If one argued that Panic! at the Disco’s Death of a Bachelor was the band’s best album both sonically and conceptually, their sixth studio album, Pray for the Wicked, is easily the most fun, and perhaps the most polarizing.
Because if you were looking for a return to the pop-rock, emo-pop of yesteryears exemplified in “A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out,” then I have bad news for you. That early electropop synonymous with the early aught’s has gone the way of other trends of the era: skin-tight skinny jeans, swooping bangs, Myspace. But, that doesn’t mean that you should discount Pray for the Wicked as a stray from the path or a swing towards something not organically Panic! at the Disco.
A deep-dive through infectious pop refrains, meticulously polished vocals and a healthy dose of jazz and soul influences, Pray for the Wicked is a natural progression of the sounds frontman Brendon Urie began cultivating on the band’s fifth album, but manages to borrow from the past, without simply reliving it.
With an instrumental like a smokey jazz room, a slow and distorted “To the old / and to the new / We dedicate this song to you” welcomes the listener to Pray for the Wicked before giving way to Urie’s charged “Fuck a silver lining / Because only gold is hot enough” decree. With an undercurrent of groovy bass lines and blistering horns fading in and out, “(Fuck A) Silver Lining” is more than just a repeat-worthy tune, it’s a thesis statement.
Panic! at the Disco is here to dress even the smallest moments up in gold.
And this is most apparent on “Hey Look, Ma I Made It” and “High Hopes.” Both tracks function as a rally of sorts — a plea dressed up in a gold suit jacket to look beyond the things that get us down: personal setbacks, the negativity and despair so readily available today, and whatever else gives you the blues.
“Hey Look Ma, I Made It,” a tongue-in-cheek tune that laments the music industry as a whole — “All my life, been hustlin’ / And tonight is my appraisal / ‘Cause I’m a hooker sellin’ songs / And my pimp’s a record label” — before celebrating success, has a charm, and swagger, that can’t be ignored. With the track’s title, “Hey look Ma, I made it,” repeated over the course of the chorus, backed by a surge of brass and casual synth, “Hey Look Ma, I Made It” is, simply put, a bop of swelling optimism.
And that rush of celebration and horns, segue into “High Hopes” — perhaps the album’s strongest song and the actual manifestation of a smile — flawlessly. With a blaring horn section and rapping snare drum like a battlefield cry, “High Hopes” comes out swinging and never relents in its sheer optimism. And that optimism is infectious.
Urie’s vocals soar above a bouncing pop undercurrent of sound, complete with bubbling guitar and that ever-present brass section, until the music fades away on the final chorus and Urie’s unaccompanied vocals ring out: “Have to have high, high hopes for living / Shooting for the stars when I couldn’t make a killing / Didn’t have a dime but I always had a vision / Always had high, high hopes,” before the music fades back in like quiet electricity.
And quiet electricity is, perhaps, one of the best ways to describe Pray for the Wicked. It’s an album of big-band horns, staccato snare, and modern-day rat pack vibes. The guitar races, the bass pulsates. It’s relentless in its dance-party ambition and every song has moments of such soaring and swelling sound, that it’s almost impossible to not be overcome by it. But that’s just the thing, Pray for the Wicked manages to go big, without making you wish you could go home.
This sensation of knowing just how-much-is-too-much is apparent on tracks like “Say Amen (Saturday Night),” “The Overpass,” and “Dancing’s Not a Crime.” These songs manage to balance blaring trumpets, relentless percussion, and a charged undercurrent of synth, effect and backing vocals without feeling lost or untethered in such sonically-dense tracks.
Because Pray for the Wicked is a sonically packed album, which boasts the usual guitar, bass, and drums of the standard Guitar Hero starter pack, but then adds some trumpet, saxophone, violin, cello and piano into the mix.
Produced by Jake Sinclair — whose credits include working with Fall Out Boy, Weezer, Andrew McMahon and the Wilderness, and 5 Seconds of Summer — Pray for the Wicked, released under the label, Fueled by Ramen, is a cannonball into the sonic deep end.
Tracks like the synth-charged “One of the Drunks,” which sounds like it could have easily been featured on the band’s fourth album, “Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die,” and “Old Fashioned,” with its funky groove, maintain the album’s dizzying pace. While “Roaring 20s” and “King of the Clouds” keep the album’s jazzy undertones at the forefront.
Fast-paced and drawing influence from R&B and soul — apparent on “(Fuck A) Silver Lining” and “The Overpass,” which pull from The Dells and James Brown and Lyn Collins respectively — Panic! at the Disco’s latest release doesn’t take a single breath for ten tracks.
And then, the only respite from the pulsating bass lines and sultry trumpets; the stampeding fervor found in every inch of music — which demands that you dance along — and Urie’s vocals — which seem to defy logic with the sheer ease in which he moves between casual crooning and rising high notes — comes in the form of the closing track.
After a ten-track sprint through a fever dream backlit by Vegas lights and smoky jazz lounges, “Dying in LA,” arguably one of the crown jewels in the album’s impressive collection, pairs Urie’s voice with little more than a piano and a string section.
Equal parts somber and beautiful, “Dying in LA” serves as an antithesis to the previous ten songs without feeling out of place, or like an afterthought. Subdued and gentle, and a touch darker than the songs before it, it nevertheless captures Panic! doing what Panic! does best: setting genuine moments to music, and doing it all in style.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Stand out tracks: Hey Look Ma, I Made It; High Hopes; Dying in LA
Ashley Cline is an avid introvert and full-time carbon based life form currently living in south Jersey. Since graduating from Rowan University with her Bachelor's in Journalism, she can usually be found singing show tunes to her dog, drinking too much iced coffee and wearing beanies. Her personal best at all-you-can-eat sushi is five rolls in eleven minutes. You can find her yelling about Carly Rae Jepsen on Twitter and posting photos of her dog on Instagram.