There can be something remarkably transcendent about dumb music, a kind of breezy conceptual freedom that comes with performers who shamelessly own up to their own vapidity. Fall Out Boy's Folie à Deux, on the other hand, reveals its stupidity the hard way, through a tiring series of affected gestures, empty musical feints, and strained lyrics, which come together to form an album that preens and fidgets like a neglected child. It's not a stretch to say that Fall Out Boy would be a much better band if they weren't so high-concept.
The band's songs are catchy at heart, enjoyable in a trifling but substantial way, until they're smeared with layer after layer of smarm, nullifying any chance of their music being consumed as a simple, empty pleasure. Irritating bells and whistles, like preciously wordy titles that have been mercifully downplayed this time around ("Disloyal Order of Water Buffaloes," "Headfirst Slide Into Cooperstown on a Bad Bet"), mar an otherwise competent album. The music flits around distractedly, while Patrick Stump's grating vocal aerobics sabotage the songs' hooks and his lyrics are often built on chanting hollow turns of phrase that sound less clever each time they're repeated.
Fall Out Boy so often picks up interesting sounds and then drops them just as quickly. Production from Pharrell Williams seems like a promising concept, but the things that do catch the ear disappear in the mix or are quickly discarded. "Headfirst Slide" contains an intriguing electronic presence during the verses, but this never develops into anything more than a tentative stab at something new, one that shows up again in the lilting horns of "20 Dollar Nose Bleed" and the weird blues intro of "w.a.m.s" and blooms quietly in other forgotten corners of the album. These moments never become anything more than mere window dressing and are equally matched by dreadful stock elements like an echo effect on "The (Shipped) Gold Standard" and perfunctory strings on "What a Catch, Donnie."
Folie à Deux seems to prove, if nothing else, that Fall Out Boy is good at masking their best qualities and pushing forward their most annoying ones. Guest stars are given the same treatment, and while a band of this caliber's supposed eclectic influences usually only show up buried in their press kit, here they're buried in the actual songs: Elvis Costello shares room with Brendon Urie of Panic at the Disco on "What a Catch Donnie" but it's hard to tell he's even there, while Debbie Harry is entirely wasted on "West Coast Smoker." And if you listen closely you can even hear Lil Wayne, quietly putting in his 25 seconds on "Tiffany Blews" like an AutoTuned frog croaking in the distance.
The album's best moments are those that hum along unassumingly, giving the songs room to be catchy and simple and the hooks room to sneak up on you. These moments, however, are rare and fleeting. Luckily for the band, overzealously flashing their supposed wit is secondary to actually selling records, but while it's possible for a band to embrace both the bottom line and some sense of artistic betterment, this one is already too busy making signal flares of its own specious wit. Folie à Deux simply cannot sit still.