences (Elvis Costello, Debbie Harry). The music suggests that Fall Out Boy, now firmly established as leading Gen Y rock torchbearers, are starting to think about their place in history. In "Headfirst Slide Into Cooperstown on a Bad Bet," Stump sings, "I don't just want to be a footnote." This heightened historical self-consciousness registers most strongly in the music itself, which mashes up the band's staples — caffeine-injected punk pop and bursts of prog-rock pomp — with more old-school sounds: Beatlesque backing vocals in "America's Suitehearts," string-swathed soul balladeering in the glorious "What a Catch, Donnie." Fall Out Boy began dabbling with R&B on 2007's Infinity on High, and they further explore their funky side here: Stump is emerging as one of the world's most unlikely blue-eyed-soul stars, breathing life into classic R&B chord progressions and flaunting his agile voice. (He seems determined to give Robin Thicke a run for the Best White Boy Falsetto prize.)
The musical mix on Folie à Deux suggests a band with an advanced case of ADD, ricocheting between genres and eras, tempos and time signatures, often several times in a given song. But there is monomaniacal focus in the lyrics of Pete Wentz, FOB's bassist, pin-up and poet/jester. Wentz is, as always, hyperverbose and infatuated by puns. (The wordplay is sometimes not quite as clever as Wentz thinks: "The mad key's tripping/Singing vows/Before we exchange smoke rings.") Above all, Fall Out Boy remain obsessed with Fall Out Boy. "Throw your cameras in the air/And wave them like you just don't care," Stump bellows in "(Coffee's for Closers)." Rock stars have been making records about rock stardom for decades, but few have had such fun singing about the absurdities, the narcissism — and, as the album title suggests, the follies — of a life lived in fame's strobelit glare. "I don't care what you think/As long as it's about me," sings Stump in "I Don't Care," adding what could be FOB's credo, a summary of their trickster-ish approach to the emo game: "The best of us can find happiness in misery."