Eight years on, Ronnie McCluskey reappraises his love affair with Fall Out Boy’s magnum opus, Infinity on High.
In 2007, Fall Out Boy released Infinity on High and forever changed my world. That sounds overly dramatic: it didn’t drag me from the doldrums or yank me by the scruff of my neck from a deepening depression (although I’m sure it did exactly that for many a kohl-eyed emo). It just seized me in a way that music never had before. So far as I was concerned, the expression “shot-in-the-arm” had never applied to music till I heard Infinity on High, an album that was fucking replete with such moments: blasting these songs was like being injected with a double hit of adrenaline and dopamine. I was 19 that summer and although I can dimly recall or vaguely deduce what else I was listening to around that time, Infinity is the one album I remember repping non-stop. And I mean non-stop: in the gym, on buses and trains, in the university cafeteria; whenever I could feasibly get away with retreating into the private world inside my head and tucking the earbuds into my lugs, I’d be blasting Fall Out Boy at full volume.
The evolution of taste
A few years ago I had a discussion with a cousin about the capricious nature of people’s music tastes. Not just hers and mine, but everyone’s. It was in relation to a relative of ours, at the time a lank-haired, rebellious-looking teenager (though he wasn’t especially mutinous in any other sense) who was rinsing a lot of angry, discordant heavy metal. “I wonder what he’ll be listening to in ten years?” I pondered. My cousin seemed confused. “Much the same stuff,” she suggested. “But accounting for any change in taste…” I said. She was confounded. “Tastes don’t change,” her face seemed to indicate, a second before her mouth vocalised it. “You like what you like.”
“They bust into the mainstream like they’d just kicked open the swing doors of the OK Corral with their pistols drawn”
I understand what she means. I think back to the music I listened to as a youngster and I can’t really repudiate it. Is that because my tastes haven’t changed? No; they undoubtedly have. Am I just fortunate enough to have always enjoyed music that stands the test of time or otherwise satisfies my own ear as I age? Who knows. The degree to which our interests fluctuate naturally depends on the individual. The factors motivating such oscillation are a mystery to me, but I’m sure there are a myriad of agents feeding the process.
An infinite Infinity loop
What is it that appealed to me about Infinity on High then and that appeals to me now? I think the first thing that grabs me, as I spin it for the 500th time, is the energy. From the moment the guitar strikes up at the start of ‘Thriller’, and Jay-Z intones, “Yeah, what you critics said would never happen…” you feel you’ve been sucked into the eye of a storm. This is when Fall Out Boy forgot or stopped caring about what kind of music they made: everybody could like this. They bust into the mainstream like they’d just kicked open the swing doors of the OK Corral with their pistols drawn. They were having fun; they were taking the piss; they were writing killer one-liners that slated themselves and the world around them; they were making music that was brash and colourful and thunderous and melodic and that could inspire more or less every emotion in the book, from sullenness to pure joy.
The world became aware of Fall Out Boy when they dropped From Under the Cork Tree, but Infinity on High took them to a new level, exposing their brand of electrifying pop punk to the masses and earning them a berth at the top table of music. And they deserved to be there, and they knew it.
“We played air guitar without the slightest trace of self-awareness and we beat invisible sticks off drums that floated in midair before our eyes only”
There’s nary a song you could dub filler on Infinity on High. ‘Thriller’ opens on a high note and the standard doesn’t flag for 50:04. “Make us poster boys for your scene, but we are not making an acceptance speech”, sings Patrick, acknowledging the band’s new-found fame and rejecting it in the same breath. “Long live the car crash hearts…” Even having the temerity to name an album’s opening song ‘Thriller’ tells you all you need to know about how sure of themselves these young guys were. Insofar as an album is a “moment in time”, their third full-length showcased Fall Out Boy at the peak of their powers – and at their most ambitious.
Infinity on hi-fi
Infinity on High was the soundtrack of my summer and probably the soundtrack of my life from the moment of its release in early 2007 to maybe sometime around the winter of 2008. Today, I play it every few months, feeling every bit as alive as it made me feel the first time around. Never again have Pete’s lyrics and Patrick’s guitar and voice found such a tuneful equipoise.
