[10 April 2008]
Panic at the Disco is a four-piece from Las Vegas. They were picked up by Fall Out Boy’s Decaydence imprint and won some popularity with their debut A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, which light-heartedly played up to emo’s clichés and allure. Raised as a Mormon, lead singer Brendon Urie was knocked out by an unfortunate stray bottle at a festival when trying to preach such sermons as “Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off”; however, Panic! at the Disco bounced back from that slight mishap, removed the exclamation mark from their name, and are similarly geared to advance with a second album that both reinvents and builds on their cutesy dabbling in emo-pop.
Author’s Note: this is when I scrap everything I have written so far and start anew, in the spirit of the band, who did the same whilst recording their new album.
The first time I saw Panic at the Disco live in 2006, they were like a firework waiting to go off: a young ensemble still in their teens, full of pent-up energy. Fearing a premature takeover bid to his status on the throne of pop-friendly emo-dom, Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy publicly instructed them to hop on their bikes, as documented by his own outfit’s comeback single “This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race” (his reasoning in the matter: “bandwagon’s full”, occupied by Patrick Stump and his ego). So Panic has invented their own without pausing for a backward glance, one full of extravagance, overlays, and flowery window-sill ornaments. “Emo is bullshit!” they claimed in the New Musical Express. “We want to be the next Radiohead”. They have since rescinded that claim: from a debut album that took the Fall Out Boy template as its big brother influence (and peppered with lyrical references picked from author Chuck Palahniuk), the band has made the dramatic progression to a sophomore effort that channels Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band-era Beatles!
It’s a vast bound to be sure, but maybe the average fan shouldn’t be surprised. When playing the hits from A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out night after night even started getting on the group’s nerves, they responded by bringing out cabaret side-show dancers during their live gigs. This can’t be interpreted as anything if not a warning. Pretty. Odd. is indeed aptly titled—which is a good thing; better Pretty. Odd. than Pretty. Usual. or Pretty. Boring.—and is enthusiastically unapologetic in its Sgt. Pepper’s fixation, sweetly harmonized choruses, and wannabe-psychedelic mindset. If you haven’t seen the video clip for “Nine in the Afternoon” yet, watch it below before reading on. The mix is spurted out in bright splotches of color; it would be hard to look at if it were fixed in canvas on your wall. But the Beatles-worship suits the group well, as Panic at the Disco have always been intently self-aware, willing to enjoy a wink with their audience.
To be quite realistic with our influences, though: are Panic at the Disco as good as the Beatles? Of course not, and bandying about the names of the late ‘60s and ‘70s pop giants is largely irrelevant when assessing Pretty. Odd.. If you assembled a Who’s Who convention of every artist in mainstream rock, on the other hand, Pretty. Odd. would outshine nearly all of them on a ten-to-one basis. If the band aren’t the best musicians in the world, after all, at least they’re picking from the best trees in the garden, right?
Gearing up to follow in the footsteps of My Chemical Romance, the Killers, and even Green Day must have presented something of a challenge to this pack of barely twenty-somethings, but they pull it off voraciously; even with something of a swagger. There’s a mannered charm they manage to keep without ever breaking into a sweat or sounding diminished as a unit, despite scrubbing the guyliner for mid-‘60s fluoro suits. Guitarist Ryan Ross’s catchphrases, which depending on your preference and age demographic are either delightfully witty or incredibly petty, are obscured a little by the myriad of overdubs and lush instrumental sit-in that accompanies nearly every track, but this is not important. Pretty. Odd. still constitutes one brave sophomore voyage.
Additionally, Brendon Urie might just be a more capable singer than anyone had previously supposed: he holds the snaking tune of “Do You Know What I’m Seeing?” without fading into his swirling instrumental backyard—not bad, for any untrained vocalist. On “Northern Downpour”, he peels off a new timbre to his panting swank entirely, serving an emotionally bare, Robert Smith-esque performance that doesn’t sound like him at all. When he’s not commanding the mic, the quartet takes playful delight in mini-song interludes, shelving their techno for vaudevillian (“I Have Friends in High Places”), pre-album disclaimer (“We’re So Starving”) and “Folkin’ Around”, which is what Bob Dylan may have sounded like if we took him back forty-five years and sucked out all his acerbic irony.
Pretty. Odd. is fine-tuned to such an extent that free-wheelin’ harmonies feel conversational even though they border on ridiculous. However, all posturing is undertaken in good taste, from the stabbing piano chords on “When the Day Met the Night”, lifted from the Beatles’ “Getting Better”, to Panic at the Disco’s first guitar solo, ever, on “Pas de Cheval”. On the other side of the fence, Urie and Ross share a notable fondness for quaint baroque arrangements; pizzicato guitar adorns “Behind the Sea”, while a ludicrously stiff chamber pop dynamic coats “She Had the World”, featuring a harpsichord! “The piano knows something I don’t know”, Urie bemoans in a sudden moment of paranoia on the track of the same name. He may well be right: in a sophomore set to this lofty scale, who is really directing whom?
If this is Panic at the Disco’s bid to win oldies fans and bridge the age divide—leaving behind the teenage girls, seeking former student protestors and hippies—it may be ridden with cheese. The fact remains, even if this batch of songs is a little clumsy and without nuance at times, most are memorable and enjoyable. Let’s compare again: the scope-expanding vision that characterizes Pretty. Odd. with, for example, “Maybe I’m the one, Who is the schizophrenic psycho!”’ (Puddle of Mudd, “Psycho”). The outlook is laughably one-sided.
That leaves only one question left to be asked of Panic at the Disco. Now they’ve successfully pulled of their Beatles pastiche, where the hell do they go now?