Music

Sins And Tragedies: The Sad But Inevitable Decline Of Panic! At The Disco

Somewhere along the line, being a Panic! At The Disco fan stopped being fun.

Panic! At The Disco

There’s an episode of the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend where the character Valencia, an event planner by trade, is enlisted to put on a sweet-16th birthday party. Instead of making something appealing to the teenagers, however, Valencia decides to put on a roaring-20s flapper/swing party.

It’s entirely self-serving and narcissistic, putting her own interests before the enjoyment of others. Although it fits the aesthetic perfectly, it is clearly being forced onto an audience that has no interest in it. Why are you being told this? Simple: welcome to Panic! At the Disco circa 2018.

With Pray for the Wicked, the sixth album bearing the Panic! At the Disco name, sole remaining original member Brendon Urie has entirely stretched the friendship of the sickly-glossed production, red-level maximalism and honking synthesised horns that has come with the project changing from a full band to a solo endeavour.

The name may still have its legions of fans, but anyone who’s been with P!ATD since Urie first swore to shake it up back in the mid-2000s has been given little reason to stick around.

Ahead of the band’s arena tour this October, let’s take a look at how these outcasts of third-wave emo fell apart at the seams.

Panic At The Disco

Photo via Panic! At The Disco Facebook

Bright Beginnings, And Hitting Fever Pitch

Here’s the thing about A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, the 2005 debut from Panic! At the Disco: It’s something that can never be replicated.

It was made after Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz signed them to his label, Decaydance, after watching them play in their garage. Having never done a live gig at the time, and having only recently stopped being a blink-182 cover band, Panic! were essentially some sort of test-tube baby. Consider it a hybrid beast born out of teenage restlessness.

‘Fever…’ is the defining Panic! At the Disco record — both for better and for worse.

Fever boasts pop-punk dynamics, big-beat detours, prolix lyricism that often turns theatrically dark and some of the biggest-swinging technicolor pop songs of the 2000s — not bad for a band that could sing about peach and lime daiquiris, but couldn’t legally purchase them at the time. No other chain of events, therapeutic or not, could have conceived such an album as Fever. In a lot of ways, it was a freak accident — and therein lies its central appeal.

In turn, it also became one of the most divisive LPs of the decade. Overwhelmingly positive reviews ran neck and neck with absolute decimations of the record, including a snark-heavy 1.5 from Pitchfork.

Stylistically, Panic! were pegged as outsiders from the start — they may have often been lumped in with emo’s third wave, but their panache for theatricality and frequent genre detours meant they were often square pegs in a scene of round holes.

Even the album’s biggest hit, ‘I Write Sins Not Tragedies’, is defined by its use of a string quartet and the dissolution of a relationship on a wedding day — a subject matter, one imagines, most high-school age boys were not often waxing lyrical about.

Their unusual approach may have been to their critical detriment at the time, but it was this instinct to do things differently that has allowed for the LP itself to survive culturally for far longer than most other albums — and, by extension, bands — of the era. Going on to sell two million copies, it is the defining Panic! At the Disco record — both for better and for worse.

Punctuation Points Of Difference

A decade on from its release, Pretty. Odd. remains a record some listeners can’t make head nor tail of. It’s reflective of a singular moment in the canon of Panic — not Panic!, mind; the band dropped the exclamation mark this time around. Some of P.O.’s biggest fans get nothing out of any other album by the band, while the opposite is the case for a lot of its detractors. Any way you cut it, there are no fence-sitting opinions on Pretty. Odd. — and there’s a lot to be said for that.

Instead of further implementing the stylistic duality of Fever for its follow up, Pretty. Odd. instead looked at what would happen when the band went full speed ahead on a more focused palette — in this case, retro-flavoured and rainbow-coloured guitar pop. The end result, ironically, was more mixed than that of Fever — but it’s worth noting still holds merit.

It’s full of twentysomething weed-toting nonsense lyrics, bright instrumentation and warm harmonies — hardly original, sure, but there’s a certain liberty to the simple joy of this kind of art for art’s sake. The way the band goes all in on everything from trumpeting processions (‘When the Day Met the Night’) to 60s-tinged pop-rock numbers (‘She’s a Handsome Woman’) is enough to get Pretty. Odd.’s selling points across the line.