“Long live the car crash hearts”
‘Thriller’ segues into ‘The Take Over, The Breaks Over’, another one of those pulsating, shot-in-the-arm songs stuffed with smartass lyrics (“They say your head can be a prison, then these are just conjugal visits”) and a lot of bolshy, poppy guitarwork; it also has the best guitar solos on the record, which are strangely enough not played by Patrick – who is no slouch on guitar – but Ryan Ross of Panic! at the Disco, and Chad Gilbert from New Found Glory. This song, like most of the others, is best played at full volume. The chorus is huge (“Wouldn’t you rather be a widow than a divorcee?!”) and somehow invokes a simultaneous sense of exhilaration and reflectiveness. Least, that’s how it manifests itself on me.
Track three is perhaps the album’s most famous: ‘This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race’. Curiously, I tend to press Skip. I was never especially enamoured with the song, despite the fanfare, though the lyrics are first-rate, by turns self-effacing (“I wrote the gospel on giving up”), beguiling (“At night we’re painting your trash gold while you sleep”) and disdainful, making a mockery of the group’s overnight success (“This bandwagon’s full, please catch another”). Personally, I find the biggest hits from each of my favourite albums – at least those which spawned any hits – tend not to come anywhere close to being my favourite songs.
“One day we’ll get nostalgic for disaster”
‘I’m Like a Lawyer with the Way I’m Trying to Get You Off’ is Fall Out Boy at their playful best. “Last year’s wishes are this year’s apologies”, Patrick confesses, before adding, “I only keep myself this sick in the head cos I know how the words get you.” You wonder if Pete’s being ironic when he writes “We’re the new face of failure” (Under the Cork Tree had sold three million copies) or simply currying favour with the band’s teenaged fanbase, for whom a sense of failure must have been a staple of everyday life. It’s also a love song (“Me and you, setting in a honeymoon, if I woke up next to you…”) that has a certain sugary sweetness about it. I can’t help but love it.
‘Hum Hallelujah’ is a top contender for my favourite song on the album. The lyrics are wry and funny (“I thought I loved you, it was just how you looked in the light/ One day we’ll get nostalgic for disaster”) and the taut guitars and drums create pure fire. It’s a song about misfired lust and any number of emotions. Again, best played loud – in the words of Patrick, “We’re a bull, your ears are a china shop” – on good quality circumaural headphones or a decent sound system. Fuck it, play it anywhere you can. If your tastes are remotely aligned with my own, jewel luv it.
“I want these words to make things right, but it’s the wrongs that make the words come to life”
‘Golden’ is the album’s obligatory piano ballad, just Patrick and a set of keys. It’s something of a miserable number (“All of the mothers raised their babies to stay away from me”) but the change of pace, in the album’s middle phase, is welcome. It’s also melodious as hell and, like every track here, boasts a line or three that makes you wonder “Just what the fuck does that mean and why do I keep coming back to it?” “Tongues on the socket of electric dreams…I saw God cry in the reflection of my enemies…” Some songs have double meanings and some are Rubix cubes, mini novels of condensed expression. There are several songs on Infinity on High I’d place in the latter category without a moment’s hesitation. The lyrics are so clever you want to give Pete Wentz a kick in the nuts for being such a smart aleck, but in spite of yourself you find your lip starting to curl. Then there’ll be a line that makes you look at the person behind the pen and see them tick. “I want these words to make things right, but it’s the wrongs that make the words come to life.”
There’s no denying Fall Out Boy do doom and gloom well: they’ve made an artform of it. But Infinity on High is so much more than an emo album. It’s as much about the plasticity of fame and the unreliability of memory as it is about therapy and self-medication. An album that can presage a party (“Say a prayer and let the good times roll…”), a bout of especially overpowering teenage angst (“I was born under a bad sign”), or a funeral.
