Monday, January 18, 2016

album review: 'death of a bachelor' by panic! at the disco

I'm going to admit right out of the gate I was worried about this album.

And really, that's something you could have said about every Panic! At The Disco album from their sophomore album onwards, especially as a fan. Their first record may have fit reasonably easy within the overwritten theatrical framework of emo-tinged pop rock, but just like their closest parallel in Marianas Trench, Panic! At The Disco had bigger ambitions, with their second album being an attempt to fuse in 60s-inspired psychedelic pop that won them a lot of well-deserved critical acclaim but also alienated a significant tract of their fanbase, especially when pop music was going in a very different direction at the time. So when they tried to pivot back with the underrated Vices & Virtues towards a simpler, more accessible template, they might have won back some of that crowd but at the cost of their primary songwriter and guitarist Ryan Ross, who left along with the bassist. Now to frontman Brendon Urie's credit, he did manage to work with drummer Spencer Smith for that album and their 2013 album Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die! - which again was another hard genre shift, this time towards much more electronic synthpop, which I'd argue they pulled off pretty damn well - but when I heard that he had left as well, I had the sinking feeling that Brendon Urie's attempt to carry the name forward with session players and minus producer Butch Walker smacked of desperation.

And thus can anyone blame me for being cautious when I started hearing mixed buzz about Death Of A Bachelor, primarily written, composed, performed, and produced by Brendon Urie himself? While there have been critics - including myself - who have made the Brian Wilson comparison to Urie for his genre-bending brand of pop and knack for heartfelt hooks, this was starting to look a lot more like a frontman who had alienated his entire band away and was trying to push his unique solo vision - which in this case was described as 'Queen meets Sinatra'. And look, I like bombast, I love pop music with ambition to go for pompous pretentiousness and the heart to make it rise above it - there's a reason Marianas Trench's Astoria was my favourite record of 2015, also the brainchild of a genius pop frontman, songwriter, and producer in Josh Ramsay - but at the end of the day Marianas Trench was still a band that always had a strong foundational sound, whereas Panic! At The Disco is a glorified solo project that even at their best was rarely consistent. But hey, I'll give him credit for somehow pushing this past the label to market - clearly somebody had enough faith to put money behind it, even if it is being dropped in mid-January, so how did Death Of A Bachelor turn out?

Well, you can all relax a bit, it wasn't the catastrophe I was expecting - but it most certainly is desperate. However, this desperation is intentional - start digging into this record and you realize that Death Of A Bachelor is very much a transitional record, with Brendon Urie finally dealing with his past and build a fresh direction. And I'll give him points for getting close to making it work... but if I'm being completely honest, this record gave me a headache every time I tried listening through it, and the more I think about it, the less I like it. Yeah, there's a baseline of quality that comes with a Panic! At The Disco album, but this is Brendon Urie's weakest project to date, and probably the album I'm least likely to recommend.

So before you all lynch me here, let me try to explain why this record isn't really working as well as I'd like, and the best place to start is Brendon Urie. I'll give him points for having huge pipes that take centre stage on this record, and you can tell he's working his ass off - sure, he's not Freddie Mercury or Josh Ramsay, but he's got charisma, stage presence, and personality, and he's making it work to his advantage on big, brassy, theatrical songs. More than ever, this album calls back to Panic! At This Disco's first record in its vaudeville-esque, borderline camp approach to pop music, and Brendon Urie can pull it off... but that's not the only thing he's trying to do, because remember when I said he described this record as 'Queen meets Sinatra'. Yeah, it's the latter case where this record really suffers, and it's entirely an issue of delivery - like Frank Sinatra or not, he was the sort of performer who coasted by pipes and charisma, but also on a brand of retro, old-school cool that didn't have to care. This album, like most emo-tinged records, cares way too much, and no matter how many self-deprecating winks Urie might make at the audience, the raw earnest sincerity means he can't pull off that sort of cool.

