Listening to Fall Out Boy on the Brink of Collapse
The release of “Infinity on High” marked the final moments of the mid-2000s, a time when collapse nested on the tongues of everyone in my universe but never made it out of their mouths.
From Under The Cork Tree
From Under The Cork Tree
Infinity on HighInfinity on High
Infinity On HighInfinity On High
New CDs from the store were expensive, so I had to beg an older guy I knew from the Boy Scout troop to snag the album for me off LimeWire or Napster so I could hear it on release date. It was dropped in my lap at the following Scout meeting, held weekly at the Methodist church a few blocks down the street, and I held that precious disc tight like a Bible through the car ride home.
I called my best friend Tommy from the corded phone in my mom’s bedroom as I pushed Infinity on High into our stereo for the first time, and asked his mother if he was home. He was a year younger than me, our older sisters had been friends since kindergarten, and he was always just there, a constant presence in my life, my first friend, a few inches shorter than me, fair skin, blonde hair. He lived on the other side of town, and my mother would drop me off there on a weekend afternoon, and we hung out in his bedroom, threw a basketball around, made up secret jokes. Our friendship was so pervasive that it didn’t require his presence—sometimes I’d just start laughing, remembering some good joke he’d made the last time I saw him. We didn’t have much in common aside from the few mutual interests we had forced upon each other over the years. Tommy loved sports, and taught me everything I know about the baseball. I loved music, and taught him everything I know about Fall Out Boy.
When I heard the click of Tommy picking up the receiver in his bedroom, I played Infinity On High so loudly from the stereo that we could both hear it, even with the handset pushed up against my face. I closed the door and stared at the ceiling.
In my experience, listening to music in the presence of another person is usually not particularly enjoyable. The only context where this isn’t the case is when you and someone with whom you are very comfortable actively pay attention to every note, every swelling melody and nuance, every chord change and transition, submitting to the current of the music, content in wherever it takes you. The sheer joy of quiet company as that song takes you into a temporary, lovely plane of existence.
It’s more difficult than it seems, but I accomplished it with Tommy that night. The memory of that first listen blends into a blurry one, but I imagine our eyes went wide when we heard Jay-Z perform the spoken word introduction to the record, we bit lips at that first “god-damn” in the pre-chorus of “This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race.” I like to believe that we caught some of the tongue-in-cheek jokes about sex in the lyrics of “Hum Hallelujah” and “The Takeover, The Break’s Over,” on our first listen. Neither Tommy nor I said anything except for the occasional breathy “wow” when a particularly big melody unfolded, and we were endlessly happy, if silent, both understanding how important it was that we share this moment with careful breathing in one ear and the closing notes of the final track in the other.
This was the exact moment I noticed the threads in the air that link us to those we love most dearly, provide our most fulfilling moments, and carry some message of significance from heart to heart like voices traveling on a telephone line. I had never felt so connected to someone as Tommy while I sat speechless, home alone, listening to Infinity on High with my face too close to the speakers. He was across town and still there with me. I could picture his bedroom, how the moonlight probably shone in across his bed as he lay with his phone against his own face, how he too was looking up at his ceiling, tethered to the world those songs created, unable to get up if he wanted to. Both of us, alone, as far as possible from lonely, each in the bedrooms we would soon learn we had taken for granted.
The album came to a close after forty-five minutes or so. We inched closer to ten o’clock, and we had school in the morning, but I stayed on the phone for as long as I could after the music stopped, desperately reaching for any question I could think to ask. What do you think? Do you like it? Is it as good as Cork Tree? What was your favorite song? We spoke for a minute, but it was late, and I felt the conversation leaning into a close. When the handset finally clicked on the other side, I nearly shattered. I grabbed the CD from the tray as it slowed from its spin, rested it carefully on my nightstand, and went to sleep, alone and lonely.
Too young to get a summer job and too old for summer camp, I spent most of the summer of 2008exploring my town with my headphones in. My mom let me leave the house on my own for as long as I wanted, so long as I wore a helmet on my bike and promised not to cross the highway or the train tracks at the edges of town. I stashed that helmet in my backpack and took off as soon as my parents left for work in the morning.
I passed the ExxonMobil on the corner as they changed out the numbers on the gas price signs. The local mechanic, a childhood friend of my dad’s, waved to me from the kiosk as I rode by. The Cost Cutters dollar store across from the gas station had gone out of business that spring, which put a substantial hole in Locust Avenue, and we all waited with bated breath to see what would replace it, and then were disappointed when it re-opened the following year as a short-lived Chuck E. Cheese rip-off before closing again. The old Woolley building, the nineteenth-century home of our town’s famous family located in the center of town, was finally torn down that summer and replaced by a laundromat. When the laundromat went under, an overpriced pizza shop took its spot. It was only open in the summer, owned by Manhattan real-estate developers who spent most of the year in the city. Across the street from the pizza shop was the McDonald’s, which thrived, and an old brick restaurant that was at some point converted into two storefronts. On the left side was a considerably better pizza place called Nelly’s that had held up thanks mostly to the local community of college students. The right side seemed to change on a yearly basis, and then became a smoke shop until Hurricane Sandy destroyed it in 2012. The gun shop, which was there at some point, had closed its doors shortly after some townsfolk protested its opening. 2008 was a slow summer, so most likely, the right side was vacant.
