Ten Years Ago, Panic at the Disco Took a 'Pretty' Big Risk With Their Second Studio Album
The band’s psychedelic sophomore effort failed to connect with their pop-punk fan base — but it established a precedent for the rest of their career.
The absent exclamation point said it all. By 2008, Panic! at the Disco had become one of pop-punk’s youngest and most meteoric success stories, having gone platinum with their 2005 debut, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, a collection of verbose, vaudevillian dance-punk anthems crystalized by the Top 10 hit, “I Write Sins Not Tragedies.”
Fever turned the four scrappy Las Vegas teenagers into a must-see arena act and put them on the cover of Rolling Stone -- one month before Fall Out Boy, whose bassist, Pete Wentz, initially signed the band to his own Decadence Records, did the same. But critics were less impressed: In his infamous Pitchfork review, Cory D. Byrom gave Fever a 1.5 out of 10, calling it a “steaming pile of garbage” that had “no sincerity, creativity, or originality.”
Platinum albums and massive tours weren’t enough for Panic!; they wanted respect. So on their sophomore album, Pretty. Odd. -- which turns ten this week (Mar. 25) -- they did what nearly all 20-year-old white dudes who want to flaunt their newfound musical “maturity” do: They ditched the drum machines and Chuck Palahniuk novels for Beatles and Beach Boys LPs (or, more likely, Limewire downloads) and set out to make an album inspired by the sounds of their parents’ generation, as the newly punctuation-free Panic at the Disco.
Did it work? Well, yes and no. Pretty. Odd. debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 with 139,000 copies sold, but it quickly tumbled down the charts and ultimately struggled to go gold, yielding only one moderately successful single, “Nine in the Afternoon,” which last month was certified double platinum by the RIAA. The stylistic overhaul proved too much for fans to swallow at the time, and a decade after its release, Panic at the Disco’s psych-pop excursion remains an oft-forgotten gem in their discography.
If Pretty. Odd. failed to connect with listeners, it’s not for a lack of trying. Panic takes a brazen swipe at The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with the self-referential intro track, “We’re So Starving,” on which they falsely declare, “You don’t have to worry ‘cause we’re still the same band,” before segueing into the ELO-esque “Nine in the Afternoon,” arguably the album’s most immediately catchy song and a welcome reprieve from Fever’s theatrical melodrama. (It’s probably not a coincidence that the remarkably British-sounding tune is their highest-charting U.K. single to date, hitting No. 13 across the pond.)
Elsewhere, “She’s a Handsome Woman” and “The Green Gentleman (Things Have Changed)” brim with crunchy guitar licks and gleefully nonsensical lyrics, while “I Have Friends in Holy Spaces” and “Folkin’ Around” allowed singer Brendon Urie to try his hand at pastoral acoustic folk romps. The album’s centerpiece is the transcendent “When the Day Met the Night,” which, with its lush orchestration and ebullient choruses, makes for a fine approximation of The Beach Boys’ hallowed pocket symphony, “Good Vibrations.”
Some critics dismissed these classic rock affectations as calculated and self-serious, like musical dress-up from a band well-versed in theatricality. But it’s hard to fault Panic at the Disco for so earnestly trying to replicate the sounds of a bygone era when the band members were barely in their 20s while recording the album. Much of Pretty. Odd.’s charm lies in its youthful exuberance and utter lack of cynicism, and it likely served as a gateway into psychedelic rock and baroque pop for fans who actually gave the record a chance. Unfortunately, far fewer of them were willing to do so than had devoured Fever three years earlier.
Panic at the Disco weren’t the first alt-rock stars of their era to attempt a drastic reinvention. My Chemical Romance traded the blood-and-mascara post-hardcore of 2004’s Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge for Queen-like classic rock bombast on their 2006 rock opera, The Black Parade; Fall Out Boy peppered their pop-punk canvas with elements of R&B, soul and flamenco on 2007’s Infinity on High; The Killers ditched the sugary glam-pop of their 2004 debut, Hot Fuss, for rugged heartland rock on their 2006 sophomore effort, Sam’s Town. But these evolutions were often fairly logical progressions that could be traced across albums, whereas Panic’s psych-pop foray came almost entirely out of left field. Kids entrenched in mid-2000s emo and pop-punk were understandably reluctant to watch the band trade their circus costumes and eyeliner for paisley shirts and mop-top haircuts.
Technically speaking, Panic hadn’t quite grown into their new aesthetic yet either. Pretty. Odd. proved much more demanding to play live, and videos from the ensuing tour show Urie struggling to find a more nuanced vocal approach, awkwardly saddled behind a rhythm guitar that stifled his charisma as a frontman. The band reworked Fever songs to make them fit in more with Pretty. Odd. material, but these earthen renditions stripped them of their luster and made the whole set lag.
In 2009, guitarist and chief songwriter Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker left Panic at the Disco to form the similarly classic rock-inspired Young Veins, and Urie assumed main songwriting duties alongside drummer Spencer Smith, as well as outside producers John Feldmann and Butch Walker. The band reintroduced the exclamation point and returned to their theatrical pop-rock roots on 2011’s Vices & Virtues, and promptly rid their live set of almost all Pretty. Odd. songs. These days, Urie is the sole official member of Panic, and the only in-concert evidence of his psychedelic days is “Nine in the Afternoon,” which had remained a setlist staple for the past decade thanks to its simple, buoyant melody and effortlessly catchy chorus -- though it has yet to appear on the band's recently commenced Pray for the Wicked tour. (Urie did, however, give a shout-out to Pretty. Odd. and his former bandmates at an intimate Milwaukee show on Sunday, the album’s official anniversary date.)
Brendon’s toast to Pretty.Odd. tonight in Milwaukee! pic.twitter.com/9NIBSvP7vA— Panic! Updating (@panicupdating) March 26, 2018
For a band that’s staked a decade-plus career on constant reinvention, it’s a little disheartening to see current-day Panic! at the Disco distance themselves from their greatest musical departure. As a renewed chart-topping artist capable of selling out arenas around the world, Urie surely has the resources and talent to incorporate some Pretty. Odd. tracks back into his setlist. Surely diehard fans would jump at the opportunity to hear a fleshed-out version of “When the Day Met the Night” or an intimate, acoustic rendition of the plaintive ballad “Northern Downpour.”
Pretty. Odd. may have underwhelmed commercially, but that’s not to say the effort was in vain. It established Panic as a band willing to take great creative risks and allowed its members to get the classic rock bug out of their systems. Subsequently, when Urie took over songwriting duties on Vices & Virtues, he was free to reshape the band according to his own glitzy, theatrical pop-rock vision.
As many of his pop-punk peers fell by the wayside in the 2010s, Urie clawed his way back to the top of the charts by incorporating elements of hip-hop, electronica and Sinatra into the group’s sound, the latter of which can be heard all over their chart-topping, explosive fifth album, Death of a Bachelor. Panic! at the Disco were simply the wrong band at the wrong time to attempt a revamp as dramatic as Pretty. Odd., but 10 years later, it sounds like an album that could enchant a new wave of listeners for the first time.