Monday, October 7, 2013

album review: 'too weird to live, too rare to die!' by panic! at the disco

It's common knowledge in the music industry that the last groups to jump on a trending bandwagon are often the worst. These are the acts that can only get success via peripheral engagement with the big stars, the desperate acts shoved out by the label to wring every last penny out the dying trend. And if the genre is already facing some critical malign, you can bet the worst of it will be dumped on the groups at the end. And today, we're going to be talking about one of those groups from the dying embers of the pop rock genre in the mid-to-late 2000s, which somehow managed to carry on and even prosper.

Yes, folks, we're talking about Panic! At The Disco, one of the most interesting - and frustrating - stories of the pop rock genre, complete with critical and audience polarization. Simply mentioning this band often gets you wildly differing opinions - and the sad fact is that most of those opinions aren't particularly well informed, or were shaped by the blowback against the 'emo genre' (and really, it's hard to say how much of that backlash was deserved).

I should explain. Panic! At The Disco released their first album in 2005, titled A Fever You Can't Sweat Out, and it immediately polarized critics and audiences. The musical style took the vaudeville-esque showmanship of My Chemical Romance and paired it with the bitingly acerbic and surprisingly insightful lyrics of Fall Out Boy, and combined, the album is more than a bit of a wordy, pretentious, surprisingly listenable mess. Critics either loved it or hated it with a passion, and the audience was divided along similar lines, the fans loving it for the great hooks and attempts at complexity (about half of which paid dividends), the others hating it for being pretentious, too sarcastic for their own good, or for being astoundingly flamboyant and theatrical (often dumped under the pejorative of 'it's gay'). And really, all of that is true to some extent, and how much you could like A Fever You Can't Sweat Out is more linked to how much you could tolerate all of it.

But the band weren't interested in repeating themselves, so when they came back in 2008 with Pretty Odd, they threw a massive curveball by releasing an album that sounded like a modernized version of the baroque psychedelic pop of the Beatles and especially the Beach Boys from the late 60s. The majority of the fans and critics were thrown off-guard and while the band won some measure of critical acclaim (mostly because the album is really goddamn great), most of their teenage fanbase deserted them in confusion. Which is a damn shame, because the album is really something special, almost reaching the point of earning the label of the 'modern day Brian Wilson'.

However, a few critics pointed out that the band would have likely maintained more relevance if they had stuck with speaking to today's generation instead of aping that of the past - and Panic! At The Disco chose to do just that in 2011 with Vices & Virtues. It was a creative direction that split the band in two, leaving them without their primary songwriter Ryan Ross. Thus, the album does feel transitional - and, like all albums from Panic! At The Disco, a bit of a mess - but at the same time, it was probably my favourite album from them. Yes, it's not quite as complex as their previous works, but it nailed the elements that cemented Panic! At The Disco as the spiritual successors to Brian Wilson in my mind: incredibly catchy hooks, a wide diversity of instrumentation, surprisingly insightful lyrics, and way more heartfelt emotion than you'd expect from a bunch of leftovers from emo pop rock. I highly recommend the album and for me it was one of the highlights of 2011...

And it flopped. Not critically - while most critics have never been the biggest fans of Panic! At The Disco, there was probably the most positive critical consensus with Vices & Virtues - but it certainly didn't sell well. Of course, that was to be expected, because it was released in 2011, with the club boom that wasn't nearly dead yet. On top of that, the label's choice of singles was pretty lousy (they should have led with 'Memories' and pivoted to 'Sarah Smiles'), and to be honest, Panic! At the Disco had lost a ton of fans over their career with their wildly shifting artistic direction. Plus, most former fans had long ago branded them as one of those 'emo acts' that we're all supposed to hate now, along with Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance.

But with Fall Out Boy's return this year with Save Rock And Roll, I wasn't surprised to see Panic! At The Disco preparing to release an album, one that was reportedly supposed to be about Vegas and the darker, seedier side of that town in the modern age, partially inspired by Hunter S. Thompson's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. At this point, I threw up my hands helplessly and went into this album expecting a deranged, cacophonous mess, but hopefully one with some great songs and interesting ideas. Did Panic! At The Disco's Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die! succeed?

Heh. Well, that's a tricky question, because there is a lot going on with this Panic! At The Disco album, and not just because the band decided to pull yet another stylistic shift. In fact, I would not be surprised if this album was the breaking point for the majority of whatever fanbase is left for this band, the point where they'll throw their hands into the air, yell 'Screw it', and consign this album to the trash. I'm here to tell you that you might want to rethink that, because if you can get into the right headspace with Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die, you're probably going to find the same band you fell in love with all along who have delivered yet another incredibly strong album.

