Album Review **** (4-Stars)
2011’s Album of the Year
By Anthony Kuzminski
Inside Chicago’s Metro nightclub a dramatic detour on the pop landscape by Patrick Vaughn Stump is taking place. Instead of the baseball cap wearing front man, we’re confronted with a slick and sleek sight not familiar to many. With a six-piece band firing on all cylinders behind him, his turquoise pants and black shirt reflect sheens of sweat that shimmer under the stage lights. The look and feel of Patrick Stump may be altered but when he opens his mouth, a proverbial voice full of sanguinity and hunger hit that aural sweet spot. Weeks earlier my heart was warmed as Soul Punk, Stump’s solo debut, revealed a series of sweet and dark songs meant to be savored. Records these days that fully encompass an experience and have an emotional pull are rare. Over the last decade Stump honed his chops in Fall Out Boy pushing his craft and expanding his talent with each release which is fully on display for his debut solo album. For most artists a solo project is a breather from the group machine but for Patrick Stump Soul Punk is an extension of his very soul. The record is bittersweet for me as I believe Fall Out Boy’s last record, 2008’s Folie à Deux, to be their very best but one listen to Soul Punk and it becomes apparent Stump needed to articulate himself outside of the dimensions of the band. Besides writing and producing the entire album, he performed every single instrument on it. If that isn’t enough for you, he footed the bill for the entire project signifying how much he believes in these songs. This isn’t an ego trip but a reflection of an artist in the truest sense of the word. Stump is a virtuoso who wanted to do more than simply step outside of familiar terrain but was hell bent on reinventing himself in the process.
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No one doubted that Stump would construct sonic landscapes that are pleasing (he was the principal composer of the music in Fall Out Boy) however his lyrics distil years of experience as he concurrently tapped into his inner child and stepped onto the battlefield of adulthood. Stump borrows liberally from the pop stars he grew up loving and admiring (Prince and Michael Jackson) while channeling the spirit of his contemporaries as well (Kanye West) and the end result is every bit ambitious as it is wistful. “Explode”, a buoyant socio-political-personal anthem, which tells a tale of melancholy and peril opens Soul Punk. Keyboards, guitars, synthesizers and drums collectively howl in agony while the lyrics are wired with feeling. Inside the auditory fireworks are some of the years most enlightening and affecting lyrics. While the hypnotic and tight arrangements may overshadow the stories within, don’t be fooled, Stump is bringing pop music not just to life, but infuses it with integrity. He’s not here to merely sing to the beat but to guide the listener through the unsettling combat zone of consciousness. The lyrical anxiety within “Dance Miserable” is in direct contrast to its vibrant music. Hidden within are invoking thoughts; “When did the punks stop being mad? / They penned love songs while we got had”. This is an anthem or the disenfranchised where he calls out others for being too complacent with their lifestyles and not providing a voice to those who couldn’t be heard. Artistry should be all about exposing the troubles of the world, shining a big bright light on it and while there’s nothing wrong with love songs, Stump’s point hits home as we’ve just come out of a decade as perilous as the 1960’s and the music world hid in fear of alienating their corporate sponsors.
“The “I” in Lie” places infidelity at the forefront in a tale where he leads the dance beats behind closed doors where temptation and broken promises infest relationships often resulting in solitude. His insight into the torment of life and the isolation that comes with it isn’t something anyone should take lightly despite his alluring the listener with liquid sunshine. “Greed” is a well-timed account merging ills within a pop framework with seething lyrics pointing a finger at a culture hell bent on egocentric behavior and oppressing everything in its way (“You know, very rarely is good art born in the board room”). “Allie” is dark, twisted, tender and a sexy ode to the past where former insecurities come to light amidst teenage anticipation. Ultimately it’s an intuitive soul weeping ballad. Listen closely and you may feel a grandiose homage to early 90’s R&B which would be awkward for merely anyone else but Stump makes it come to life. Instead of pining for a lost love, he meticulously details the drama of fateful relationships in “Everybody Wants Somebody”. Stump takes the template for a love song and fuels it with determined optimism while framing it with full force pop hooks.
The most ambitious song on Soul Punk is "Run Dry (X Heart X Fingers)"; a account of an addict who breaks promises persistently as they wind their way through daily dread. There is a dramatic moment of lucidity where the narrator says “I beg the ceiling for forgiveness” as the spin machine cycle of their mind will not yield. It’s more than a guarded confessional but features a radically brightened second half (entitled “Cryptozoology") which allows the song to take flight. An extended workout jam, which was nothing short of fierce on the Metro concert stage, is often reserved for concerts. In the here-today-gone-tomorrow landscape of pop music, an outside producer would have excised this exhilarating interlude deeming it a forbidden fruit best not tastes. Fortunately Stump was both the producer and financier so he gluttony relished the taste and as a result, we’re better off with one of the year’s most explosive musical arrangements.
