Monday, June 25, 2018

album review: 'pray for the wicked' by panic! at the disco

So the fact that I have to cover this album is a no-win situation for me. 

I might as well lay this out right now just to establish where the discourse is going to be when talking about this album regardless of its quality, and considering I somehow wound up in the situation when posting reviews makes me lose subscribers in the short term, I really have nowhere to go but down here. And if this all sounds sardonic and defeatist... well, it is the former, but the larger truth is that I know regardless of what I say there'll be a diehard fanbase that'll stick up for whatever Panic! At The Disco does. So even if I say how much A Fever You Can't Sweat Out has real gems, and Pretty Odd. is legitimately great and Vices & Virtues and Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die are both underrated, and how 'Crazy = Genius' made my year-end list of the best songs of 2016 and I think there's at least something to Brendon Urie being compared to Brian Wilson... it ultimately does not matter to them.

But frankly, given how I reviewed Death Of A Bachelor two years ago you should all know this by now, so let's focus on Pray For The Wicked, where I covered a few of their lead-off singles on Billboard BREAKDOWN but I can't say I remember all that much of them. I remember the production sounding overblown and thin - not remotely a good sign and about the last thing Brendon Urie would want to carry over from Broadway productions - and I remember the lyrics feeling underweight, and the buzz was suggesting that was pretty commonplace across the record, but Panic! At The Disco in every incarnation has found ways to surprise me, and I was genuinely hoping that Pray For The Wicked would hit that point, so how's the album?


Let's not mince words: this is easily Panic! At The Disco's worst record - but more than that, it's Panic! At The Disco's least interesting record, which might be the bigger crime. You might take issue with the wild shifts of previous albums, but Pray For The Wicked suffers the most because it doesn't really take those chances, across the board, which leaves us with a severely undercooked and underweight pop record that if I didn't have confirmation that Brendon Urie was rushing certain songs before the label deadline I'd have called it anyway!

So let's start with that, specifically the compositions and production. Now some of you might not know this, but I'm a fan of musical theater, and thus I wasn't immediately averse to the big-band horn sections and flashy opulence - Urie has always drawn inspiration from that old-school era and this might be the first record where he's really doubled down on those influences. And I really wish somebody had told Jake Sinclair this, because so much of his production does not work at all, and there's no good reason for that. And this goes past the running understanding that many music critics have when talking about musicals that the cast records are rarely well-produced, this is a case of cranking up the tempos and over-stuffing the arrangement with clattering snares and multi-tracking and blaring horns and then compressing all of it! We'll come back to this, but if you're not paying attention to the bass groove you won't hear it half the time, and even then it feels like this record is doubling down on the mid-to-hi registers to produce the most shrill, grating blasts of trumpet and saxophone you're going to get, and that's before you tack on pitch-shifting and vocal samples and very little that actually showcases some modulation to let these songs breathe! I might find the hook of 'High Hopes' really grating - the vocal compression is flat out awful - but at least the verses and prechorus gives the song a bit of space, which does not happen for songs like 'Dancing's Not A Crime' with all of its shrill vocal samples or how much 'King Of The Clouds' ascends into agonizingly overwrought high notes after its hook - this is the song Urie reportedly rushed, and with how sloppily blended it is, you really can tell. 

It's actually one reason the piano ballad 'Dying In L.A.' is one of the better cuts to end the record, because Urie is still a good enough performer that when the arrangements have more restraint he really shines. Beyond that, the only two songs I can see myself returning to are 'Say Amen (Saturday Night)' thanks to its crushing hook and despite the clusterfuck of samples and 'The Overpass', which has one of the best horn pickups and while the percussion is incredibly overmixed, it has the feel of a James Bond theme and I mean that as a compliment. It also has a guitar on its verses, which for the record is in the minority on this album - you'll hear more trap breakdowns than actual rock elements - mostly it's just peripheral to hold some vestige of a groove like on 'One Of The Drunks', or acoustic texture that shows up on 'Roaring 20s' and 'Old Fashioned', in the latter case actively shunted behind the trap hi-hats and arranged elements. And that's before we even consider the synth elements, and at this point I have to ask the question why Urie wanted this beyond just another layer to potentially modernize the sound - but when you get flattened tones that would sound more appropriate on an Eric Taxxon record driving the melody of 'Hey Look Ma, I Made It', it doesn't fit! For as annoying as that seedy tone on 'Roaring 20s' is, it at least kind of made sense with the retro-Broadway vibe, but then you get the increasingly synthetic layering on 'One Of The Drunks' and 'King Of The Clouds', and it doesn't compliment anything! This is where I'm inclined to point more fingers at Jake Sinclair for failing to layer any of this in a way to prioritize a stable melody line outside of the vocals right at the front and then overcompressing everything, but it's like in the search for bombast nobody told Urie that contrast and crescendos are what you need to emphasize dramatic weight, and just going full-force all the time leads to a one-dimensional, oversold experience.

And this wouldn't be a huge issue... if it didn't feel like Brendon Urie completely phoned in the lyrics. And if we're looking for the biggest disappointment with Pray For The Wicked it is here, because it feels painfully stretched and undercooked - like Fall Out Boy's MANIA, an act with a reputation for overwritten content that has just run out of interesting things to say. Most of the record is celebratory, inspirational pablum, and while it tries to get a little cute about it on 'Hey Ma I Made It' and 'Roaring 20s' in showing how that reckless lifestyle has consequences, the poetry is nowhere close to being as interesting or sharp. But even the attempts to satirize the party feel hypocritical: 'One Of The Drunks' plays in this territory in showing how draining and numb alcohol abuse can be... but when you surround that track with 'Say Amen (Saturday Night)' and especially the more wistful yearnings of 'Old Fashioned', it loses a lot of resonance. The frustrating thing is that this record does actually nail some of that draining struggle for success on 'Dying In L.A.' - hell, I'd argue the song has more earned pathos than the entire album, and as a closer it really does save this album. It's not on in the same tier as Charles Kelley's 'Leaving Nashville' or Caitlyn Smith's 'This Town Is Killing Me', but it's at least in the same ballpark.

But as a whole... folks, the feeling I get from this record is Brendon Urie trying his damnedest to sell a dream with weight and deeper meaning, but it simultaneously feels like it's trying too hard and not hard enough. The production is completely oversold to the point where outside of the vocal line you can barely find your thoughts or cohesive melody amidst the overstuffed mixes, full of shrillness and compression... and yet when you actually look at the lyrics that are being sold in this way they feel increasingly thin and inconsequential, about the last thing you want for so much bombast. And ultimately, when you factor in weak grooves and a lack of truly striking moments that weren't shrill as all hell, I'm stuck giving this an extremely light 5/10, because this is barely passable. If you're a diehard fan, you've already left your comment down below, but otherwise... no, this is mediocre at best, and will likely be forgotten very quickly.

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