It’s 2016, I’m listening to 52 albums in 52 weeks. For more info on what this is about, read this.
Why did I pick this album?
First let me apologize.I’m sorry I included Death of a Bachelor on this list, which is by every standard an unremarkable album. If you’re someone who is following this list because they want to be exposed to “noteworthy” music, this ain’t one those. So why did I pick it? Panic! At The Disco is a band I quickly fell in love with during my senior year of college in 2013, well after they reached peak popularity in 2005. I’ve kept an eye on their career trajectory because it’s very strange. Most people probably know that one song from ten years ago, but since then they’ve had a bit of a rollercoaster of events and what Panic! is today is completely different than how they started. For that reason, I was interested how their new album would turn out, would it be another weird catalog in the stream of oddities of the Panic! At the Disco discography? Well, not really.
Who is Panic! At The Disco?
This is basically going to be a brief history of Panic! At the Disco. So back in 2004 the original members of Panic! were around 18 years old and just graduating High School. Ryan Ross was the guitarist, and he formed the band with his friend Spencer Smith who was the drummer. Later they found Brent Wilson for their bassist, and Wilson introduced Brendon Urie as a backup guitarist, but Urie quickly became the lead vocalist (over Ross) after the band unanimously voted him into the spot. You can hear some songs on Panic!’s second album Pretty Odd where Ross sings lead vocals and understand why Urie got such unanimous support. At the same time there was a band that was quite popular called Fall Out Boy. Panic! wasn’t very well known but on a whim they sent some tracks to Pete Wentz from Fall Out Boy through Live Journal, and wouldn’t you know it, he actually listened to them. One thing led to another and Panic! was signed to Fueled By Ramen, the same label as Fall Out Boy. Panic! released their first album A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out in 2005, which is commonly mentioned in the same breath as other pop-punk albums like The Black Parade, or From Under the Cork Tree. When people say “I like Panic! At The Disco” they are 90% of the time referring to this album.
“But Panic! has five albums now, why such dedication to the one that came out a decade ago?” you might be asking. After the first album came out, the band began work on their second album, Pretty Odd. However after a year of work they scrapped the entire thing, with the exception of one song. You see, Panic!’s first album was defined by being different. Even though it’s labeled as “a pop-punk album,” it really doesn’t sound like anything else from the genre. Some of the tracks sounded like they dropped out of a carnival while others had auto-tuning and thumping bass. It was unique. They weren’t happy that their second album sounded so similar to their first, so they trashed it. They wanted it to be different. This time their version of being different was to go super traditional. Pretty Odd sounds like something The Beatles would make. For people who never liked Panic! At the Disco, this was great! For fans of the first album, it was unlistenable.
After Pretty Odd, Ryan Ross and Brent Wilson left the band, leaving only Brendon Urie and Spencer Smith as the remaining members. This left a considerable change on the band since Ross was the lyricist for the band and wrote most of the music. Some fans suggest Ross was also the creative force pushing the need to different and creative. Panic! would go on to release two more albums, Vices & Virtues and Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! Personally, I never listened to the former, and although I liked things about the latter, it really doesn’t deserve its own paragraph. Needless to say, the suggestion that Panic!’s lyrics and music have gotten worse since Ross left is evident just by listening to any one of the tracks found of those albums.
What is worth noting is the rumors that Panic! became a pop band for Brendon Urie once Ross and Wilson left the band, and everything about the “band” has supported those theories. Whether it’s album artwork only showing Urie despite two other band members existing, or music videos that amount to promoting Urie’s sex appeal, it seems pretty clear that Urie is running the show. That was confirmed last year when Smith finally left the band (the other temporary member they brought on, Dallon Weekes, has been removed from the permanent roster and is only a touring member now). Which means Panic! At the Disco is officially a solo project, Brendon Urie, and his arsenal of producers.
Except that was never the plan from the start. Urie was the last member to join the band. When Urie shifted from being “just the vocalist” to the creative force of the band, he talked about how odd the transition was, since there was such a huge focus on his ability to play all the instruments, write the music, and lyrics. From from listening to his music, it seems the only things he’s never had to think about much besides being famous, getting laid and hanging out. He doesn’t philosophize how his approach to meaningless relationships will affect his life like other artists I’ve already listened to, he’s basically your run of the mill pop star. So what does a guy like that have to say when he release a solo album? How does that sound?
