Photo: Shervin Lainez

Panic! at the Disco Goes All Baz Luhrmann on ‘Pray for the Wicked’

Pray for the Wicked is undeniably a modern pop record, but the lights of Broadway linger in these 11 brief songs.

Pray for the Wicked
Panic! at the Disco
Fueled by Ramen
22 June 2018

The closest aesthetic parallel to Pray for the Wicked, the sixth studio album by Panic! at the Disco, can be found in recent cinema. Hearing tunes like “(Fuck a) Silver Lining” and “Roaring 20s”, I could not help but be reminded of Baz Luhrmann’s confectionary take on The Great Gatsby, an anachronistic cocktail of hip-hop, smarmy one-liners, crisp tuxedoes, and maximalist set design. It’s not the real “Roaring 20s”, but rather Roaring 20s chic, the kind of Roaring 20s one could buy at Urban Outfitters.

On Pray for the Wicked‘s sleeve art, frontman Brendon Urie stands atop tall city buildings, clad in a tieless black suit. Frequently throughout the record, he is accompanied by bandstand horn arrangements that aim to conjure the environs of retro jazz clubs, all cigarette smoke and whiskey on the rocks. Of course, this retroism gets filtered through 21st century pop production like a sieve, resulting in an ultra-slick, impossibly pristine presentation of the sounds that Urie was most interested in writing this album and its predecessor, 2016’s Death of a Bachelor – Frank Sinatra most of all. It’s easy to imagine Urie cavorting with Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire on the set of the 2013 Great Gatsby, exchanging witticisms in between dances to Beyoncé.

If this style seems unusual for a band that emerged out of the mid-2000’s emo scene, one still best known for a song from that era (“I Write Sins Not Tragedies”), it’s only because some people stopped paying attention to Panic! at the Disco after A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, and didn’t pay close enough attention when it made its breakthrough. Urie’s lyrics and youthful vocals fit comfortably in that sonic milieu; song titles like Fever‘s “There’s a Good Reason These Tables Are Numbered Honey, You Just Haven’t Thought of It Yet” are precisely the kind of loquacious quotables that teenagers are likely to mistake for depth in songwriting, or at the very least to keep scrawled on the inner door of their lockers.

Yet even a cursory look at the music video for “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”, to say nothing of much of Panic’s subsequent output, reveals this band to be more invested in elaborate costuming than falling in line with the Hot Topic crowd. When a Twitter user recently posed the question, “Who does Panic! at the Disco make music for?”, I replied, “People who in high school pretended to be emo but were actually theatre kids.” Pray for the Wicked, like Death of a Bachelor before it, solidifies Urie’s theatrical aspirations and imagination. “Theatrical” is not just an adjective for Urie at the level of songwriting, however. For three months in 2017, Urie starred in the Broadway musical Kinky Boots.

Pray for the Wicked is undeniably a modern pop record, but the lights of the Great White Way linger in these 11 brief songs. The piano ballad “Dying in LA”, Urie’s attempt at the millennial update to “Desperadoes Under the Eaves”, soars to a string-bathed coda. As the violinists bow their final, long notes to silence, it’s like a curtain falling on a dimly lit stage. The booming drums and layered vocals on “King of the Clouds” feel pitched for the theatre, rather than the limited space afforded by a single compact disc.

If Pray for the Wicked can be described in terms of performance, Urie’s an undeniable scene-chewer, but Death of a Bachelor already proved that his pseudo-Sinatra schtick could pay dividends. On that record, Urie penned the strongest songs of his career, including the dancehall punk rock of “Crazy=Genius” to the melancholic “House of Memories”. His stab at a languorous Sinatra piano ballad, “Impossible Year”, indicates that his vocals can’t take the needed dive into the low end to be fully convincing, but it nonetheless was a genuine performance. Urie didn’t feel like he was wearing a new hat just for the sake of doing so. One can debate the merits of Urie framing himself as an old soul in a top-of-the-line music studio, and indeed it’s hard not to laugh at the drink order he shouts on the chorus to “Old Fashioned”: “So pour out some liquor, make it an old-fashioned / Remember your youth, in all that you do / The plank and the passion”. Accomplished as he is, Urie is still 31.

In depicting himself as a man of a much older vintage throughout Pray for the Wicked, Urie falls into a trap that plagued even the surprisingly strong Death of a Bachelor: excess. Especially on the lyrical front, Urie crams his songs with as many turns of phrase and passionate imagery as he can imagine, as if a straightforward tune sans embellishments (see the aforementioned “House of Memories”) would be too drab to work. The chanted bridge to “(Fuck a) Silver Lining” name-checks “Beyoncé, Lemonade,” a reference that puts Urie way out of his depth, and does little to add to the atmosphere of the song itself. “Hey Look Ma, I Made It” features the cringey stanza:

All my life, been hustlin’
And tonight is my appraisal
‘Cause I’m a hooker sellin’ songs
And my pimp’s a record label

As a recapitulation of dozens of “making it in the music industry” narratives, “Hey Look Ma, I Made It” is clichéd. As an accurate portrait of Urie’s life in 2018, it’s laughable. He sports some credibility when on “Roaring 20s” he describes Broadway as “black like a sinkhole” – fair enough, Cats did get a revival. But a cheap literary allusion in the pre-chorus (“My Tell-Tale Heart’s a hammer in my chest / Cut me a silk tie tourniquet”) becomes humorous when juxtaposed with the refrain of the chorus: “Roll me like a blunt ’cause I wanna go home”. Broadway, Poe, marijuana, and… the Roaring 20s? Urie is capable of writing a simple and consistent lyrical conceit, as he does on “Old Fashioned” and “Dying in LA”, but too often he prefers the profusion of references and images. The overcooked songs that result from that songwriting technique comprise a good deal of Pray for the Wicked.

Musically, Urie draws from much of the same well that he went to in creating Death of a Bachelor. Callbacks to the era of the Great American Songbook, achieved largely through the heavy presence of horn and string sections, are more pronounced on Pray for the Wicked, but one can easily hear this stuff on Death of a Bachelor cuts like “Crazy=Genius” and its title track. Although Pray for the Wicked runs just a minute shorter than the album that came before it, things move by at a much zippier pace here, and by the end it’s easy to feel like these songs can be better described as a B-sides collection to Death of a Bachelor instead of a separate work in their own right.

Urie continues to write at a much higher level than has ever been heard in his career before; he’s come a long way since A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. And even if he aims for the stars and hits the stage lights along the way, Urie can be credited for ambitions to which many critics thought him incapable of aspiring. Still, the same thing that prevents Death from a Bachelor from being an outright masterpiece is the same problem which mires Pray for the Wicked (and, for what it’s worth, Luhrmann’s Gatsby): there is such a thing as too much. Forget “genius,” forget fitting a Broadway musical into a 35-minute pop album. A solid set of tunes is good enough.

RATING 5 / 10