Review Summary: Show them all you're not the ordinary type.
Panic! At the Disco have become one of the most inconsistent acts in the popular music industry. Though this is only their third release, their path from album to album has changed like Ramona Flowers's hair changes every week and a half. A hyper-active debut was followed by Pretty. Odd. The sophomore release took things much slower, but was certainly not scaled down production wise. While the latter, released in 2008, was adored by many dedicated fans, critics accused the band of trying too hard overall and ripping off The Beatles. After three years of hard work, a split leaving only two members, and a reinserted punctuation mark, Vices & Virtues finally comes forth. Well worth the wait, and again dramatically different from its predecessor, Vices & Virtues is a solid, interesting listen throughout.
The lyrics here are not quite up to par with debut A Fever You Can't Sweat Out. However, they are a major improvement over the nonsense that plagued Pretty. Odd. Former guitarist Ryan Ross fulfilled all lyrical duties before the split, making this vocalist Brendon Urie's first shot at accompanying all of his music with words. Rather than taking the metaphorical and storytelling approaches that Ross loved to tinker with, Urie offers a more personal take on Panic. Although the lyrics do not feel as encoded as in the past, the new relatability of the words is refreshing, and there is still a fair amount of symbolism mixed in for good measure. For example, leading track “The Ballad of Mona Lisa” offers what sounds like a tale of boy and girl, but for Urie it expresses his frustration with the battles that have taken place in the band and within himself. “Sarah Smiles” could have turned into an annoying, sappy love profession, but the way it's presented shakes things up enough that it isn't dismissed as a filler romance track.
Presentation is key for Vices & Virtues. The album feels more structured overall than previous releases, but all the quirky instruments and sound effects are back and stronger than ever before. All sorts of bells, whistles, and especially strings are well-placed throughout the album, adding a richer layer to each track. It could have led to a hopeless case of overproduction, but it works infectiously, most notably on album closer “Nearly Witches.” This theatrical fest begins with an a Capella children's choir, then twists through groovy verses before bursting into a slow, grand chorus with the choir and an army of instruments backing up Urie with a wall of sound as he belts his guts out. The effect is pure satisfaction for classic Panic fans.
One thing the band has always been great at is covering a great range of styles. Vices & Virtues is certainly no exception, from the 80's synth of “Let's Kill Tonight,” to the Pokemon-soundtrack-esque intro and bootie-shaking bass line in “Hurricane,” to the sad acoustics of “Always,” a short, but sweet track just begging to be played during a hit summer movie as someone drives home on a rainy night with tears running down their face. Panic holds the listeners attention from start to finish throughout Vices & Virtues. On a first listen, it's impossible not to wonder what direction the band will take on the next track.
Vices & Virtues is a very satisfying listen for a Panic fan. Those who have hated the band in the past will most likely continue to hate... but who cares? This stuff is catchy, quirky, and simply entertaining to listen to. Panic! At the Disco is back, and the return of the exclamation point is definitely made known through the music on the album. Tell me to calm down if you will, but for as long as these guys hold my interest, I refuse to stop panicking.