Photo Credit: Alex Stoddard
Formed in 2004 as a quartet, Panic! At The Disco became the solo act of Brendon Urie in 2015. The move caused immediate skepticism, but as a soloist, Urie has scaled heights that have surprised even his biggest critics. 2016’s Death of a Bachelor, while receiving the usual mixed critical reception for a Panic! album assured fans; who greeted it with rapture. 2018’s Pray For The Wicked, alternately, alienated many core fans but saw unexpected commercial success for a project now in its fourth year. “High Hopes” became inescapable – added to adverts, covered on talent shows, and even soundtracking presidential campaigns.
Viva Las Vengeance feels like the moment at which the facade – that which always seemed too good to be true – bursts. Conceived as a grand rock opera, it’s filled with facile writing, poor vocals, and boundless unearned confidence. On nearly every track, Urie reaches for uncomfortable high notes that turn merely mediocre songs into unlistenable ones. The overzealous arrangements – which come across like a poor Queen pastiche – only make matters worse; heightening a sense of claustrophobia in these songs.
The too-muchness of Viva Las Vengeance may have been justifiable if the story-telling was compelling, but instead, Urie persistently reduces compelling ideas down to their crudest forms. “Local God” – seemingly a tribute to former bandmate Ryan Ross – quickly descends into mindless repetitions of the titular phrase, while a deeply clumsy reference to self-harm pops up on “Something About Maggie.” Nowhere is the catastrophic drop in lyrical quality illustrated more clearly than on “Sad Clown” – a song every bit as cloying as its title suggests. “I thought that I had friends, I thought I even liked them // But now I’m thinking maybe not so much,” Urie sings without a hint of irony. There’s such a stark, unforgiving contrast between this and the quality of songwriting provided on Panic’s best songs, like 2008’s “That Green Gentleman.”
With an album like Viva Las Vengeance – one that isn’t just a mess, but is such a loud and unsubtle mess – there’s a tendency, perhaps born out of pity, to search the wreckage for redeeming qualities. Look close enough, and they’re there… sort of. Though overblown, “Don’t Let The Light Go Out” represents one of the few moments where heartbreak is convincingly portrayed. In what is surely the album’s most incisive moment, Urie cries “You’re the only one that knows how to operate // My heavy machinery.” It works because it’s one of the LP’s only self-aware moments – where Urie recognizes and leans into his own awkwardness.
“Star Spangled Banner,” meanwhile, channels classic rock charm a la Springsteen, as Urie attempts to create an anthem for a misunderstood and struggling generation. It includes a very-unearned claim that Panic! is the “new Dead Kennedys” and is cliched and heavy-handed to such an extent that it may be a deal breaker for many (“ln the land of the brave // Home of the freaks!”). But hasn’t there always been this tendency in Panic’s music – after all, their breakout hit’s refrain was “haven’t you people ever heard of // Closing a goddamn door?!”
In fleeting moments across Viva Las Vengeance, one can feel themselves succumbing to Urie’s enthusiasm and to the nostalgic charm of the backwards-looking music. But, it’s never long until a lyric emerges that is so clunky – or a vocal that is so excruciating – that one can no longer look past the album’s flaws. In these moments, there’s no hiding from the truth of Panic’s terrific decline in artistic quality.