Granted, the instrumentation and production really doesn't help, and I'm trying to find the best way to describe this. Panic! At The Disco albums have always been messy on this front, but Death Of A Bachelor has more lurching tonal shifts than ever before, from a stab at gospel swell on 'Hallelujah' to overblown gothic camp on 'Emperor's New Clothes' to the title track that's trying to blend modern snap percussion with smooth jazz horns to the outright swing number of 'Crazy=Genius'. And sure, these moments are unique - you're not going to forget this album any time soon - how well they're executed is a very different story, and a big issue is production. I'm not going to mince words, I'm not a fan of the production on these tracks mostly because in their haste to go for bombast and excess, the foundation is severely neglected, with the basslines and kickdrums being drowned out in blasts of horns, multi-tracking and cymbals, to the point where even the guitars themselves are rarely given a chance to drive any groove. And that's one of the reasons why these tracks feeling so damn busy and overstuffed with synth fragments and staccato piano lines and pitch-shifted vocals can get on my nerves, as the jarring tonal shifts mean that this record rarely builds a sense of flow. And that's not saying there aren't moments I like - even though the 'Rock Lobster' sample on 'Don't Threaten Me With A Good Time' is a pretty clear imitation of what Fall Out Boy did with 'Uma Thurman' and the Munsters theme, it's a damn great surf rock lick that fits the unhinged party of the song. And I like 'Crazy=Genius' as a swing number and 'LA Devotee' as the one song that might have come from the same creative DNA as Vices & Virtues, even if the key change doesn't quite hit as hard as I'd like. And then there's the darker vibe of 'House Of Memories' with the piano and the warping synth line - there's more depth to the song instrumentally, it takes its time a little better - and that leads to the other thing, in that for as overstuffed as this record is, you'd think it'd slow down and spread things out a bit more, but with the exception of the title track and the final song 'Impossible Year', this album doesn't really take a breath, which means even its short running time can be tough to get through.

But look, what so many come to Panic! At The Disco for is lyrics and themes, so what do we get out of Death Of A Bachelor? Well, it's transitional - and I mean that thematically, as Brendon Urie is singing about the shift from the wild parties to settling down along with adjusting to being the solitary consistent member of his band, both of which he doesn't seem to accept all that well. You get the impression he likes the hyper-lurid, bacchanalian parties so much more simply because of the detail he pours into the writing, along with the underlying commentary on songs like 'Crazy=Genius' that the woman he loves sees right through it to the more normal guy underneath, and that crazy doesn't always translate to genius - or if it does, it's self-destructive. And hell, these moments of self-aware commentary on the party are what made his last album work so well, so why aren't they resonating as well here? Well, part of it is tone - I get the impression from songs like 'The Good, The Bad, and The Dirty' that Urie's almost looking for a fight as the drama fades away, and while he has contempt for the toxic culture of celebrity in Hollywood, it's not like you can't go through this album or the band's entire discography and find some of their best material entrenched in that shallow theatricality, subverting it just by being smarter. This album doesn't really go there - as much as I like 'LA Devotee', it's more accusatory than anything, which doesn't ring all that well given their entire last album. But then again, I get why it's here - Urie's looking at settling down and whether it and the legacy he leaves behind will be worth remembering, like on the title track and especially 'House Of Memories' and 'Golden Days', the latter of which has him literally going through old polaroids of other rock stars who got married. And the framing does have nuance in showing how it'll ultimately be more fulfilling in marriage and creatively rewarding working on his own but whether he'll miss the easier high... which makes the final song 'Impossible Year' a really jarring shift. This is because the song isn't particularly melancholy but is paired with lyrics implying Urie's gone through a hell of a year and how there's no 'you and me' anymore - and yes, I'm fairly certain he's not talking about his relationship but how he's the last member of his band, but it's a very morose turn for this record that instrumentally just kind of sputters out. And yeah, I get that this record is more focused on dealing with pain and insecurities than brushing them aside, but you get the impression by the last few tracks that time has softened the pain and he's come to something of a resolution, only for that to go out the window on the last song.

And really, that's kind of this record in a nutshell - it's trying so hard to hammer on memorable bombast and legacy, building a new future and reconciling with the past - and yet it feels hollow for it, and really hasn't dealt with anything. Instead, the veneers are piled on so heavy and thick that it's hard not to see it all as caricature, and not a flattering one, loud and braying and messy and ultimately a lot thinner than it should be. And look, I can see why some fans will like this album - there's a foundation for good pop songs here, and we do get some - but for me it's a 6/10 and only a recommendation if you are a fan. If not and you still want a taste of bombastic pop rock, check out Astoria by Marianas Trench - it's just as over-the-top, but there's more to it than this.

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