Let me make this clear right out of the gates: there are issues with this album, namely the first four songs are not very strong, with the worst point being 'Girl That You Love' - and since the label has been picking Panic! At The Disco singles, they of course picked the first two songs of the album, 'This Is Gospel' and 'Ms. Jackson'. And really, while I don't think either song is great, they do set the tone of the entire album: overloaded bombast, exaggerated highs and lows, and a seething undercurrent of darkness beneath the surprisingly danceable electro-rock music. It's also here where we find two elements that will alienate people: the overproduction and the autotune. The former is a lot less excusable, and it's the same problem that afflicted Fall Out Boy's album Save Rock and Roll this year: the mix is just overstuffed with so much electronic elements that the guitars or any semblance of organic instrumentation is buried and buried deep. You could argue this is part of the point - obscuring reality with all manner of flash and glitz, but it makes for many songs that feel more than a little overwhelming, with blasts of noisy, fuzz-saturated synths and pounding, cacophonous heavy beats. It's definitely rougher around the edges than Vices & Virtues in this respect, and I can definitely see why some people would consider this a simplification and a step backwards.

The funny thing is that all of the intricate melodies, they're still there and they're still compelling, and the surprising fact is that a lot of the instrumental experimentation is there too - it's just the influence is less late-60s Brian Wilson and more 80s electronic synthpop, driven primarily by synthesizers with the guitars lurking in the back and just waiting for the right points to explode all over the place (which they do a few times - would prefer more here). There are definitely points on this album that sound reminiscent of the most recent Killers album from last year, Battle Born, but while that album was hyper-earnest and was going for over-the-top in a campier sort of way, Panic! At The Disco is a lot more melancholy under the surface - if there's going to be love found on the dance floor with this album, it'll be passionate but fleeting, and likely drug-induced. 

This is where the autotune comes in - it's all over this album, at many points arguably for no good reason, because there are points on this album where the raw power of Brandon Urie's voice could suffice on its own. But I'm going to defend it here because the autotune reflects part of the band's message - like with Kanye's 808s & Heartbreak (which is still my favourite Kanye West album, for the record), it reflects Urie's attempted separation from the reality of his own feelings. He's trying to pull himself away from his admittedly powerful emotions and just go along for the shallow ride - until the Autotune drops out to reveal the real passion underneath, and the juxtaposition is what gives the songs a surprising amount of weight you wouldn't expect from dance-party synth-driven electronic rock.

Indeed, that's part of the point, and here's where we get to the lyrics and theme. As with previous Panic! At The Disco albums, the thematic throughline is pretty loose, but the intention is clear: they're trying to revel in the decadent excess of Vegas, with its quick hookups and wild partying - except he can't emotionally detach and he's smart enough to recognize shallow decadence for what it is. Thus, the album ends up attempting to be two things: a shallow, hard-partying dance record and an anti-party album for those who are smart enough to clue into the message. In the first element, it works just fine - the songs are catchy and have some pretty fantastic hooks (particularly through the second half of the album), but it's the second element, the anti-party message, that opts to be more subtle and thus I don't think entirely sticks the landing. Sure, the escalation of melancholic awareness builds throughout the album - and thus it's no surprise the album ends on a heartfelt piano ballad - but there are points that are a little harder to reconcile. Take 'Ms. Jackson', for instance, a song attempting to address the double standard between guys and girls sleeping around, and I don't think it completely sticks the landing, mostly because it's a little too accusatory (even though it appropriately paints the narrator as the real problem). 

This comes to the technical songwriting, which - to be completely honest - isn't totally up to the task of handling the dichotomy they're looking to pursue with this album. Sure, the delivery and the production is there, and at some points, the songwriting gets tantalizingly close to the right place, but it's inconsistent in its detail and lacks the richer nuance that informs acts like Lorde's anti-party record Pure Heroine. That being said, I can't help but feel that the raw simplicity of the band's message does execute pretty damn well and does have a more satisfying conclusion in the end - sincere affection wins out over the gloss, and while there's autotune in the final song, it only accentuates the passion in the vocal delivery. And as depressing and dark as this album can get - it's probably the band's 'darkest' album to date' - it does end on a high note that really resonated with me. It's clear that Panic! At The Disco are much better performers and composers than nuanced songwriters, and like with Vices & Virtues, they land more hits than misses by playing to that strength.

So, in the end, I definitely do recommend Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die! by Panic! At The Disco. If you're looking for a fun, modern, raucous dance record and don't care about the lyrics, you're going to love the high-energy bombast and great hooks, particularly of the second half of this album (starting with 'Nicotine' and pretty much for the next four songs). If you're hunting for another lyrically evocative Panic! At The Disco album, I don't quite think this album lands the massive smash singles of Vices & Virtues, but it does manage to capture an effective emotional landing, and if you're looking for an album that both revels in and transcends the party, Panic! At The Disco does a shockingly good job. I'm going to give this album a solid 8/10 and a fair warning to any fans of the band: it's another stylistic shift, and it won't be for everyone - but then again, by now, you should be used to that.

So check out Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die by Panic! At The Disco. I'm serious here - it might just surprise you.

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