The precocious Death of a Bachelor may overreach, but it's an undeniably fun pop album through and through.
"She said, 'You're just like Mike Love / But you'll never be Brian Wilson, Brian Wilson.'" So sings Brendon Urie, now the sole permanent member of Panic! At the Disco, on the track "Crazy=Genius", the centerpiece of the band's fifth album, Death of a Bachelor. The song, a noirish back-and-forth with a vague femme fatale ("Darlin' you know / How the wine plays tricks on my tongue"), is something of a manifesto for Urie. In response to the claim that he'll "never be Brian Wilson", Urie defiantly retorts: "If crazy equals genius / Then I'm a fucking arsonist / And a rocket scientist." (One hopes that "crazy" here is not a crude description of Wilson's well-documented mental health issues.) For all of his bluster in the chorus of "Crazy=Genius", however, Urie sure does sound stuck on the woman's refrain: "Brian Wilson, Brian Wilson," he repeats. (In one verse, the woman also adds: "You'll never be Dennis Wilson.")
Once Death of a Bachelor comes to its conclusion, it's apparent why such a statement would get Urie rattled. If 2008's slab of Beatle worship Pretty. Odd. didn't make it apparent enough, Urie fancies himself something of a modern pop savant, rather than the emo frontman countless Hot Topic storefronts have pigeonholed him to be. Panic! At the Disco's 2005 debut, A Fever You Can't Sweat Out, is a canonical work of emo pop-punk. Replete with power chords and song titles far longer than they need to be ("There's a Good Reason These Tables Are Numbered Honey, You Just Haven't Thought of It Yet"), Fever was potent kindling for the emotional fires of mid-'00s teenagers. Yet for all of the ways in which Panic! At the Disco played to the studded belt crowd, Urie constantly sought ways out of the emo playbook. Even "I Write Sins Not Tragedies", Fever's heavily played single, opens with pizzicato strings, an atypical choice for a pop-punk band that also hinted at the vaudevillian affectations soon to come in the band's music. The name Panic! At the Disco may not connote "high art", but Urie is trying his damndest to get such consideration. Of course, with the group's origins being what they are, the transition from mainstream rock to art rock will be no easy one.
Give Urie credit for one thing: with Death of a Bachelor, he gives as valiant an effort at that directive as one could imagine. A lot goes on in Death of a Bachelor's concise 36 minutes: Tim Burton goth! Sinatra crooning! Gospel! Super Bowl Halftime Show Jams! Urie, an eager sponge of musical influence, doesn't waste a second; these are lean, tightly written songs with fantastic hooks and memorable riffs. There's plenty of material that will be familiar to anyone who has heard a Panic! At the Disco song before; these patches of well-established tropes signal the record's weakest moments. Urie continues to rely on lots of "woahs" and "oh-ohs" to fill in or embellish a melody ("LA Devotee" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Dirty"), a tactic that can be heard on "This is Gospel", the second single off of Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!, the album preceding Death of a Bachelor. Some of Urie's precocious if not clunky lyrics come across like they were intended to be scrawled on the white rubber of a Converse sneaker: "Fifty words for murder / And I'm every one of them" ("Victorious"). Death of a Bachelor does constitute a significant step forward for Urie creatively, but make no mistake: the ghosts of Warped Tour have not left the building.
It would be a mistake to call Death of a Bachelor Urie's "auteur" album, but it's hard to shake the sense that's what he's aiming at. Although not a concept album, the LP's lyrics contain some recurring themes, particularly the dangers of hedonistic indulgence: the chorus of "Don't Threaten Me With a Good Time", which samples the surf rock guitar of the B-52's "Rock Lobster", lists off "Champagne, cocaine, gasoline / And most things in between" in its chorus. On the infectious and propulsive single "Emperor's New Clothes", Urie chats with "sycophants on velvet sofas" in "lavish mansions" with "vintage wines". On the lounge lament "Impossible Year", Death of a Bachelor's closing number, all Urie can scrounge up from the remnants of the party is "gin made of tears." "There's never air to breathe, there's never in-betweens," he sings over somber piano chords, "These nightmares always hang on past the dream."
"Impossible Year", "Crazy=Genius", and the title track are the three key instances where Urie's Glamorama-in-Vegas lyrical theme is linked with an attempt to channel rat pack swagger in the format of the pop-rock tune. In an Instagram post a few months before Death of a Bachelor's release, Urie wrote about his passion for the music of Frank Sinatra, and the man's influence on his own music: "I wrote a new album this year and even in the few songs that don't sound remotely similar to any of his music I still felt his influence in the writing and the need to relate so personally to each song." Urie's passion for Sinatra is admirable, but in trying to execute a Sinatra-esque croon on the aforementioned three tunes, he hits a wall. No matter how much Urie tries, his voice can never sound like Sinatra's; it can only sound like it's trying to sound like Sinatra. The backing instrumentals are often excellent in toying with the kind of music Sinatra sang with, but even those cannot mask how different Urie's vocals are from the Chairman of the Board's. As such, rather than subtly incorporating Sinatra's style into his own, he ends up doing very energetic Sinatra pastiche. This isn't entirely to Panic! At the Disco's detriment: the swing rock of "Crazy=Genius" is Death of a Bachelor's best moment, and even the faux-swanky title cut has its charms.
The contrast between tracks like "Death of a Bachelor" and "LA Devotee" is helpful in illuminating the key strengths and weaknesses in this, Panic! At the Disco's fifth studio outing. In the former, Urie tries for something new and hits some pretty good notes, yet also in the process highlights his limitations in trying on a new sonic costume. In the latter, Urie hits his mark both lyrically and musically, and in so doing treads on well-worn ground. There are certain songs where Death of a Bachelor sounds like Panic! At the Disco's breakout LP -- "Emperor's New Clothes" and "Crazy=Genius" especially -- but in other instances, Urie falls back into old rhythms. On balance Death of a Bachelor is a commendable success. If any of the other pop-punk contemporaries of Panic! At the Disco had tried to make this album, they likely would have fumbled completely, and it is a testament to Urie that he was able to craft this highly entertaining set of tunes.
If there's one thing for Urie to take away from Death of a Bachelor, it's that it's okay to not be Brian Wilson. One doesn't have to be "crazy" in order to write great pop. All one needs is an active imagination and an extensive musical appetite -- two things Urie has in his possession. If he is able to push past the voice telling him, "You'll never be Brian Wilson, Brian Wilson," he might just write the great pop record that Death of a Bachelor is strongly hinting at.