Fall Out Boy released Folie à Deux, a follow-up to Infinity On High, the following fall. The record was a critical and commercial failure. It didn’t spawn a radio single half as successful as Infinity On High’s “Thnks Fr Th Mmrs,” and it debuted at number eight on the Billboard charts, disappointing projections that had placed it at number one. For the most part, fans hated the abandonment of the emo-tinged punk rock sound they came up on, the sound of “Sugar We’re Going Down” that swept through every suburb in America just a few summers prior. The punk kids thought it a sell-out play for more money and fans, and radio listeners rejected the indulgent single “I Don’t Care,” a song that tries and fails to blend bluesy, ’70s rock swagger with a synthesizer-laden production scheme.
I listened to the single on my iPod a few times as I biked past the empty buildings on Locust Avenue, but it never stuck. Folie à Deux failed to make an impact, and no one at school was talking about it, so it blew through town with the piles of fallen leaves and got swept into the gutter. At some point the following year, Fall Out Boy broke up.
Folie à Deux failed to make an impact, and no one at school was talking about it, so it blew through town with the piles of fallen leaves and got swept into the gutter.
A lot of my friends’ parents lost their jobs that year. The housing market collapsed under the inflated weight of the subprime mortgage crisis, leading to the dawn of the Great Recession. The Bush administration came to a close, and layoffs deeply affected nearly every major industry in the country. Fort Monmouth, the military base a few towns over, had also announced in 2005 that it would close in 2011, but considering the uncertainty of how much worse the housing market would become over the next few years, a good bunch of its employees opted not to renew their contracts and moved down to Maryland or Texas for employment at other military bases. A bunch of my classmates left New Jersey that year without a whole lot of goodbyes.
I don’t remember if Tommy’s dad worked for the Fort, if he was laid off, or if there was some other reason they packed up and left town, but his family moved down to the Carolinas that summer regardless. I’d pedal down Whalepond Road to his old house and coast by, looking at the strange new cars parked out front, the basketball net in the driveway. I thought about peeking into his old bedroom window, but the house was set so far back on the property. I didn’t want anyone to see me creeping around.
It’s 2011, and I’m in high school now. My friend Kevin and I are in his mom’s car on New Jersey Route 35, the highway that separates my neighborhood in West Long Branch from his neighborhood in Ocean Township. It’s July, just weeks after school let out. Kevin is driving because he is a year older than me, and just got his driver’s license. I am in the passenger seat because I stopped talking to the rest of my friends from school earlier that year in a fit of grief that kept me under the covers in my silent bedroom most afternoons. Kevin, it seems, is the only friend who expects nothing from me. He seems to enjoy my company no matter where we’re going or what we’re doing, and I enjoy his company just the same. Anywhere he chooses to take me, I gladly go.
We cruise in his mom’s sedan past the empty apartment buildings, gas stations, the adult video store, the Dunkin’ Donuts, and the out-of-business storage units on the stretch of 35 that leads toward the Parkway. The sun is setting. I don’t remember what our destination is because I don’t care where we’re going as long as the music keeps playing. Neither of us speaks, or whistles, or sings along. Neither of us taps our fingers on the dashboard or the center console.
Kevin unplugs his iPod from the car stereo, and asks me to put a song on. After a few seconds of searching, I plug my own in. I find Infinity On High, which I have not listened to or thought of in years. I press play on the album, and “Thriller” fills the car.
In 2011, Jay-Z’s nonsense intro from 2007 is dated and unintentionally very funny. The song unfolds into a hysterical mess when the punk rock breakdown that follows it kicks in. I’m starting to realize now how shallow the lyrics to this song are. I used to love this song. Kevin is laughing.
“What the hell is this?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I say, cracking a smile as I reach for the iPod to change it. “Just some old Fall Out Boy song.”
As the sun finally sinks beneath the covers of the mall on the horizon line, I think of Tommy. It has been four years since we listened to Fall Out Boy on the phone together, a stretch of time, which at the age of sixteen, seems to hold the depth of lifetimes. I wonder if his family continued to move, if he has started thinking about college, if high school is treating him okay, if his new home in South Carolina had also been cracked open and torn apart by some reaper of a year that crept in while everyone was sleeping. I can feel the threads in the air cinch tightly around my chest and I feel it again, that bitter loneliness.
John Bazley is an essayist and critic from Monmouth County, New Jersey. He writes primarily about the intersection of music and home. His work has appeared in Substream Magazine, Alternative Press, and The Asbury Park Press.