Second Album Mania: Why Fall Out Boy’s From Under The Cork Tree Mattered

Unpicking the personal resonance of the huge hit that was the band's second LP.

Second Album Mania: Why Fall Out Boy’s From Under The Cork Tree Mattered

With Fall Out Boy’s MA N I A album not due until January, we’re getting a little nostalgic at K! HQ for some of the band’s older fare. Here, Marianne Eloise writes about why From Under The Cork Tree was such a huge record for her, and for the worlds of emo and pop-punk.

Fall Out Boy’s From Under the Cork Tree is my favourite album. I still listen to it in full, most days, today – a full 12 years after its release. Why? Well, my brain is broken, and I have some unhealthily obsessions. But also, rather more pertinently: it is very, very good.

From Under the Cork Tree wasn’t Fall Out Boy’s debut – that honour goes to 2003’s Take This To Your Grave. It might not be your favourite album of theirs – but its impact on the emo scene, for better or worse depending on your perspective, is irrefutable.

Fall Out Boy are famously unpopular with emo purists – in part because they don’t sound much like any of the so-called emo that came before or after them. The things that appealed to me about …Cork Tree are the same things that make older emo fans scoff – the poppy sounds, those high vocals, long song titles, comedic videos. (Okay, so the long song titles thing, that is properly old-school emo.)

But then, what is “proper” emo? What was it? Why put a pin in any of this? You can argue all day and night – but Fall Out Boy never intended to be the poster boys of emo that they would unwittingly become with Cork Tree. Not really.

Fall Out Boy were born out of the Chicago hardcore scene of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and until 2005’s …Cork Tree, their output was solidly pop punk. Despite its place on most lists of emo albums, this second LP doesn’t sound too much like its presumed contemporaries; it just happened to be released at the same time that the emo scene was also gaining widespread popularity, which naturally influenced how the band became marketed.

As soon as I saw the video for Sugar, We’re Goin Down on TV, I was obsessed.

With the record’s verbose, tongue-in-cheek lyrics, Pete Wentz’s good looks, and Patrick Stump’s huge voice, Fall Out Boy were quickly accepted as the radio-friendly face of emo. Cork Tree received mostly positive reviews, earned itself a legacy for bringing the scene to the mainstream, and ultimately introduced a whole generation to the emo genre.

In 2005 I was listening to some emo – the likes of My Chemical Romance, Bright Eyes, Hawthorne Heights. None of them were exactly the same as each other, but Fall Out Boy were something completely different. As soon as I saw the video for Sugar, We’re Goin Down on TV, I was obsessed. I downloaded the song and kept the music channels on all day so I could rewatch the video – YouTube, while launched, wasn’t the go-to for music videos, at the time.

I would write the lyrics down and make notes next to them about what I thought they meant, believing there was some higher meaning I couldn’t access. Initially, I read the song as being about suicide: “Take aim at myself / Take back what you said.” Then I read it as being about bisexuality – “sleeping for the wrong team” and “watching you two from the closet” led me to that – something that I was realising in myself. I didn’t really reach any solid conclusions, but it didn’t matter.

Above: The video for Sugar, We’re Goin Down, From Under The Cork Tree’s first single

When I finally bought the album, a couple of weeks later, I sat on the floor and quietly listened while I read the lyric booklet and tried to decipher all 13 songs. I listened to it front to back at least four times, quietly surprised every single time the album ended. It was easy to listen to, but every time offered me something new for my nerdy, sad teen self to believe I understood.

It wasn’t quite as bleak as a lot of emo I’d heard previously, and part of that can be attributed to the fact that Fall Out Boy’s inspirations came from outside that world; from hardcore and hip hop and rock. Stump’s soul voice set the band apart from the nasally, whiny vocals often found elsewhere in pop punk and emo. The other music I listened to was enjoyable, it was angsty, and it understood my poor mental health very well. But with …Cork Tree, Fall Out Boy gave me something more.

From Under the Cork Tree starts as Fall Out Boy meant to go on – with a tongue-in-cheek title, Our Lawyer Made Us Change The Name Of This Song So We Wouldn’t Get Sued, a reference to the fact that it was originally called My Name Is David Ruffin And These Are The Temptations. It opens with the sound of camera shutters and, with lyrics like “We're only liars but we're the best / We're only good for the latest trends / We're only good 'cause you can have almost famous friends”, it immediately skewers the scene and appears to forecast the level of fame that was to descend upon the band.

Where other emo bands spilled their guts, Fall Out Boy looked outwards at the audience and at emo in a mocking, self-deprecating way.

Take This to Your Grave had been primarily about love, friendship, and the band’s hometown. From Under The Cork Tree started from similar aesthetic foundations but refined them, and focused on a few key themes – fame, the scene, revenge, and Pete’s breakup. Unlike other albums of the era, it didn’t really deal in a very straightforward way about anything; the true meanings are all shrouded in layers of metaphor and jokes, from the song titles to the lyrics themselves.

The only references to love and heartbreak in …Cork Tree are vengeful, cruel, and cutting: “I hoped you choked / And crashed your car” from XO, for example, wasn’t anything I was going to text to my on-again off-again emo crushes. I had to work hard to understand or get anything out of the songs, and with many of them, it took me a long time to realise that Fall Out Boy were secretly mocking the scene that I loved so much.

I’ve written in detail about Fall Out Boy’s not-so-secret discontent with the scene before, but lyrics like “Us boys are just screaming / Into microphones for attention / Because we're just so bored / We never knew that you would pick it apart” from (deep breath) Get Busy Living Or Get Busy Dying (Do Your Part to Save the Scene and Stop Going to Shows) are a direct jab. Where other emo bands spilled their guts, Fall Out Boy looked outwards at the audience and at emo in a mocking, self-deprecating way. I lapped it up.

That self-awareness was key to Fall Out Boy’s success. They acknowledged that the nature of their fame was fleeting and unrealistic, and as a result, they did everything they could to have the biggest possible impact in what they perceived as a limited time. In 2006, the world was laughing at emo for its melodrama and eyeliner. Fall Out Boy beat everyone to the punch.

Above: The video for A Little Less Sixteen Candles, A Little More “Touch Me”, From Under The Cork Tree’s third single

Their music videos have always had a mindfully mocking slant, and the video for A Little Less Sixteen Candles… was a six-and-a-half minute epic featuring other Decaydance artists, like Travie McCoy, Brendon Urie and William Beckett, in a campy horror vampire face-off on the streets of Los Angeles. It’s irreverent, it’s funny, and the band had the first and last laugh at themselves throughout the rest of their career; especially on the videos for third LP Infinity On High, when their fame and discontent was peaking.

From Under the Cork Tree might not be a perfect emo album. It doesn’t have to be. It does sound like nothing that came before or after it, and it changed the course of emo and pop-punk. No matter how much new music I (try to) listen to, it remains my favourite album. A thousand plays later, I’m yet to be bored by it – and believe me, I truly have the attention span of someone who’s spent half her life on the internet.

And yet, when I listen to this album, I can sit and wait patiently for every beat, every word, every wail that I know is coming. Where other emo albums of the era, ripe with devastating sincerity, tend to feel out of place in the year 2017 – I still listen to them, though – …Cork Tree is different, perhaps because its makers never took themselves quite so seriously.

Fall Out Boy are often underestimated, but they laughed at themselves before anyone else could. As a result of that, and their talents and impressive business sense, they’re still here where so many of their contemporaies have fallen by the wayside, fading into obscurity or outright splitting up. That success and longevity, and the fact that I’ve been supporting them for half of my adult life, is all down to this magnificent second LP – its unique sound, its ingenuity, and its self-awareness.

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