Rumors that Fall Out Boy would reunite had circulated for months before the band finally confirmed it in February, but the group still pulled off a surprise by announcing a new, already completed album would follow. It would be called Save Rock And Roll, giving a messianic flair to a reunion that seemed mundanely inevitable. Fall Out Boy wasn’t simply reactivating after a three-year hiatus; it was coming to unseat indifferent pretenders from rock’s throne.
The apparently unironic title reinforced the assertions of Fall Out Boy’s many detractors while simultaneously undercutting them: A band known for its preening self-awareness had given its album a title so easy to mock that there was no sport in doing so. The title track even features Elton John, of all people, closing a heavily produced pop album by four guys who came up in the punk and hardcore scenes.
That would seem jarring if Fall Out Boy had leapt directly from the hooky, unadorned pop-punk of 2003’s Take This To Your Grave to epic pop sweep of Save Rock And Roll, but Fall Out Boy long ago embraced its true pop nature. The band’s 2005 major-label debut, From Under The Cork Tree, offered a slicker version of what had preceded it, but remained a pretty straightforward rock album. For 2007’s Infinity On High, the band began to experiment with the opportunities success afforded it. Hitmaker Butch Walker (Taylor Swift, Pink, Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne) contributed production—along with R&B luminary Babyface, who produced two songs—and the album had a full-on piano ballad at the halfway point. The songs moved from simple guitar-drums-bass-vocals to something grander in scope. By 2009’s underrated Folie À Deux, Fall Out Boy barely resembled the band that made Cork Tree, and might as well have been completely different people from the ones who made its debut EP, Fall Out Boy’s Evening Out With Your Girlfriend (a record whose existence the band would love the world to forget). The band’s strongest album from front to back, Folie À Deux features appearances by Debbie Harry and Elvis Costello, making John’s Save Rock And Roll cameo, if not inevitable, then at least not surprising.
It says a lot about Fall Out Boy in 2013 when the album’s obviously titled leadoff track, “The Phoenix,” doesn’t have any guitar until nearly a minute into the song. Over furiously played strings—which sound like palm-muted guitars—singer-guitarist Patrick Stump sings, “Put on your war paint!” It’s not until the song’s climactic chorus that Stump and Joe Trohman’s guitars kick in for extra drama. Stump sings like he has something to prove, and the song nicely complements his anxious energy.
Yet despite its title, Save Rock And Roll is not a guitar-rock album. The instrument is similarly de-emphasized in songs like “Alone Together” and “Just One Yesterday.” Maybe it’s the heavy hand of producer Walker, who gives Save Rock And Roll a sheen worthy of his high-profile pop-star clients. Guitars are treated more like one color in a large sonic palette, and some of the album’s best songs are its least conventionally rocking. “Alone Together” is the album’s first truly great song, and “Just One Yesterday” has a knockout chorus (with a nice assist from British singer Foxes), which remains Fall Out Boy’s specialty. The second half of the album has a succession of them, climaxing with the spectacular “Rat A Tat,” the penultimate track before the mournfully triumphant “Save Rock And Roll.”
“Rat A Tat” manages to be Save Rock And Roll’s high and low point simultaneously. The nadir of the album (and maybe Fall Out Boy’s discography) arrives when Courtney Love channels Britney Spears by saying, “It’s Courtney, bitch” at the song’s opening. Love, who shares a management company with Fall Out Boy, spews some free-form-sounding nonsense like “So they just DIY’d that shit and built their own bombs!” then sings a couple lines later. It’s a deep hole (pun!) to dig out of, but “Rat A Tat” is such a great song—aggressive, with propulsive drums, and guitars front and center—that Love can’t sink it. (An edit without her vocals would be nice, though.) Big Sean’s groan-inducing rapping in “The Mighty Fall” can’t help but look better by comparison, and that includes his awful “Hell yeah, I’m a dick, girl / addicted to you” line.
The day Fall Out Boy announced its reunion, it played a secret show at a small Chicago club, where bassist/lyricist Pete Wentz proclaimed the band came together to “make music that fucking matters.” “Stuff like this is designed to go off in rooms like this, where people sweat and crowd surf,” he said, and much of Save Rock And Roll strains to re-create those old feelings. “We were the kids who screamed, ‘We weren’t the same’ / In sweaty rooms / Now we’re doomed to organizing walk-in closets like tombs,” Stump sings in “Where Did The Party Go.” In “Save Rock And Roll,” he asks, “How’d it get to be only me? / Like I’m the last damn kid still kicking / That still believes.”
In that final song, Save Rock And Roll’s true, more personal meaning becomes clear. Fall Out Boy isn’t trying to save rock ’n’ roll for the world, just for itself. What once meant everything is continually threatened by complacency, and “Save Rock And Roll” offers a statement of intent (and alludes to the band’s first hit): “I will defend the faith / Going down swinging / I will save the songs / The songs we’re singing.” Fall Out Boy may have a messianic streak and big-name producers on the payroll, but Save Rock And Roll is the band’s most personal album yet, a tribute to being passionate and young when time makes the former difficult and the latter impossible. It’s an arena album that longs for small punk clubs. Those days have long passed, but Fall Out Boy keeps those memories close.