When Fall Out Boy released their debut album Take This to Your Grave in 2003, pop punk was alternative while also gaining mainstream popularity. Some of the most widely-loved albums of the genre were all released in the early 2000s. However the Chicago lads debut was a different pop punk album. Under-appreciated on first release, Take This To Your Grave is now considered a mainstay of the genre; in part for the things that made it hard for critics and audiences to get their head round in the first place.
To understand why Fall Out Boy’s debut album is special however, we first have to know where they came from. When the four founding (and current) members of the band – lead singer Patrick Stump, bassist Pete Wentz, drummer Andy Hurley and guitarist Joe Trohman – met, they were all involved in the hardcore scene in Chicago. Wentz was a big name in hardcore, performing in bands like Birthright and Racetraitor, the latter of which Hurley was also in; and Stump was a drummer in grindcore band Xgrinding processX, while Trohman’s primary project was Arma Angelus.
Trohman and Wentz formed Fall Out Boy because they were dissatisfied with hardcore. Speaking to Alt Press in 2013 for a ten-year anniversary issue, they said they envisioned the band as a “pop punk side project” to do in their spare time. That hardcore influence is one of the first things that made Fall Out Boy (and with them, Grave) different. Wentz has called the sound of the band “softcore” because they took hardcore elements – like Pete’s unclean backing vocals – and teamed them with the more traditionally pop punk sound and over-emotional lyrics. The songs were energetic, pure pop punk but also contained elements that gave them an edge.
While Patrick initially was a drummer for the band, they soon realised that what he actually should be doing was singing. Pop punk often falls into some stereotypes, and the vocals we associate with the genre tend to be vocally and nasally, veering towards whiny – Tom Delonge being a more extreme example. Patrick Stump, unlike a lot of pop punk singers, can really fucking sing. His apparent inability to enunciate has made him the object of some derision over the years, but for the most part, he has a legitimately soulful, huge voice that even the harshest reviewers haven’t been able to truly fault. To this day he’s the only singer of his kind in pop punk; just one of many things that made Fall Out Boy, and their debut album, stand out.
Throughout Fall Out Boy’s career they’ve been mocked for doing things that nobody else was doing first. For the most part, a lot of these instances happened in the band’s later From Under the Cork Tree and Infinity On High eras: guyliner, funny yet snappy music videos and tongue-twistingly long song titles. But the latter began with Grave. Fall Out Boy have always focused on lyrics, working on them carefully and heavily. Initially, Stump wrote them, until Wentz stepped in, feeling Stump didn’t take the task seriously enough. They attempted to collaborate and fought constantly over what was best, and this almost obsessive focus on the lyrics, rather than just going for the most obvious words to fit with a straightforward pop punk melody, made Grave different.
Pop punk lyrics are often clichéd and predictable; mostly, a nasally lead singer whines about wanting to leave his hometown and get revenge on his ex. These clichés can be ugly and sometimes problematic, and while Fall Out Boy haven’t always avoided these tropes (Grave’s opening track is particularly cruel), other lyrics manage to transcend these clichés, while creating some of their own. The titles, for a start, are mostly references and puns – “Tell That Mick” is a nod to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, “Grand Theft Autumn” is a spin on Grand Theft Auto, “Sending Postcards from a Plane Crash (Wish You Were Here)” is a vengeful little play on words. Fall Out Boy would continue to be referential and tongue-in-cheek throughout their career, referencing everything from films to plays to themselves, and this blueprint was created with Grave.
Then there’s the album artwork, which shows the band sitting in a row on a broken futon in front of an exposed brick wall below their names, coloured entirely in blue. It wasn’t anyone’s first choice for the cover, but it makes perfect sense: it’s intended as a nod to “Blue Note” jazz records, which, presumably, was jazz and soul fan Patrick’s influence. It was unusual for a cover of the time: the band’s even focus, their names printed on it, all of these things were intended by Wentz as an effort to “reject the notion that the group was all about him”, with Stump later saying, "Pete had always wanted to create a culture with the band where it was about all four guys and not just one guy”. Of course, as we now know, this didn’t necessarily do much to help in the end. By Cork Tree, Pete, despite not being the lead singer, was very much known as the frontman of the band through marketing, promotion, and interviews. But he tried.
Grave wasn’t exactly detested on first release – it gained the band fans, and was good enough to get them moved from Fueled By Ramen to parent company Island Records – but it wasn't immediately celebrated, with Rolling Stone dismissing it as “run-of-the-mill”. However, with time for the less conventional aspects to settle in, it’s begun to be considered a staple of the genre. In their anniversary issue Alternative Press called the album “a subcultural touchstone," describing it as "a magical, transcendent and deceptively smart pop punk masterpiece that ushered in a vibrant scene resurgence with a potent combination of charisma, new media marketing and hardcore-punk urgency”, adding, “it represents a zeitgeist that launched untold numbers of bands to pick up some musical gear, make noise in their garages and actively participate in this culture.”
Take This To Your Grave has many times been credited with ushering in the mainstream pop punk and emo scene that was to come and that Fall Out Boy would forever represent. Retrospectively, Rolling Stone said that Grave “ushered in a whole new, genre-blurring scene, in which heavy riffs and a screamo aesthetic mingled with old-fashioned teen heartbreak.” Its influence has been clear and noted; after Grave, it became far less easy for bands to get away with the same basic framework and tropes of pop punk.
Since Take This To Your Grave, Fall Out Boy have come a long way. They’ve had hits and misses, but they’ve become one of the most commercially successful, mainstream emo and pop punk bands of all time. They created a blueprint that other bands worked off; that allowed for the success of not only their protégés, like Panic! At the Disco, but everyone who grew up to love them. With Grave, they wanted to create something as “seamless and good from song to song” as Saves The Day’s Through Being Cool. They not only did that – Grave objectively bangs, front to back, even in the eyes of people who can’t abide emo or Fall Out Boy’s later work – but they created something that would outlive pop punk’s mainstream popularity and would influence bands for years. They subverted and built on stereotypes of pop punk, creating something new and entirely theirs while dominating the genre.
Take This To Your Grave is an example of what the under-appreciated genre is capable of – and it’s still as standout today as it was in 2003. It set Fall Out Boy up for everything they were to become; a dedicated, brave, sometimes cringey band who have outsold and outlived nearly everyone from their scene while also testing the limits of what pop punk can do.
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