Given the radical changes that Panic at the Disco has made to its image during the course of the last year, it's hard not to read the lyrics to its new album's opening song as a pre-emptive strike aga
Given the radical changes that Panic at the Disco has made to its image during the course of the last year, it's hard not to read the lyrics to its new album's opening song as a pre-emptive strike against critics.
"Oh, how it's been so long/we're so sorry we've been gone/we were busy writing songs/for you," bassist Jon Walker sings, by way of apology for the two-and-a-half-year lag between 2005's "A Fever You Can't Sweat Out" and the new "Pretty. Odd.," due March 25 via Fueled by Ramen/Atlantic. Then, he launches into lines meant to comfort fans who have no doubt noticed their favorite band now looks less like Queen and more like the Kinks: "You don't have to worry 'cause we're still the same band."
Lyricist/guitarist Ryan Ross describes the song as "a lighthearted way to make an important statement." But despite Ross' insistence that things in Panic-land are business as usual, the fact is, a number of things have changed since the band burst on the scene in 2005, resplendent in layers of makeup and surrounded by circus performers.
The band shed one member (bassist Brent Wilson) and replaced him with Walker. The members traded their Hedi Slimane-style black suits for vests, cravats and floral patterns.
And perhaps most crucially, they toned down the bombastic, glammy sound of their first record, replacing it with a stripped-down approach that, at times, recalls the Beatles and Bright Eyes.
But it was that bombastic, glammy sound that made them stars in the first place. And with Panic at the Disco's history being so tied to it, will it be easy to shed?
At first, the band took its time promoting their debut, moving 4,000 copies per week while shooting its first video, for the song "I Write Sins Not Tragedies." That clip, an over-the-top production that featured the Lucent Dossier Vaudeville Cirque, premiered January 2006 on MTV's "TRL" and launched them into the national consciousness. For the remainder of 2006, the band was a road dog, selling out theaters before embarking on an arena tour. The accompanying stage sets and visuals were splashy and intricate; shows featured ballerinas and acrobats, while Panic's members went through so much makeup that MAC Cosmetics offered to set them up with a supply of eyeliner in exchange for an endorsement.
They released a series of big-budget videos, again depicting the members as something straight out of the Moulin Rouge, culminating in the band taking home MTV's video of the year award for "Sins" in 2006. Two months prior, "Fever" had peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, before being certified platinum a month later. To date, it has sold 1.7 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
After its banner year in 2006, Panic retreated to a cabin in the woods in early 2007 to begin work on its follow-up. Ross describes the initial effort as "a short story set to music. I was mostly working on it by myself, and while the other guys liked it, it wasn't as good as I wanted it to be."
Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz, who discovered the band, signed them to his imprint and describes his role in the band's development as "Obi-Wan living in the desert," says he heard the lost record and that it sounded like "a bizarre musical about wolves. It felt a bit forced."
The death of that project, Ross says, "gave me a lot of insight. It became easier to move forward after that was done." Ross adopted the Beatles as his new role models for the next take on the second Panic album. "They weren't afraid to try things and do what they wanted to do," he says.
"We wanted to grow, and we were really over the circus theme at that point," he continues. "We went out in the woods and got new clothes and all grew beards. Jon and [frontman] Brendon [Urie] wrote songs for the record, and it became more of a band effort and less about me."
In the summer of 2007, Panic took the opportunity to try out new songs, performing them at several festivals around Europe. For a band whose garish live show had been its staple, it also took a risk by performing, as Wentz puts it, "wearing flannel shirts and jeans. They looked like they were coming out to do covers of the Band."
If performing looking like Pearl Jam circa 1993 was the band's first airing of its new self, then the next act represented the group throwing down the gauntlet. After two years of being officially known as "Panic! at the Disco," the band removed the exclamation point from its name.
"We ruined a lot of MySpace names with that move," Urie says sarcastically. "You look silly now if your MySpace name is John! At The Disco."
The fans who haunt the band's MySpace and Facebook pages noticed the change and took to the forums to engage in some grammatically incorrect debates, with an even split between those calling the band a sellout and those writing the minor change off as harmless.
For the band, at least, the decision was seeped in meaning. "Dropping the exclamation point was our way of drawing a line in the sand," Ross says. "We have a new record and we feel like a new band. We were all tired of it, and we went ahead and got rid of it."
The "Pretty. Odd." campaign kicked into high gear Dec. 11, shortly after Billboard announced the release date of the new record. A series of puzzles began to appear on the band's Web site, with the solution to the first being, "You don't have to worry." A second puzzle revealed samples from a song on the upcoming album, and the third led to a blog entry on MySpace, which updated the progress of the album and offered a rough version of the song "We're So Starving." Then came roll-out of the poppy single "Nine In the Afternoon," which has been climbing on the Hot 100 since debuting there six weeks ago.
"It's important for us to reinvent our sound and our visual," Urie says. "We were really young when we wrote the first record, and that teenage angst paid off well. But we are happy with the music and with the place we are in. In a weird way, this feels like another first record."