“Listening to Infinity on High felt like being plugged into some massive piece of well-calibrated machinery”
My pal Keith and I got blind drunk while repping Infinity on High throughout the summer of 2007; we’d blast it day and night in his poky wee room in the halls of residence, raising the volume as we got more and more tanked, before venturing into town or the union to get further blitzed. We sang along to every line. We sang to each other like a couple of fools, wassailing our way into a stupor. We played air guitar without the slightest trace of self-awareness and we beat invisible sticks off drums that floated in midair before our eyes only. We loved ‘Don’t You Know Who I Think I Am’ (I’m playing it now, as I type, and much as I want to continue this sentence I can’t bring myself to skip the song, and I can’t help but silently sing along – in my defence, the cafe in which I’m sat is half-empty and no-one is paying me any attention) every bit as much as [quote_box_right]”There’s too much green to feel blue”[/quote_box_right]‘The (After) Life of the Party’ (for reasons then unknown to us we loved to belt out the line “Cut it loose”; you’d think it would’ve occurred to us, as we polished off another bottle of Buckie, that it had something to do with the fact that we ourselves were ‘cutting loose’) and ‘The Carpal Tunnel of Love’ and ‘Bang The Doldrums’. When we sang the latter, we were doubtless thinking of the respective objects of our desires when we hit on the line “I cast a spell over the west to make you think of me the same way I think of you”. Like every other teenager, we were beholden to our own personal yearnings and FOB fed them like an especially potent drug. There’s that phrase again – “a moment in time”: it floats across my mind like a mote of dust. As I consider it now, listening to Infinity on High felt like being plugged into some massive piece of well-calibrated machinery.
Reading back these words, I wonder if nostalgia has romanticised my perception of Infinity on High. In short order, the notion is dismissed with the force of a well-placed punch to the jaw. Whatever the album means to me now, it meant every bit as much – if not more – then. When I heard it, I was only really beginning to discover music – had only recently started buying CDs and developing, like a fortress, any kind of musical leaning. The album exerted a pull on me that verged on the physical.
Infinity minus a third
While many records flag in the final third, Infinity on High surges like a marathon runner powering through the final 100m. ‘Bang The Doldrums’ is a reverberant epic. The lyrics are superb (“I can’t commit to a thing, be it heart or hospital”) and the music is life-affirming. ‘Fame<Infamy’ tumbles out of the speakers at 100mph and has maybe the album’s most wonderfully confessional (not to mention shamelessly capitalistic) lyric: “There’s too much green to feel blue”. I always used to think of ‘You’re Crashing But You’re No Wave’ as a weak point, but damn – dat chorus. “Case open! Case shut! Baby, you could pay to close it like a casket!” ‘I’ve Got All This Ringing In My Ears But None On My Finger’ is heroic in a way that I’m unable to fully explain to myself. It also has maybe the second best solo on the album. “Do you remember the way I held your hand under the lamppost and ran” is sang by Patrick in such a way as to make me think I once was that guy, sprinting in the gloom as one-half of a pair of star-crossed lovers, despite knowing this to be a falsity. Similarly, the line “I could close my eyes” affects me in my gut in a manner that makes not the slightest bit of sense: after all, I’ve never been unable to close my eyes.
That’s officially the album’s final song, but the UK version comes with a bonus track – G.I.N.A.S.F.S (Gay is Not a Synonym for Shitty) – which, unlike 99.9% of bonus tracks, is marvellous: beefy riffs, an impossibly catchy chorus, amazing lyrics and a sense of genuine joie de vivre. I should qualify that last point: it’s the music which engenders this sense of rocketing ebullience; lines like “I’ve already given up on myself twice, third time is the charm” and “Threw caution to the wind but I’ve got a lousy arm” are hardly uplifting – Pete Wentz is and always has been one jaded motherfucker.
Insofar as an album can be timeless, Infinity on High is that album: if it were to play in perpetuity, inside my head, that wouldn’t seem like such a raw deal. “Things aren’t the same any more”, sings Patrick on G.I.N.A.S.F.S. In some ways, he’s right. In others, he’s dead wrong. Infinity on High remains as much a masterpiece now as it was then. Pure. Simple. Eternal.