Review Summary: A genre-hopping musical adventure high on cabaret, Queen, old-time piano and drum machines.
Every now and then, a band or artist emerges and turns contemporary music on its head completely. What is defined and what is set in stone is expanded on, experimented on, stretched to the boundaries and back. The Beatles did it. Led Zeppelin did it. Nirvana did it. Radiohead did it. And now, whilst it’s early days yet, Las Vegas quartet Panic! At The Disco might just be one of those bands in years to come if this brilliant debut album is anything to go by.
Inspired by everything from classic cabaret and circuses to Kraftwerk and Kid A, the band commence proceedings with a bizarre introduction (sounding like a radio being tuned) and electro-pop album standout “The Only Difference Between Suicide And Martyrdom Is Press Coverage”. It is musically all over the shop- acoustic guitars, 80s styled synth lines, a bridge interlude that sounds like the backing music to a Jane Fonda workout, big crashing drums and one hell of a catchy chorus. It is a great indication of what is to come in the first half of the album. The album has two sides to it- the first side of the album mixes a lot of pop, a lot of electronica and a huge variety of other genres. The Autotuned vocals of “Nails For Breakfast, Tacks For Snacks” and industrial noise-drums bridge of “Camisado” really show how complex, layered and diverse the band can be. The last song on this side is "Lying Is The Most Fun A Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off", a darker, more rock-influenced track describing a scene of two young lovers “exchanging body heat in the passenger seat”. With a big sounding drumbeat and chilling lower-key vocals, it's another winning combination and it isn't hard to see why this track was picked as a single.
After a big techno interlude, some theatrical silent movie piano in ¾ time kicks in, followed by some odd buzzing and then, seamlessly, the second side commences.
You can hear the influence of areas and musical styles ranging from Motown, ELO, The Specials, Madness and practically everything else in-between in these tracks. How the tracks can meander from one style to another in such seemingly flawless manner is also notably impressive. A great example of this is “But It's Better If You Do!” stripping down to a simple sway, following that the addition of a plucking string quartet and a lead in to the most well known track on the album, “I Write Sins, Not Tragedies”- and from that track’s soaring strings and dreamy glockenspiel, we go into the percussively driven intro and flamingo guitar of “I Constantly Thank God For Esteban”. It’s no wonder that the band often use up to three extra members in their already multitasking live band.
After these already exceptional numbers, we’re directed to the album’s best track- the oddly titled “There’s A Good Reason That These Tables Are Numbered, Honey. You Just Haven’t Thought Of It Yet”. This is a hugely over-the-top number, especially the breathless chorus of “I’m the new cancer! Never looked better! And you can’t stand it!”. The song is layered to the brim with ragtime piano, a full-size horn section and a hugely camp finger-snapping moment over the line “Just keep telling yourself- ‘I’m a diva!’”. It is huge-sounding, raunchy, dramatic and, above all, an awful lot of fun.
Essentially, that’s what this record’s essential purpose is- to have fun and be enjoyed. What is so fantastic about this album, however, is the fact that the band can do this and, at the same time, explore many musical possibilities that their peers simply cannot do (and often come off as contrived when they try). Upon repeated listens, one gets the feeling a gap has been bridged between the no-genre-too-sacred originality of bands like Ween and the sharp-witted theatricality of groups like The Red Paintings and The Dresden Dolls.
What’s even more extraordinary is how young the band are- either in their late teens or early twenties at the time of recording, Panic! present throughout the record a maturity and professionalism beyond their years.
Front man and multi-instrumentalist Brandon Urie brings great character to the songs, coming off as a bizarre crossbreed of Freddie Mercury and Patrick Stump. Urie’s right hand man Ryan Ross is a key player in the bands sound as well, with his hardly forgettable synth and keyboard fills and strong guitar parts that give the songs a stronger backbone. Yes, the guitar lines are simple, no-one is denying it. However, the quality of the songs prove that there is simply no need for them to be anything more- complicated guitar lines do not always improve the quality of the music (see Dragonforce for the proof of this statement).
For what it’s worth (a lot), for what it is (a pop album with a big twist) and what it serves purpose for (exploring, experimenting with and defying pop norms), this record is perfect.
The band has a world of potential to expand on from here, and amidst so much bad press and panning from music critics and pretentious Pitchfork snobs alike, they have made one of the most outstanding and most accessible records of the past few years.
And they’re only just beginning what has the potential to be one huge legacy.