Where other bands may have folded under the stress of so many lineup changes, Panic! at the Disco has not–in fact, the Vegas rock outfit is stronger than ever. After releasing four albums with slightly different lineups every time, Panic! became a one-man outfit with lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Brendon Urie at the helm for 2016’s Death of a Bachelor. This proved to be Panic!’s most successful era yet; Death of a Bachelor debuted at #1 on the Billboard chart and earned Urie his first Grammy nomination for Best Rock Album. After nonstop promotion, touring, and a stint as the lead in Broadway’s Kinky Boots, Urie was ready for a break–or so he thought.
Low-key collaborations with friends at his home studio resulted in the unexpected Pray for the Wicked, Panic! at the Disco’s sixth studio album and second with this one-man lineup–the first time that Panic! has had the same lineup for two consecutive albums. Where Death of a Bachelor closed a chapter on Urie’s life, Pray for the Wicked opens a new one; within the tracks, Urie looks back on what he’s accomplished thus far and celebrates his newfound artistic freedom with a fresh sound, shying away from guitar-driven rock in favor of Big Band-style horns and electronic production.
The song that bridges Panic!’s older fare to the new is the album’s lead single, “Say Amen (Saturday Night).” While most of the album is characterized by either joyful exuberance or a contemplative bent, “Say Amen (Saturday Night)” has a darker, sexier sound than the rest of the album. The track is the most rock found on the album, though what truly drives it is the strong horns section. Lyrically, Urie is once again playing around with his connection to religion, having been raised in a Mormon household, a trend he started with Pretty. Odd.’s “I Have Friends in Holy Spaces.” With lyrics like, “I pray for the wicked on the weekend/Mama can I get another Amen/I swear to God I ain’t ever gonna repent/Mama can I get another Amen,” Urie’s stance is clear; he’s not heading back to the faith anytime soon.
In looking back at the band’s tenure, Pray for the Wicked ends up exploring Urie’s relationship to the music business–for better or worse. The wry “Hey Look Ma I Made It” addresses his parents’ past fears about his uncertain profession with sassy, outrageous references (“Cause I’m a hooker selling songs/And my pimp’s a record label/The world is full of demons/Stocks and bonds and Bible traders”), while the heartfelt “High Hopes” explores the hardships and dedication of Urie’s younger self with an honest exuberance. “I spent too long not setting my expectations high enough, worried about how it felt to fail. I hit a point when I realized I had to aim high and fail, fail, fail in order to keep growing. This one is for all of you who helped me go for it all. I thank you,” Urie explained via Instagram upon the song’s release. Urie drops some of his signature swagger and humor on such tracks, opting for an honest, sincere approach.
The album’s serious, genuine moments are balanced out by a good dose of Urie’s usual theatrics. Panic! at the Disco has always had a flair for the dramatic, from their pop-emo roots on A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out to the dark glam rock of 2013’s Too Weird to Live Too Rare to Die and 2016’s Death of a Bachelor. With this new album, Kinky Boots’s effect on Urie is quite evident, taking his usual theatrics to a new height. What results is a vivacious, cinematic album full of songs worthy of their own Broadway show. The grandiose “Roaring 20s,” which bids goodbye to Urie’s more chaotic twenty-something lifestyle, and the Michael Jackson-inspired “Dancing’s Not a Crime” belong on a musical stage. The frenetic chase of “The Overpass” is the perfect song to play over a montage for a heist movie, while the sweeping album closer “Dying in L.A.” sounds like it could be the next big Disney ballad–despite it being about the pain of struggling to achieve dreams in Los Angeles.
There’s a lot of good to be found, though Pray for the Wicked isn’t without its flaws. While the latest album isn’t that much shorter than Panic! at the Disco’s other albums–in fact, Too Weird to Live Too Rare to Die is actually shorter–it does feel short, clocking in at just under 35 minutes. This is partly due to some of the more repetitive choruses, like the ones found in “Dancing’s Not a Crime” or “One of the Drunks,” and the instrumentation on the album. While using more horns and electronic beats adds a welcome layer to Panic! at the Disco’s sound, adding another guitar-driven tracks would have made the second part of the album more dynamic and distinct.
Overall, Pray for the Wicked is another worthwhile contribution to the Panic! at the Disco discography, though maybe not the one that’s expected after Death of a Bachelor. Urie’s trademark theatricality, strong vocals, and confidence are all present, though mixed with a newfound maturity and vulnerability as the songs take an introspective turn. Urie’s willingness to experiment and challenge himself as a songwriter always makes for a good listening experience, if not perfect–and consistently proves his potential as an artist. As he sings, “They say it’s all been done but they haven’t seen the best of me.”