Despite winding tales of quiet menace and despair, the album’s finest tracks ignite your inner spirit. “Coast (It’s Gonna Get Better”) culminates the ten song journey on an affirmative note with a repeating chorus that invades your mind. "Spotlight (New Regrets)” is a hymn of empowerment. An equally wonderful alternate take entitled “Spotlight (Oh Nostalgia)” appears on the Truant Wave EP. Both cuts are wholly unique with a contagious arrangement and a goliath-like chorus ready made for stadium sing-a-longs. Like most great pop art, “Spotlight (New Regrets)” embodies a sense of community where its larger-than-life melodies infect you with optimism. Stump is attempting to pry open the hearts and minds of his listeners. He wants them to be more tolerant, more concerned and above all else more loving as he echoes in the lines of “Compassion is something that they just don’t teach”. The album’s lead single “This City” is a harrowing love letter to home. John Mellencamp once sung about small towns and now Stump undertakes the charms and challenges of big cities carefully dissecting the highs, lows and yet it’s a true love that one can’t be without. “The City” was a turning point for Stump when he composed it earlier this year. His album was for the most part complete, but “This City” took Stump and the album into an entirely different direction. In telling this to his manager, he decided to redo the whole record. Some of the initial recordings can be heard on his excellent Truant Wave EP available on iTunes. The decision to re-record and follow your muse is a road rarely traveled these days, but by doing so Stump pushed his craft to new heights where he fuses his influences and experiences into a record that is the very embodiment of his soul. It’s sentimental while offering glimpses of frayed innocence. It’s one of the truly great songs of 2011 in any genre. The single cut features fellow Chicagoan Lupe Fiasco, which is available on the deluxe edition of Soul Punk which I highly recommend over the standard edition not just for the remix of “This City” but also for the utterly captivating “Bad Side of 25” which takes its place in the pantheon of incredible songs relegated to bonus cuts and b-sides.
Soul Punk is a triumph in pop production where Stump’s forthrightness turns an agnostic into an advocate; he expands the pop spectrum in a way few of his contemporaries would even dare. Most acts are trapped by what’s hip and new whereas Stump dove deep into the pool of pop’s past, but added edgy lyrics placing a spotlight on not just his own demons but the world at large. He makes you believe pop music can attain a higher plateau where he imparts intelligence and offers sage counsel (“It only gets better when it hurts”) into the mix. He instills a desire to preserve self worth. His Chicago upbringing has provided him with a view of society that is both warm and fuzzy but also absurd and authentic. While I had assurance in Stump’s abilities, I never imagined he would create a record that isn’t just endearing but continually enduring. With each listen new lessons are learned and innovative sounds come to light which permeate you with a gigantic sense making you grateful to be alive. If you’re walking through life in a daze with emotions buried deep down, Soul Punk is the perfect prescription to throw you back into the ring. Each and every one of the songs on Soul Punk takes a flight of operatic grandeur. Without thinking twice, Stump put his emotions on the line through a voice that is assured, comfortable and takes us on a voyage. The emotional canvas Patrick Stump draws from on Soul Punk is as wide and varying as anything in the last quarter century of pop music. Soul Punk is distinctive amongst a landscape riddled with copycats and insincerity. Like a one-night stand, most pop music fills a hole in our lives and when the moment has come and gone, we’re just as empty as we were before. Great music isn’t about simply turning your life into a kaleidoscope of colors that aren’t real but hopefully tells you tales in order for you to learn from them. Call me a fool but out lives should be centered on improving ourselves, enriching others and opening each other to novel experiences. Soul Punk beautifully encapsulates all of these.
No record released in 2011 better exemplifies the world we live in than Soul Punk. Despite numerous warning shots to the soul, its melodic throb infects the listener. From self-empowerment to infidelity to despondency to addiction to hope Soul Punk is bursting with life lessons. Great art isn’t something that can be taught. In order to craft something as downright riveting as Soul Punk one must give themselves over to their art. Patrick Stump has crafted ten exquisite songs which illustrate an artist who has and continued to experience ache and uncertainty, yet his unrelenting belief in himself ignites not just his soul but his music as well. There is an acute awareness of reality here and it lifts the album to another plane where pop music rarely resides. As I watched Stump in a knockout performance in front of his hometown crowd, I didn’t so much see a rock star as someone who embodies my hopes and fears as well. Patrick Stump’s Soul Punk isn’t just a daring and revelatory detour but the bravest and most remarkable album released in 2011.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter