When Panic! At The Disco released A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out in 2005, it was a breath of fresh air to the alternative/emo/pop-punk scene that was spilling into the mainstream. Fever was a rock record that also felt like a work of theater, carnival sideshows and electronica, but what’s most incredible is P!ATD couldn’t follow it up for another decade. Pretty Odd, the group’s last record with all four founding members, was a brilliant work of Beatles fetishism that couldn’t appeal to a large part of the fanbase. Vices & Virtues felt like Fever lite. Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die served as an enjoyable transition to 2016’s Death of a Bachelor, an album that may be the group’s best and the only one that feels as fully realized as Fever. Bachelor was the group’s most exhilarating release in over a decade, and that leads to why Pray for the Wicked is such a profound disappointment. It’s a transitionary record for what may well be the wrong direction.
The issue Brendon Urie faces is that he walks a strange line between being a popstar and one of the last rockstars. Panic! have been influential on modern popstars like Halsey, and Urie retains a spotlight from fans that may not have even have developed a sense of consciousness when Fever was released. That being said, where Too Weird/Too Rare was an entrance for the dark pop rock of Bachelor this feels like an exit seeking more glamor. The album’s highlights are sugary sweet, but that doesn’t help that the majority of the record sounds like it was songs that were cut from Bachelor. The crime-scene pop rock of “The Overpass” is just a touch too bright for the band that used to bank on Chuck Pahlaniuk references, but “One of the Drunks” sounds like it just was left on the cutting room floor for that record. “Dancing’s Not a Crime” sounds like it would fit for Panic! to have released on a soundtrack for a Hangover-esque action-comedy set in Vegas. “Roaring 20s” sounds like it’s a song that Urie wishes he could’ve written for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, which sets a tone for the album as a whole.
Urie has laid into his idealization for the roaring twenties and Sinatra, but Pray for the Wicked sounds like the equivalent of someone who constantly says, “I was born in the wrong generation.” The beats are modern, boring, and have horns added to make up for their lack of personality. This record sounds like every person you went to high school with who is trying to make it as a musician yet isn’t really making any headway. It’s a pop record that doesn’t take any risks. It’s supposed to be a modernized version of classic pop music, but it lacks any qualities that make those songs enjoyable. Urie relies too heavily on references without worrying if they make sense. He pointlessly calls out pop culture references (Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Edgar Allen Poe, etc.), but constantly references pop greats doesn’t create one. It sounds like pandering to the angsty teenagers who have grown up since “I Constantly Thank God For Esteban.”
The album does show Urie’s potential to be a popstar, and if the next record is a full on pop album, it will probably be fun. “(Fuck A) Silver Lining” and “High Hopes” have elements of luxury rap that make them perfect feelgood summer songs, save for a cringe-worthy Manifest Destiny shout-out. “Say Amen (Saturday Night)” sounds like a continuation of Death of a Bachelor, but one that would’ve actually fit on the album. The most telling song though is the immensely fun “Hey Look Ma, I Made It.” “Hey Look Ma” would sound just as at home on Charlie Puth’s brilliant Voicenotes, and Urie is a powerhouse vocalist that can deliver this sort of anthem. It does feel a little late since P!ATD did make it over ten years ago, but it works so well since Panic! is having a bit of a renaissance period.
While Pray for the Wicked just shows off Urie’s range as a singer, it seems half-hearted. The best songs would be hits for any pop star, but the album as whole is mostly comprised of filler that Urie should’ve taken more time to flesh out. The album is as by the books as it could be, down to the piano ballad closer, “Dying in LA.” Horns don’t make great pop songs, personality does. Urie seems to have drained most of his persona in favor of shouting out “The Telltale Heart,” but the next Panic! At The Disco album may feel the most like a Brendon Urie solo album more than the past two.