Just who, at this point in their career, after a breakout album, a benign follow-up, and a near breakup, are Panic! at the Disco? Are they the frilly dramaturges made famous by A Fever You Can't Sweat Out? The stony, California-dreamin' canyon children that showed up on Pretty. Odd.? Or, with the release of their third album, Vices & Virtues (due March 22), have they transformed themselves once again?
Well, yes to the latter. And no. Because while Vices sees Panic! physically changed (it's their first album since the departure of guitarist Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker, it is very much an album that harks back to their halcyon days. A whirling, whooshing thing that's long on dramatics — trilling strings, chittering electronics, Haunted Mansion histrionics — and short on pretty much everything from their Pretty. Odd. period.
That's not entirely true, of course. The second half of Vices is highlighted by a pair of songs — the hazy acoustic number "Always" and the herky-jerky "Sarah Smiles" (no relation to the Hall & Oates tune of nearly the same name) — that recall some of Odd.'s finer moments. But for the most part, it feels very much like the logical successor to Fever, almost as if their underappreciated sophomore album never happened. That's probably to be expected ... after all, Panic's remaining two members, Brendon Urie and Spencer Smith have made no bones about the fact that Vices represents "a new band ... [and] a new start," and freed from songwriter Ross' whims, they've made the album unquestionably their own.
But just what does their version of Panic! at the Disco entail? Well, if you've heard first single "The Ballad of Mona Lisa," you have a pretty good idea. That song not only kicks off the album, but it serves as a blueprint for pretty much everything Panic! 3.0: namely, an absolute corker of a chorus surrounded by various fantasyland accoutrements. Vices & Virtues is loaded with chippy Casio beats, handclaps, stirring strings, crunchy guitars, blaring horns, chiming bells and an assortment of things that go bump in the night. Urie and Smith told me with much pride that, aside from the horns, they pretty much played everything on the disc, which not only lends credence to their dedication, but also sort of tips their hand: The strategy this time out is clear — more is most definitely more.
Because over 10 quick tracks, there's not a studio trick Panic don't employ, an instrument they don't fit in. One can imagine the pure glee Urie and Smith must've had making the thing, like kids left to their own devices in a sonic candy shop. Of course, that freedom works both to their benefit and their detriment. Songs like "Let's Kill Tonight" and album-closer "Nearly Witches (Ever Since We Met)" pile on the strings and spooky sound effects (and the choirs and Jeff Lynne vocal harmonies), yet still remain lithe, thanks in no small part to Urie's vocal theatrics and Smith's steady hand. But bursting-at-the-seams tracks like "Memories," which starts out as a widescreen Killers tribute but morphs into an arabesque exercise in excess, and "The Calendar," which dabbles in Lite FM R&B, feel strangely leaden, something that even the heaviest Fever tunes managed to avoid.
But really, those are the only two missteps that warrant attention. And that, in and of itself, is a minor accomplishment. Vices is at its very core a studio album, one stuffed with ideas and instrumentation, which not only positions Panic! as perhaps this generation's Brian-Wilsons-on-a-budget, but serves as a solid starting point for wherever Urie and Smith choose to go from here. It's not exactly new, not exactly old, but it's definitely something. Call it a fresh start, a return to form, a re-imaging of the past, just don't call it Pretty. Odd. because that ship has sailed. Panic! are back to their old tricks, exclamation point and all ... and perhaps that was the secret ingredient all along. Because if there's one thing Vices & Virtues is, it's exuberant. If you're not excited, you should be.
What do you want to hear from Panic! on their new album? Tell us in the comments!