When Fall Out Boy‘s bassist, songwriter and paparazzi shield Pete Wentz first heard Panic! At the Disco, the band’s demos revealed their tentative move away from being a blink-182 cover band. But Wentz signed the four Las Vegas teenagers as the inaugural act for his label Decaydance (now called DCD2 Records), and the band drove the 2,000-odd miles to Maryland to rush-record their debut, A Fever They Can’t Sweat Out.
The album, half of which — maybe inevitably — sounded like apprentice Fall Out Boy with its spiky pop-punk songs, tense, jumpy melodies, Brendon Urie’s full-throated yelps, laptop beats, and epic, snotty titles like “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage” and “There’s a Good Reason These Tables Are Numbered Honey, You Just Haven’t Thought of It Yet.” The album’s other half, including the chugging hit “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” was studded with orchestral filigrees: plucked strings and twinkling bells that gave the songs a Danny Elfman-esque sugary momentum.
By the time Panic! holed up in their home state two years later to write the follow-up, they were world-touring arena stars, MTV Video of the Year winners for “Sins Not Tragedies,” and survivors of the acrimonious departure of bassist Brent Wilson. They also had something they hadn’t had since afternoons spent rehearsing blink covers in a Vegas living room: time. Fame and record-label trust meant that Fever‘s orchestral sweetness could expand. Pretty. Odd. featured “Nine in the Afternoon” and “Do You Know What I’m Singing?” draped in chipper, besotted choruses with creamy flurries of strings and a friendly accordion wheeze. “I Have Friends In Holy Spaces” was a smiling Tin Pan Alley goof and the galloping carnival bark “Pas de Cheval” told everyone “It’s the greatest thing you could ever imagine/Imagine knowing me.”
The album was bouncy, cheerful and chock-full of references to the sun, moon and summer. Pretty.Odd. reminded people of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band because The Beatles were one of the few great bands to work this cute. (That said, the ’60s baroque-pop spirit animal of “The Piano Knows Something I Don’t Know” is more Brian Wilson than Paul McCartney.)
Pretty. Odd. outsold the band’s debut, and its pastoral tour, full of woodland creatures and clusters of flowers, took the one-time pop-punk apprentices deeper into their talent for singsong, gently psychedelic baroque pop. It also eventually caused guitarist and songwriter Ryan Ross to leave, alongside bassist Jon Walker, for the garage pastures of The Young Veins, who prefer the scuzzier side of ’60s psych. The reconfigured band continued behind Urie: releasing a third album, Vices & Virtues, restoring the exclamation point to their name, and touring alongside a reunited Fall Out Boy and blink-182.
The 2015 version of Panic! At The Disco still has an exclamation point, but no original members other than Urie. Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die, which Urie considered releasing as a solo album, returns Panic! to the spiky pop-rock of their origins, but blends in a synth burble that takes the laptop chintz of A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out into the later albums’ lush world.
Despite the chugging, loquacious pop-punk trappings Urie’s retained Panic! at the Disco remains as breakneck and jumpy as it was in the days of its original Vegas foursome with the new Death of a Bachelor.
Without the bandmates who helped realize the creamy Beatles-scapes on Pretty. Odd., Urie fades a little into the shadow of Fall Out Boy from which the band originally emerged. The triumphant opening track “Victorious” and the horn-spiked “Hallelujah” follow closely in the post-reunion footsteps of Panic!’s labelmates, but the unstable “Emperor’s New Clothes” and the crooned, throbbing title ballad restore the show tune glitz that’s always been Urie’s personal muse.
Urie can no longer be mistaken for a junior Pete Wentz. It probably wouldn’t work for everyone, but what helped him discover his own musical self was simple: cheering up.