To say that Panic! at the Disco embraces change might read like a bit of an understatement. The pop rock outfit, originally a Las Vegas-born four-man band, has gone through a few different lineups before becoming Brendon Urie’s solo project in 2015.
Throughout the different lineups, Panic! embraced a myriad of musical stylings–the emo-pop, burlesque-fueled days of A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, the baroque pop of the Beatles-esque Pretty. Odd., the dark glam of the Vegas-inspired Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!, and the Sinatra lounge act found on Death of a Bachelor, to name a few. Throughout all of image, influence, and musical shifting, there have been several constants to Panic!’s work–bold showmanship, clever wordplay, and an impressive display of Urie’s vocal range.
Viva Las Vengeance, Panic!’s seventh album and first album in over four years, is no exception to this. Drawing inspiration from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, Viva Las Vengeance features Urie’s signature vocals, Queen-esque choral harmonies, and the big sound associated with stadium stompers and Broadway Act closers. The retro theme of the album fits the theme well; the songs are about Urie’s almost twenty year relationship with the highs and lows of fame, calling back to his teenage years in the early days of Panic! and ruminating on love, criticism, and burnout. The storytelling quality of these songs calls to mind classic tracks like Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” or Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” painting a nostalgic picture.
The album opens on title track and first single “Viva Las Vengeance,” setting a frantic pace and establishing these themes of fame, criticism, and burnout. The driving force of the song is the repeated command of the “Shut up and go to bed” messaging that served as the album’s original teaser. Second single “Middle of a Breakup” returns to a common Panic! metaphor, comparing a toxic relationship to an addiction and establishing that retro inspiration. Third single “Don’t Let the Light Go Out” is an intense, almost eerie love song that continues the retro feel and calls to mind songs like Wayne Cochran’s “Last Kiss” (famously covered by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers and Pearl Jam) and even The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night.”
Highlights on the album include “Local God,” a commentary on how Panic!’s contemporaries felt about the band’s quick, unconventional rise to popularity back in the early aughts. Heavily rumored to specifically be about Ryan Ross, one of Panic!’s founding members who left the band back in 2009, the song asserts “Local god/You’ll live forever as a local god/It’s even better than the thing you’re not/Local god/Local god/You’ll live forever as a local god/You’ll be remember for the thing you’re not.” The message is a bit more complicated than the likes of Death of a Bachelor’s “Emperor’s New Clothes,” establishing that success looks different to different people. “Say It Louder” is a motivational classic rock-inspired track about not letting the bastards get you down. The chorus kicks off with “Hey kids, legends and gods/Give them applause/We made it against all odds” and sidesteps cheesiness with its intensity and guitar backing. “Sugar Soaker” is a sexy classic rock track with plenty of allusions to drugs and cars that serves as a fun note in the middle of the album.
While the album is ostensibly an ode to the rock that came before Panic!, there’s also a significant amount of Broadway influence here. The anthemic “Star Spangled Banger” celebrates where Urie has ended up with a big guitar solo, chanting chorus, and a slew of references to the likes of Queen, the Dead Kennedys, and Liberace. Calling to mind Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (an impressive–yet at this point oversaturated–cover for Panic!), the movements of “God Killed Rock & Roll” build up to a marching band moment as it dives into the relationship between fans and the music they love. Each of the songs could easily be the Act I finale to a Broadway show, though having them back-to-back in the track listing is a bit much. The Journey-esque “Do It to Death,” the album’s upbeat closer, is worthy of a finale before a final curtain call, reminding people that life is short so you might as well go for it. The play between inspiration and dark humor is perfect for the times we’re living in.
While there’s plenty of good to be found on Viva Las Vengeance, there are certainly some drawbacks. Panic! at the Disco has always combined their inspiration with their core sound to create dynamic albums, but unfortunately this time the pieces are not necessarily adding up. The retro sound against the Urie’s upper register makes some songs run together and sound like rough demos, clashing with the more polished glam and classic rock pieces. Where his ability to hit those high notes used to be invoked as a showstopping climax of a song like Death of a Bachelor’s “Golden Days” this type of powerhouse moment is the rule rather than the exception on Viva Las Vengeance. At times, the clever wordplay of Panic!’s lyrics seems to have given way to more word salad, with clunky phrasing and a lot of repetition. The choral backing vocals feel a bit too ubiquitous, making Viva Las Vengeance feel like an original Broadway cast recording that has spent too much time with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
However, Viva Las Vengeance proves that Panic! at the Disco doesn’t rest on their laurels. Rather than rehash their previous albums, Panic!’s consistent willingness to explore different influences and play with their sound makes them an interesting rock outfit to continue following, even if it doesn’t always stick the landing. The album also provides an opportunity for Urie, who stepped back from social media years ago, to respond to criticism in his own way and serves as a rallying call for fans not to give up on themselves. The well-explored themes of fame, criticism, and burnout are simultaneously evergreen while also being perfect for this specific moment in our timeline, where burnout feels inevitable and omnipresent.