Like all the “emo” and pop-punk bands that blew up during the ascents of those genres in the aughts, Fall Out Boy have had their share of growing pains in the process of building a name outside of a scene. As they got bigger, they focused more on the “pop” element of their sound, careening into the natural fit of R&B for singer Patrick Stump’s massive vocals, arena rock, and the type of March Madness-core mess of electro-rock that would define 2018’s Mania.
For their eighth album So Much (for) Stardust, FOB return to Fueled by Ramen, the label known for their all-star roster of emo and pop-punk heavyweights, for the first time since their 2003 debut. In doing so, they pinpointed what made them such an enduring standout in the first place (and what they may have lost in their effort to redefine their sound): a type of bold, incisive, emotional theatricality that places them among rock’s most endearing misfits.
Stardust opens with lead single “Love From The Other Side,” a celestial epic full of biting one-liners (“I’d never go/I just wanted to be invited”) and apocalyptic reflections on pain and heartbreak, a mix only Fall Out Boy can make effective. It kicks off a four-song punch of the band’s finest pop writing in ages. “Heartbreak Feels So Good” has an instant classic hook, with an ace Stump vocal hitting perfectly scream-along worthy lines like “We could cry a little/Cry a lot/Don’t stop dancing/Don’t dare stop.” Pete Wentz hits a particularly funky bass line on “Hold Me Like a Grudge,” a groovy and tight tune with the best title on the album, hands down. “Fake Out” is slick and breezy, like a teen movie soundtrack with lines like “My mood board is just pictures of you” that recall the band’s 2005 highpoint From Under the Cork Tree.
Some of the other reaches toward pop don’t work as effectively, like the jaunty “So Good Right Now,” which samples the Bobby Day-penned “Little Bitty Pretty One.” That famous melody is a cute reference that falls a bit flat. The similarly old school “What a Time to Be Alive” is a disco-y moment about the “quarantine blues” that comes off corny (“Everything is lit except my serotonin”).
As always, Fall Out Boy’s riskier feats are some of the strongest. “Heaven, Iowa” is a gorgeous power ballad, chock full of references to movies and their own 2013 LP Save Rock and Roll. A sample of Ethan Hawke’s dialogue in Reality Bites cuts the album in half, complemented but a stunning ambient score. “Baby Annihilation” features an excellent spoken word performance from Wentz, the first time he’s done so on a Fall Out Boy record since 2008’s Folie à Deux.
The album ends with the title track, hitting a more dour note than the energized, urgent tone set by “Love From The Other Side.” In classic Fall Out Boy fashion, it features another effective moment of self-reference, echoing “Love From The Other Side” with the line, “You were the sunshine of my lifetime/What would you trade the pain for?/I’m not sure.” Based on several albums’ worth of soul-crushing lyrics (and just as biting self-deprecating humor), they’ve known the answer to that question for years: they wouldn’t trade the pain for anything.