Panic! at the Disco has been at the forefront of emo-pop for the better part of two decades now. A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out came out in 2005, which is pretty hard to believe for me. And their discography has had interesting twists and turns: The first album’s lyrics were entirely written by then-guitarist Ryan Ross, and the music was credited to the whole band (though I wouldn’t have a hard time believing that Ross contributed most of the base ideas for the music as well). Pretty. Odd. was similar albeit with a new bassist, with Ross being the sole songwriter for about half of the songs, with other members receiving varying amounts of credit on the rest.
Things took a turn when Ryan Ross and bassist Brent Wilson left the band citing creative differences, leading to Brendon Urie becoming the primary songwriter. Some people may not really think about it, but when you change the primary songwriter in a band, it kinda becomes a new band. All the songs that they wrote before primarily were the creation of Ryan, his emotions, his experiences. Brendon simply has a different life, he’s going to write in a different way. It’s not better or worse (okay, maybe a little worse in my opinion), it’s just different.
Nevertheless, the first release post-Ryan was the song “New Perspective” for the movie Jennifer’s Body. Right off the bat it’s a much more standard pop-rock song affair. It’s lost the burlesque, unconventional vibes of Fever or the Sgt. Pepper 2 Electric Boogaloo feel of Pretty. Odd. Still, it has a unique still-sorta-Panic! feel in the rhythm of the lyrics and is an enjoyable song.
This was followed up with Vices & Virtues, a pop-rock album sonically similar to Fever, but much simplier, much poppier, and less interesting in general (read: still an album that I very much enjoy). Panic! still couldn’t find stability here though, as longtime drummer Spencer Smith left the band after this album, leading to the biggest change for the band in terms of songwriting.
Since this was purely Brendon’s vehicle to drive now, Panic! really took a dive into pure pop with some emo-rock flavor. Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! came first, featuring a heavy 80s Vegas nightclub aesthetic, that for as different as it was, still was very fun. Brendon channeled his inner Sinatra on the next album, Death of a Bachelor, featuring more exaggerated horn sections, crooning vocals, and a wider variety of sounds, but still hammering in the core pop sound that he was embracing at this point.
This takes us to the most recent album: Pray for the Wicked. And, as you may have assumed, my least favorite. But we’re gonna find what I like, as is tradition.
You’ve surely heard singles from this already, if not dozens of dozens of times. “High Hopes,” “Hey Look Ma, I Made It,” “(Fuck A) Silver Lining,” and “Say Amen (Saturday Night)” have been hitting radio stations nonstop for the last nearly 3 years. Among those, “High Hopes” absolutely ripped through the cultural zeitgeist this election season after being appropriated by Pete Buttigieg’s campaign. In fact, it’s their most played song on Spotify with 800 million plays. The perennial, band-defining mid-00s hit “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” has half of that with 418 million. That blows my mind. Anyway, let’s do this.
The album gets its singles out of the way right away. It’s incredibly front-loaded, a habit that I’ll never like and will never understand. The first song trods along for a few seconds before wasting no time as Brendon belts “Fuck A Silver Lining” at you. Right away I notice that the production on this album is very loud. There’s very little in the way of dynamics here, the whole thing is just loud. Such that it’s hard to distinguish instruments a lot of the time for me. The verses have an interesting and catchy melody, especially in the underlying guitar and bass riff. The pre-choruses lose their melodic intrigue, and the chorus is too loud.
“Say Amen (Saturday Night)” continues a trend that Brendon has been doing for a few albums now, where I think he construes what made Panic! interesting on the first album was just a verbose mysteriousness, and likes to write songs early on the albums that try to do this “quiet, creepy verse with lots of words that are very literal but don’t always make a lot of narrative sense.” Vices had “Let’s Kill Tonight,” Too Weird had “Miss Jackson,” Death of a Bachelor had “Don’t Threaten Me with a Good Time,” and here we arrive again. Having said that, it feels more like a real song than the previous did, which felt more like a commercial (although the obvious shout-out to Saturday Night Live still keeps this in advertisement territory). The early verses are fun enough, and the horns in the chorus help to drive the song.
“Hey Look Ma, I Made It” is probably the first song I like more than I dislike; the opening vibes with the main riff are really neat and dreamy. Brendon’s lyrics still suffer from weird trying-to-be-edgy imagery like “I’m a hooker selling songs and my pimp’s a record label.” Brendon’s vocals are great, as always, and the song ends on a nice note, as it brings in this neat double-time electronic hi-hat that helps to tone down the energy level for a few bars.