What did I think?
Pretty frustrating. The grand tragedy of Panic! At The Disco is when it went from being a popular niche to mainstream pop. The reason this is so frustrating is because despite Urie’s attempts to be a popstar he’s not one. He’s at his best when he embraces the weirdness inside of him. Urie has stated that this album was meant to be a “goodbye” to his old self as he turns to the future to see what he can do differently. Hopefully that means gaining some independence from recording labels because eight of the eleven songs on this album sound like disingenuous junk.
Almost all the songs besides a select three seem to be dedicated to “good times and people who have them,” which might be the image that Urie likes to project but it’s just surface layer marketing. As we’ve covered earlier this year, even artists whose lives are filled with nothing but sex and drugs, they’re not exactly thrilled about that and have some complex thoughts about that lifestyle. Unless you’re a complete numbskull with no introspection value whatsoever, you’d probably have equally complicated feelings toward days filled with “champagne, cocaine, [and] gasoline.” I might be giving Urie too much credit here, but I think he’s evolved enough to have some basic empathy.
The result is all of these tracks, like “Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time,” sound less like party tracks and more like anthems for teenagers to sing to while they get dropped off at their friend’s house to play truth or dare. The same goes for other dubious tracks such as “Crazy=Genius,” an attempt to capture the carnival influence from the original Panic! album. Or the truly dreadful “The Good, The Bad and the Dirty,” which might be the absolute low point for Urie’s lyric writing career. You just need to hear the first ten seconds of Urie’s howling to set your expectations to the floor and you’ll still be disappointed in yourself that you’ve wasted your time getting to the ninth song on this album.
So what’s the saving grace? This album might be the first time that Urie shows some sort of regret for his career. The only single for the album so far has been “Hallelujah” (keeping the trend of insanely original titles and lyrics). What’s interesting about this song is that Urie actually went to Genius.com and said “this song is really about a lot of different things: friendships and letting god, not feeling bad about the past. At a certain point I just had to own up to my mistakes, own up to my sins, forgive myself but also take responsibility for the shit I had done.” It’s possible that he was making a vague statement about what the song was about. But for this to be the first solo album by Urie, and for it to be the first song to tackle “friendships” and “not feeling bad about the past,” it seems like a pretty big coincidence if he’s not talking about the past of Panic! at the Disco. It’s also no surprise that this song is genuinely good. There’s a somberness to Urie’s tone. He’s dropped that obnoxious arrogance that usually exudes from other tracks. It feels like Urie’s sharing something personal for once.
On a similar note, the title track “Death of a Bachelor,” deals with Urie’s transition from a lifelong bachelor, to getting married. It’s easy to tell he struggled with it, since the only other topic he ever sang about was the number of women he’s been with. Still, he cites his love for Sinatra and remembering how he grew up as a child as the inspiration for this track and the influence comes out pretty clearly. There’s an array of different instruments used in this bombastic track. Although the image he leaves for his future marriage leaves me pretty worried for his wife, this again is another track that feels like Urie is doing the actual writing rather than a league of faceless producers and marketers. The result is night and day.
Finally the concluding track, “Impossible Year,” leaves hope for the future. It’s easily the most Sinatra-inspired, and the most divergent from Panic!’s past work. Urie sings about the difficulties of working on the album this past years to the tune of a piano melody with the assistance of some horn instrumentation. He even sings in a different style than usual. It’s an impressive last performance that shows he’s willing to do something different. I only wish he had started this album with that mindset, instead of ending on that note.
As it stands, over seventy percent of this album is not recommendable. If you want a proper pop album, there are better ones. If you want some genuine soul-searching music, there are better ones. Panic! continues to be a weird thing that exists. Urie has no reason to stop making money off of it now, so I imagine there will be another album in a few years. What that will be, I don’t know, but I’ll probably listen to that too. Two things are certain: I’ve never been as hopeful for Panic! as I am now, and Death of a Bachelor is Panic!’s worst album.
Next week (barring any life changes) I’m going to listen to Frank Sinatra’s Watertown, because it transitions really well with “Impossible Year,” and it was recommended by a friend. Check it out on YouTube or Spotify.