Panic! At The Disco find themselves at an interesting point in their career. For one, yes, the exclamation point is back. More importantly, the band — now officially down to a duo in Brendon Urie (lead vocals, guitars, bass guitar, keyboards, piano) and Spencer Smith (drums, percussion) — is fighting an uphill battle. Its first record, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, was a snapshot-of-the-scene hit that had the band colored as the next darlings of “emo-pop.” However, Pretty. Odd. veered entirely too far into Beatles-esque territory that turned quite a few of those early fans off; a textbook example of the “sophomore slump” if there ever was one.
Logically, the idea of combining the two — a radio-friendly sound mixed with a desire to expand songwriting horizons — seems to be at the heart of Vices & Virtues. However, writing it off as a hybrid to save commercial face while still saving some credibility would be too simplistic of a description. There’s quite a bit more going on regarding both fronts.
The first two tracks reveal a slicker sound, to be sure. “The Ballad of Mona Lisa” and “Let’s Kill Tonight” go from wistful to nihilistic in the first almost-eight minutes of the record. The theatrics the band is known for are still there, but definitely a little subdued in favor of craft. At the core is a more-produced sound — not so much like the vapid pop that dominates radio, but more like Nine Inch Nails.
Vices & Virtues doesn’t even sound like what would be considered a typical Panic! At The Disco album until the third track, “Hurricane.” At that point, a lot of the melody and song structure associated with “emo-pop” finally rears its head — and even then it’s twinged with the faux-industrial sound. The sharply ironic refrain, “You’ll dance to anything,” drives home that getting the teen agenda across isn’t so much a priority anymore — or so it may seem.
If the record were that strong all the way through, Panic! At The Disco would have a great shot at being taken a lot more seriously. However, the choruses of songs such as “Memories” read like the same maudlin, angsty fare that got them written off as an emo band in the first place. Musically, the “paint-by-numbers” emotion is still there as well; “Trade Mistakes” could have just as easily been a b-side from A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out as a track from this album. Just as the record is ready to be written off as derivative, though, tracks like “Nearly Witches (Ever Since We Met…)” sneak up from behind and knock home a grand chorus, begging for a second chance.
There are some definite chances taken here, such as “Sarah Smiles,” a song that Queen’s Brian May can play after “Good Company” and smile warmly, knowing that his near-Vaudevillian escapades from back when have influenced another generation of acts. That sound — playful horns and toe-tapping — is not the kind a band looking to court the typical teen audience would so readily break out.
Panic! At The Disco, for their tendencies to go back to the well that made them both famous and hated, are definitely making an effort to grow. The melodies are more polished here and not so much vying for space in a crowded record like they were on their debut. Nor are they so entrenched in a rich, psychedelic wall of sound like they were on the last album that they go unnoticed. Vices & Virtues is a document of a band still looking to carve out their own identity. A few tweaks in sound — and definitely lyrical content — could see Panic! At The Disco finally become serious players.