I really don’t even want to talk about “High Hopes.” It’s in my opinion one of the worst songs that Brendon has ever written. It’s a cacophony of horns, Brendon shrieking in the higher end of his register, and hand claps. The bridge takes a much needed break and gets quieter, but it still depends on the same musical tricks that Brendon has been doing for albums now. Tossing in a minor iv chord, a major III chord to allow for these chromatic vocal melodies to make sense. It sounds good, but it also sounds so done before. I’m just gonna move on.
“Roaring 20s” has a neat vibe, sounding old-school and evoking vibes immediately from some of the better songs on Vices & Virtues or Too Weird. It does a better job of building up to a meaningful chorus instead of just hitting you loud at the start like the rest. The chorus melody feels too frantic and dependant on “Hey Look Ma, Brendon Can Sing Really High!” I couldn’t even really understand the lyrics the first time I heard it. Brendon is a hell of a singer (in fact I usually put him among the best male vocalists out there right now), but no human can sing along to this and sound like they’re having fun. The best part of this song is towards the end, where the music drops, and they do a few bars of the chorus in an a cappella half-time section before going back to the regular thing. I liked that. That was good.
“Dancing’s Not a Crime” is a filler song in my opinion. I do really like the chord progression in the chorus. It’s not really anything new, but it has a good vibe, which is really what Brendon is likely going for here. It also has a pretty groovy bridge section, but I think it could’ve done with quieting down the percussion a bit (again, album too loud).
The next song is actually one of my favorites from this album. “One of the Drunks” starts off with some layered vocals with various effects setting the base for the melody. Brendon comes in quietly, singing about drinking and partying, as you’d imagine. But the chorus doesn’t feel so bombastic, it has a good groove to it, with a memorable melody, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It again has a quiet bridge before building back up to the chorus, pretty standard cookie cutter pop song stuff. But so far it’s the most enjoyable song for me mostly for the groove and melody in the chorus.
“The Overpass” is one of the few songs that actually provides some substance without Brendon’s vocals right at the start. Some jazzy, showtimey horns ring out right at the start before the double-time percussion pulls you in to the constantly-moving main theme. The chords climb up in a minor key, making you feel like it’s about a coming confrontation or something big. It really works. The verses aren’t too much to write home about. Brendon singing really high over not many instruments other than a guitar in the background, behind some frantic percussion. I don’t think the song ever reaches the heights promised by the intro, but the general energy is good.
Whereas the last song escaped Brendon’s vocals needing to usher in the song, “King of the Clouds” is hardly anything but hyper-layered vocals right away. It’s a slower jam, slightly reminiscent of their previous album, Death of a Bachelor. I like the progression in the chorus, but it does get a bit repetitive.
“Old Fashioned” at first songs like something off of the last Macklemore & Ryan Lewis album. an interesting trumpet sample before acoustic guitars fill the space, it falls somewhere between almost an R&B song and pop. But really this song’s whole purpose is probably just to showcase Brendon’s pipes in the chorus. There isn’t much in the way of a hook, he just belts out “So pour out some liquor, make it an old fashioned.” He’s got the pipes, it just feels sort of empty and heartless. The song really comes into an interesting space in the bridge, though. It goes back to more of an R&B feel again. It’s really just Brendon repeating “Get boozy,” but it evokes a sort of sexy mystery I suppose. The chorus melody comes back with a chorus of other voices, and honestly it sounds better than just Brendon alone singing it as high as he can.
The album closes with probably the most real, honest song on it. “Dying In LA” isn’t dissimilar to the closing track of Death of a Bachelor; “Impossible Year” was also a piano-focused, intimate affair, albeit with much more Sinatra vibes. This song feels much more epic, less suave. Some strings end up coming in to back the song up, and they aren’t distracting, it’s the one song on the album that actually feels like it holds itself back, which is a good thing. It’s a good song, and a solid closer.
My biggest problem with Panic! now is that it feels like Brendon’s songwriting doesn’t really have much heart anymore. The songs just feel like they’re about partying or drinking (or both), which is great, but it doesn’t engage me. They’re songs just for the sake of songs. The songs used to at least sort of disguise this. Vices & Virtues had a lot more variation in the subjects it explored. Too Weird was pretty heavily about Vegas nightlife, but it leaned heavily into its theme, and it really worked well. Death of a Bachelor stayed interesting throughout, while losing some earnestness, but it still gripped me and felt like a mostly honest album. Pray for the Wicked’s biggest crime is that it feels like it was just made to churn out radio hits, and that’s sad for me.