Panic! at the Disco are not being treated very nicely by the press. At least, by the publications I read and trust. Still, I wanted to listen with an open mind. Once bad reviews begin for a record, the momentum is difficult to stop. But when I finally received the CD and ripped off the plastic wrapper, there was an unmistakable smell emanating from the packaging. You know that smell when emo-laced dance-pop is embodied by human flesh and bones? And then that body dies in some way; the method of death is not important as long as all the limbs remain intact. Then the emo-laced dance-pop corpse is stored in a sealed automobile in a humid, hot southern state. The smell festers, and perhaps a group of bears defecate upon the corpse, and that smell festers for another week. The resulting smell almost accurately describes the stench of A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. Maybe if you leave out the bears; they’re rare in the south anyway.
There are few stories of coattail riding as clear cut as this one. Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz signed Panic! at the Disco to Decaydance, his offshoot of Fueled by Ramen. Panic! brag about how quickly they received a record deal, but the lack of live experience is clear. The entire CD feels like a studio experiment. Stick four teenage boys in a studio for the first time, tell them how great they’re going to be, then give them access to numerous unnecessary electronic effects and ideas of concept album grandeur. For instance, a vocoder vocal effect is used liberally in “Nails for Breakfast, Tacks for Snacks”. Hell, if it’s good enough for Cher, it’s good enough for everyone. The sheer act of experimenting with studio effects isn’t detrimental (Did we complain when Lennon double tracked his vocals or George Martin gave him bombast in “Tomorrow Never Knows”?), but this cheesy posturing is something that live audiences would have clearly warned the boys against.
The cockiness and theatrical quality given to everything on this record is overwhelming. The artwork is as gaudy as a whorehouse. The band’s name features an exclamation point, in the middle. The song titles are lengthy attempts at creativity: “London Beckoned Songs About Money Written by Machines”, “Build God, Then We’ll Talk”. They, like most of this album, are non sequiturs. This is a disjointed, self-consciously constructed piece of pretension. The album is set up in two halves, each beginning with a sound collage of old-timey pianos and vocal snippets. The first half is the band’s electronic indulgence, the second is supposed to mirror vaudeville with a trumpet, accordion, cello, and violin occasionally making an appearance. The second half works better with the organic instrumentation. Of course, the guitars, drums, vocals, and every other god damned thing on the record contain the same computerized sheen of the first half. And effects still abound.
The lyrics are another matter. They’re often interesting, but the syntax never seems to fit quite right. The lines are too wordy and need editing. Also, the repetition of both the choruses and the verses makes for one significant headache the second and third times you listen to the album (if you make it that far). In addition, the lyric sheet shows numerous superfluous words (often, listed in parentheses, just like these) that serve an unclear purpose. Are they meant to fill in the blanks or to demonstrate just how witty the author is? Either way, lyrics shouldn’t need crib sheets. Listeners should get the necessary information from the words then glean the subtexts for themselves.
Sometimes the songs do overcome the burden placed upon them. “There’s a Good Reason . . . ” uses a variety of style shifts and dynamics, as does the closer, to create enjoyable, interesting songs. But this is much too little, much too late. What we have here is a record that is desperately reaching for an emo zenith by cramming so many typical emo quirks and tricks into itself that it is bursting with emo-ness. It’s an embodiment of a genre instead of an artistic achievement. And that deserves its own misplaced! exclamation point.