Act III. The dimly lit stage is bare except for two forlorn but impeccably dressed bohemian gentlefolk. Having gained marginal social respectability with 2008’s Pretty. Odd. things were looking dandy for Panic at the Disco. Their delicious platter of Beatles-y “Strawberry Field” acoustics had been modestly triumphant. The pop gentry had raised their glasses and rattled their jewellery with approval. OK, the pesky street urchin kids may’ve moved on to new distractions, but, hey, our heroes were no longer pelted with bottles of lukewarm urine at British societal gatherings. The history books would henceforth be rewritten with added smiley faces….but then celebrated wordsmith Sir Ryan of Ross, along with plank spanker Monsieur Jon Walker, decided to evacuate the dancefloor henceforth and, indeed, Panic! no more. The year is now 2011, and our sorrowful tale continues with just Panic! President Brendan Urie and his loyal drummin’ compadre Spencer Smith left holding the flag. Older, wiser and freshly battle bloodied, would they again rise victorious or go down with the ship, bitter tears lost to the sea?
Well there’s good news, and there’s good news. The much maligned exclamation after “Panic” is BACK! They may have turned their back on it like ungrateful swines to hang with the hipsters, but all is forgiven, and it’s kisses and manly handshakes for their Prodigal Son. I think basically it means that “Fun” is back on the menu. Out goes the acid lickin’ Fab Four navel gazing—Vices and Virtues is “Pop Rocky Supreme” without an ounce of fat and praise the Lord for simple pleasures, is simply a heartwarming, joyful comeback.
Opener “Ballad of Mona Lisa” is a bit of a red herring. Despite a passing resemblance to Muse’s “Starlight” it’s also a cautious backstep to their commercial peak “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”. Storytellin’ servants, sauce n’ seduction, and sinful retribution. “There’s nothing wrong with just a taste of what you paid for”. It’s pretty but an oddly safe comeback considering the circumstances. Alas! Its bounding bedfellow “Let’s Kill Tonight” is more indicative of Vices and Virtues’ strengths. Floorshakin’ marching drums and choppy synths kneel before an outrageously OTT chorus. Bullet-train fast and perkier than a diet of Prozac ‘n’ Red Bull, it slips in a Phantom of the Opera synth roll, choirs, handclaps, and orchestras into its salute-inducing pomposity before sailing out of view over a waterfall of violins. You can even sing Toni Basil’s “Mickey” over the instrumental breakdown. What’s not to love?
Yes, Vices ain’t no wallflower. If Pretty.Odd. was betrothed to the Beatles, then here they’re fluttering their eyelashes at Freddie Mercury and Queen. Backed into fight or flight, consider this the musical equivalent of peacock feathers. “Hey kids, check out this plumage.” These are determined, assured songs meticulously crafted for enormodomes, car radios, Saturday nights, everywhere. There’s no bedroom angst here—“You’ll dance to anything!” taunts Urie gleefully from Vice‘s Penthouse. The heavy new wave stomp of “Hurricane”, with its lothario brovado of “A revolution in my bedroom” and its Village People worthy “HEY! HEY!” commands, make it campier than a field of tents. Songs like “Memories” are trim, slick, and brazen. It won’t tax your brain or change your life one iota, but it deserves to be bottled amongst textbook remedies as “Since You Been Gone” or “Since U Been Gone” as “Eternal Youth”. Balmy summers, schools out, a catchy “Oh Oh Oh” chorus, and life—if only for three minutes-thirty—feels fine.
Urie and Smith have pretty much gone “all in” with Vices. Fuck art, let’s dance. It’s unashamedly commercial. You could throw a dart blindfolded and hit a radio smash guaranteed. Upcoming single, the perfect, punchy powerpop of “Ready to Go” is an EarWorm Deluxe. As glamorously bulletproof as Katy Perry’s “Hot ‘N’ Cold”, it’s laboratory raised by megalomaniacs in white coats for pop radio domination. An impossibly guilty pleasure, it even cheekily hoodwinks the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” during a genius instrumental breakdown. Teenage wasteland, here we come! In fact, the only pause for breath comes on the sweet acoustic McCartney-esque lullaby “Always”. “I’m the light blinking at the end of the road / Blink back to let me know,” sighs Urie. Aww.
Vices might’ve benefited from more depth, though. Two-thirds in, you’ll no longer need the guy holding the cue cards for “HEARTFELT VERSE” or “BIG FUCK OFF CHORUS”. The perky “Trade Mistakes” is a tad too vacuous and eager. It’s basically what Justin Bieber might peddle when he starts smoking cigarettes and staying out past bedtime. Similarly, the pleasant but generic “The Calendar” is little more than a middling Fall Out Boy bonus track, though it does swing a mightily rousing outro sweep of “ONLY! FOR! YOU!”. Lyrically, I’m mildly missing Ross’ razor sharp wordplay, too. Tying on the cape of “Chief Lyricist”, Urie opts for the everyman approach; sincere, passionate, and likeable, but I’m often jonesing for a hit of Ross’ spiky barbs.
There are a few eclectic twists, though, which holler back to the Panic! of yore. The Mexican trumpeters and tumbling drummers of the rousing “Sarah Smiles” feel like they’ve wandered in from their schizophrenic mix-tape début. The big finale, “Nearly Witches”, features frisky French punkers the Plastiscines and what might be Rolf Harris on stylophone… and that’s just the first 20 seconds. The rest of its victorious madness sounds like a blend of Broadway, Vaudeville, and Adam West’s Batman conducted by Jeff Lynne. “I only shoot up with your perfume”, swoons Urie deliriously before Virtues vanishes into its own magician’s top hat.
Clearly, rumours of Panic! at the Disco’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Stamp those coffins “Return to Sender”. The departure of two of its crew is noticeable, but Vices & Virtues remains a convincing, uplifting, and entertaining voyage. It’s crafted by professional marksmen with the hearts of the masses in their crossfire. It’s also got loads of violins on it—there must’ve been a sale on. Urie effortlessly evades the hangman’s noose and even emerges as the sweet Macca “wacky thumbs aloft” to Ross’ sour Lennon. So for those who tuck ELO and Queen between your Deerhunter and Toro Y Moi, now is the time to rejoice. Tomorrow, we may cry, but tonight, let’s dance in our underpants and make wild, crazy love in the streets. Vices and Virtues is a record made by two people on their knees, their arms outstretched. It would be just mean to walk on by and not at least give ‘em a quick hug.
// Notes from the Road
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