The album sees Ross also taking a more central role in the music, sharing vocals with Urie and even taking lead on the swaying ‘Behind the Sea’. It’s the closest the band has ever come to working as a cohesive, collective unit — in many ways, this would be the last Panic album that resembled a traditional band structure.

If Panic were outsiders of the scene prior to this album, this album sent them interplanetary. Save for ‘Nine in the Afternoon’, neither mainstream nor alternative radio touched the singles from this record. The album went gold to Fever’s two-times platinum – and even that was several years after it came out.

Despite the album’s cult fandom now, Pretty. Odd. was seen as a sufferer of Second Album Syndrome. In retrospect, what came next should never have been as surprising as it was at the time.

Brendan Urie on stage with Panic! At The Disco. Photo via P!ATD Facebook

Beginning Again

One year after Pretty. Odd., the band faced what many perceived to be the beginning of the end. Both Ross and bassist Jon Walker made the decision to collectively part ways with Urie and drummer Spencer Smith, the latter of whom would continue on under the Panic moniker.

It had become clear that the two halves of the band were clearly after different things as far as their artistic direction was concerned, and of course no band should be forced to stay together in order to keep up some sort of facade pertaining to some kind of familial bond. That being said, it’s a massive blow when you lose such a vital piece of what made your band what it was — and Panic! (yes, they added the exclamation mark back in) would never be the same again.

Panic! At The Disco lived and ultimately died by Ross and Urie’s partnership.

Consider the two albums made in the wake of this schism — Take a Vacation!, the 2010 album from Ross and Walker’s band The Young Veins; and Vices & Virtues, the 2011 Panic! At the Disco record. While both have a couple of redeeming qualities, it’s clear that P!ATD as we once knew it lived and ultimately died by Ross and Urie’s partnership. Left to their own devices, each presents albums that are lacking in key departments.

Take a Vacation!, while faring better out of the two, could never confidently step out of the shadow of the bands it was mirroring. As for Vices & Virtues, Urie was evidently too busy with the notion of rebooting Panic! with a capital ! that he lost sight of what made the band a unique prospect in the first place.

The album is, for the most part, a simpering and safe retread that feels like a series of B-sides as a result. At least Ross and Walker had a degree of confidence with the direction they wanted to go in — Vices & Virtues is so devoid of risk that it beggars belief as to how certain Urie and Smith were that this was unquestionably what P!ATD had to do next.

Truthfully, it wasn’t what Urie and Ross had in common that made them such a great musical pairing — it was their contrasts and their differences. If the two had understood this on a deeper level, perhaps the third album could have resulted in something much stronger from a united front. It’s all conjecture, sure, but it’s worth thinking about upon revisiting both albums.

If Vices & Virtues is the sound of a three-legged dog learning how to walk again, 2013’s Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! is the sound of said dog strutting confidently down The Strip with its sleek new robot leg. This is the sound of a band with its mojo back — not least of all because they had expanded to a trio to feature long-serving touring bassist Dallon Weekes.

The idea of Panic! At the Disco getting its mojo back on Too Weird to LiveToo Rare to Die was too good to be true.

This is an album that surpasses Vices entirely and, at times, even reaches the heights of Fever and Pretty. Odd. Just listen to the pure clenched-fist bombast of ‘This is Gospel’, the neon-tinged stomp of ‘Vegas Lights’ and the seductive slink of bisexual anthem ‘Girls / Girls / Boys’. It’s exemplary of finding a point of progress and focus for the Panic! At the Disco sound, yet it doesn’t lose sight of what got them there to begin with.

There’s one sole issue with Too Weird to Live, and it’s purely aesthetic. All of the promotional material surrounding the album centred entirely on Urie, from the album cover to the music videos. Understandably, Smith was out of action — undergoing rehab, he missed all of the touring in support of the album — but the fact you have to dig around on Google Images to even find a proper photo of Urie, Weekes and Smith together is at least a little disconcerting.

The reality is that the idea of Panic! At the Disco getting its mojo back on Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die was — to add a further layer to its title — too good to be true.

