Panic! at the Disco’s fourth albums opens with a fuzzy, electronic plea; it sounds nothing like anything else they’ve ever done, and then it explodes into Brendon Urie’s unmistakeable voice and a chorus crying that this is the beat of my heart. Urie lets it all out on the line if you love me, let me go, and “This Is Gospel” sets a tone for Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die!.
Brendon Urie, and along with him Spencer Smith and the band behind the name Panic! at the Disco, has always been a bit of a chameleon, easy to know and hard to get a handle on. Too Weird To Live is Panic!’s fourth album, and fourth sound; I described it to a friend as if Outkast and Passion Pit had made a record together. There’s heavy hip hop influences all over it, and electronic sounds that harken back to the theatrics of debut This Is A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, but grown up. Too Weird To Live is, like Brendon Urie, flamboyant and excessive, and absolutely note-clever, sharp and sure of where it’s come from, and what the influences are. Urie has talked openly about the influences at play on second track “Miss Jackson” — a head tip to Janet Jackson’s “Nasty”, whose sound lends itself in places to the record as well — and on how his own marriage, and Las Vegas, came to the forefront in writing here.
My history with Panic! can be tracked back by searching this blog for the phrase “pete wentz saved my life”, which I’ve used in writing about music and concert photography and Fall Out Boy more than once, but it was Panic!, and the period of time leading up to the release of Pretty. Odd. that lead me to Pete Wentz (and thus and so on and lives saved and so forth). And it was Pretty. Odd. that soundtracked an entire spring that shep. and I spent in my car driving to Cary to watch the UNC baseball team play; that record will always and forever smell of spring and grass and sunshine to me, and it was designed to. Where Fever is finding its feet and a band identity, and Urie’s comfort as a dynamic frontman, Pretty. Odd. is experimental and acoustic, a period of songwriting with strong lyrical similarities to what came before, but nothing sonic. Too Weird To Live feels as though it takes those records and pulls them together, the cohesive group songwriting of a differently configured Panic! but one writing as a group all the same, and the explosions and circuses and elephants and trapeze artists that populate Fever.
And if Fever is dark and a little upsetting — and it is, it’s a very angry album — Too Weird To Live is dark and romantic, full of big theatrical ideas about the way love works, and the ways that it doesn’t. For a band whose lyrics have always been a little bit opaque, the songs on this record are straightforward; there’s nothing that Urie seems to be hiding in this. He’s comfortable in his own skin, and he’s comfortable questioning his own skin — and the theatrics from the start of the band now fit him like a second skin. Videos from their touring last year behind the record support that; Urie specifically, and Panic! as a whole, have grown up into a band that is comfortable in its own skin.
The album moves from the tribute of “Miss Jackson” to enormous dance track “Vegas Lights”, another topic that Urie has talked about extensively in interviews following this album — the ability to, as an adult, finally experience the Las Vegas that other people experience (what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas) as opposed to growing up there, being shut out by virtue of his youth. There’s no “concept” to Too Weird To Live, it’s not a rock opera, but if there was, it would be one with spangles and feathers and showgirls, exactly a Las Vegas sort of musical. The dance pop record aspect of the record comes out, really, for the first time on this song, the clubs and strobes lights and masks that Vegas visitors wear the obvious subject of the songs: the lies and affectations. There doesn’t feel, to me, to be any lies or affectations on this record, but the acknowledgement of them fits perfectly in “Vegas Lights”.
“Girl That You Love” is a missing Erasure track, falling and rising synthesizers that sound like flashing lights and smoke machines; the subject of surrendering control is just another way of pretending, another sense of the theatrical. It’s another way that the chameleon nature of Urie’s public personas over the years clarify into something honest on this record — theatrical, but honest, together, is the way this whole album is tied up. You have to be confident in yourself to give up control, even to someone you love.
I saw Panic! once, on the Honda Civic Tour, in Chicago; it was a bad weekend, but the show, I remember, was gorgeous. The Chicago Theatre is just a big ol’ room, but I remember that the show was warm and soft, the way that the album they were touring behind at the time — Pretty. Odd., again — sounded. It was a cold weekend but that show was warm, and when I think about it, I think about lyrics from “Folkin’ Around”: i’m putting out my lanterns, find your own way back home. I didn’t photograph that show. It would have been fine to photograph. But the over-the-top riffs of Too Weird To Live will be more fun. you’re worse than nicotine, Urie sings on “Nicotine”, and it’s better to leave than to be replaced. The idea of leaving, finding your own way home, has always run through his songwriting.
“Girls/Girls/Boys”, and its overt video homage to D’Angelo’s “Untitled” video (broken down much more thoroughly than I could at NPR), takes on some of the questions that the band hinted at early: “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” sneered, slut-shaming, but what a shame, what a shame, the poor bridegroom’s bride is a whore; “Girls/Girls/Boys” owns the spectrum of sexuality that the band has toyed with since the beginning. i don’t ever want to be your boyfriend, the song says, girls love girls and boys. Another track that sonically reminds me of Erasure, the buzzing synthesizers are the perfect background to the purring lyrics and driving guitar lines. “Casual Affair” stretches the dark romance of the record even further; a casual affair that could go bad at any time. “Far Too Young To Die” faces down the mortality that appears even in a theatrical and over-the-top like the world of Too Weird To Live. “Collar Full” spits and spikes verses full of lines about how it’s almost too late: if you’re going to be the death of me than i don’t want to know.
Panic! at the Disco ultimately made a big, dumb dance record; that’s what Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die! will be heard as. Except that it’s really a thoughtful, dark and caring, clever big dumb dance record. It’s a confident album that wears its heart on its sleeve and dances while it’s crying. It’s really, really good. It might even be great. You probably haven’t listened to it yet, but if you like big, dark, clever dance records, get this. Listen to it. Fall in love.
Panic!’s American tour in support of this record continues through 2/16, when it finishes in LA and the band heads to Australia and February and Europe in April, but every date except Montreal on 1/31 is SOLD OUT — so you’ll just have to wait until the summer to see what I mean. It’ll be worth it.