The Last Man Standing

Both Smith and Weekes formally left Panic! as official members in 2015. Smith’s departure, as previously detailed, was foreseen by most fans as inevitable, however heartbreaking it was to lose the last standing connection to the band that started out together back in 2004. To have Weekes ‘no longer contributing creatively’, as he put it, was a different matter entirely.

A brief explanation, as it’s somewhat complicated: Weekes joined Panic! as a touring fill-in after Walker’s departure in 2009, touring both the tail-end of Pretty. Odd. and all of Vices & Virtues before he was brought in as an official member in 2012. Weekes ended with a co-writing credit on most of the songs for Too Weird to Live.

Death of a Bachelor and this year’s Pray for the Wicked are basically interchangeable — and in no way is that a compliment.

In late 2015, Weekes confirmed he was no longer an official member of the band, and Urie would then make the next album (2016’s Death of a Bachelor) all by himself. Although he didn’t play a note on the album, Weekes stayed on as a part of Panic!’s touring ensemble until the end of 2017. To cut a long story short, the man was basically demoted — and it’s hard to figure out exactly why that is.

Weekes was — and still is — an impeccable musician and a songwriter with strong ideas. Look no further than his efforts on Too Weird to Live, or his projects outside of the band like I Don’t Know How But They Found Me — a band which, funnily enough, has a name that sounds like an old Panic! song title. Most importantly to this context, however, he was the closest thing that Urie ever got to finding a match this side of Ryan Ross — with all respect to Smith.

To shun that in favour of turning Panic! At the Disco into a solo project is one of the most truly disheartening moments in the history of the band — and it reflects in the two albums Urie has made on his own since that decision.

Death of a Bachelor and this year’s Pray for the Wicked are basically interchangeable — and in no way is that a compliment. Left entirely to his own devices, Urie now composes forced anthems of artificial joy that have all the compositional finesse of a washing machine completing its cycle.

Brendon Urie now composes forced anthems of artificial joy.

Take ‘Victorious’, for example — a booming, plodding, shrill song that sends everything into the red and sports a fake choir barking a hopscotch rhyme passing as a chorus: “Tonight we are victorious/Champagne poured all over us.”

Both Bachelor and Wicked are multi-million dollar productions that do not offer a cent of insight, intrigue or entertainment. They are hollow constructions, essentially using jazz-hands and kick-lines to distract you from the fact they have nothing to offer — not even under the guise of art for art’s sake. This is art as a business venture — and over a decade on from Fever, it’s not how you envisioned Panic! At the Disco ever ending up.

So, What Happened To Panic! At The Disco?

Somewhere along the line, being a Panic! At The Disco fan in the present tense stopped being fun.

It could have something to do with the violently obsessive fandom surrounding Urie, which has broken crowd barriers at shows and mobbed the singer at airports and stage doors. It could have a lot to do with the decline in output, which feels garish and contrived in contrast to the wide-eyed musical adventurers we were first introduced to all those years ago. Hell, it could even just be a matter of getting older and feeling less of a connection to the things you used to love.

Somewhere along the line, being a Panic! At The Disco fan stopped being fun.

Be that as it may, there’s still something uniquely disappointing about seeing a trajectory of self-sabotage and self-service in equal amounts that has turned one of the 2000s’ great hopes into something nigh-on unrecognisable in the 2010s.

Panic! At The Disco still play arenas, and in that regard are probably as big now — if not bigger — than they were when their first album blew them into the mainstream stratosphere. Here’s the thing, though – Urie has no-one to celebrate with. His band are all hired guns he can move about as he pleases. He’s living vicariously through the faux-celebration that he sings of these days, giving his two solo albums the lion’s share of current setlists to reflect that.

Some may interpret these words as hating Panic! At The Disco, but the reality is there will always be love there for them. As a wise man once sang, “If you love me, let me go.” Consider this letting go – Panic! At The Disco will continue to conquer in their second life, but they’ve made it clear they don’t want anyone from their first around anymore.

Ten years after singing “You don’t have to worry, ’cause we’re still the same band,” Urie has done everything in his power to make sure that isn’t true.

David James Young is a writer and podcaster who’s wrecking this evening already, and loving every minute. Follow him on Twitter