Review: Death of a Bachelor (2016)

“I’m not as think as you drunk I am.” I don’t know if Brendon Urie has ever written a better lyric than this. Either way, I’m glad he did because Panic! at the Disco is back.

After a couple of years of lineup changes since their 2013 effort, Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!, I was a little apprehensive about a new album from these guys – or more aptly put, this one guy. As it stands, Urie is currently the only member of Panic! left. I don’t know if I didn’t have confidence in his ability to create an entire record by himself, or maybe I thought I was ready to move on from the band after Spencer Smith officially left. It felt like a cue somehow, because the Vices & Virtues era is my personal favourite. I felt they captured the best balance between the weirdness of their early days and the ease of a pop hook. The songs were infectiously fun, but dark and contemplative at times. I don’t remember when it was I’d first heard it, but it captivated me for ages. That time period with just Urie and Smith felt fresh and new and promising.

Death of a Bachelor hasn’t upstaged that. However, it sits very nicely alongside Vices & Virtues because of its utterly focused, individualistic yet undeniably pop vibe.

A few days ago, I wrote a tribute piece about Fall Out Boy’s own ode to dance music, American Beauty/American Psycho, published on the day of its anniversary. It’s then a beautiful coincidence that Death of a Bachelor came out almost a year to the day of that, when they are very similar records in spirit. Filled with electro-pop hooks accompanying Urie’s powerful and sometimes jazzy vocals, Death of a Bachelor is the most sonically cohesive album Panic! has put out to date. With the exception of the title track and “Impossible Year”, it’s quite the thrasher from start to finish – perfect rave music, yet also impeccable for blasting in one’s bedroom after a trying day.

Lyrically, the band seems to have gone back to its roots of possibly overlyricising, which is not at all a bad thing. It’s refreshing after the simplicity of Too Weird to Live… Also, Urie can sing all those lines with a stark clarity, and they fit the energy of his performance due to his innate theatricality (watch a music video by this band and you’ll know what I mean). Of course, some of the songs are purely designed to be played onstage. “Victorious” and “Hallelujah” are the obvious choices in this case, even more so than other ones of the upbeat variety. Narratively, part of the album’s charm is its containment in the entertainment industry, with themes of starry-eyed living and bratty brashness consistently featured throughout. Once again, these are topics previously explored, which undoubtedly added to my initial concerns that this would simply be a boring rehash.

However, I was thankfully proven wrong. This is probably the most comfortable and unabashed the band has ever been. Where Too Weird to Live… felt like they were very briefly touching completely new territory to find their own voice in the vast world of pop, Death of a Bachelor knows how to navigate the glitz and glamour it’s determined to inhabit.

Because it’s not just carefree party music. One of the reasons I love this record so much is how the album is structured. It’s a two-parter, with the switch flipping after “Crazy=Genius”. There’s a sense of taking a step back and understanding the effects of brazenness, which was a quality that didn’t feel weighty enough in their previous record. “LA Devotee” paints an almost obsessive picture and personality for the eponymous citizen and partaker of Los Angeles debauchery. Urie asks, “Oh don’t you wonder when the light begins to fade?” It later becomes, “The lonely moments just get lonelier.” These lyrics are pretty expertly buried underneath the record’s vibrant production; I had to look them up to really know what on earth I was singing along to (I’m one of those people who mumbles lyrics if I’m just not sure what they are). What’s cooler is it isn’t just a clearcut separation of parts either, because it depends how you look at all the lyrics in the first half of the album too – whether the kind of pride (“I am so much more than royal”) exhibited is an obvious recipe for disaster. And while it doesn’t hit me profoundly or anything, I’m a fan of juxtapositions in songwriting imagery.

My favourite song at the moment is a toss up between “Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time” and “House of Memories”. Speaking specifically of the latter, it is an infectious, bittersweet rallying call of some kind. I find that very evident in the use of percussion and piano. It’s a foot stomper for sure. It also doesn’t lose its emotional depth as a steady, mid-tempo tune that’s ready to wind out the whole album, and it is quite lyrically moving. As for “Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time”, it’s probably a polar opposite. It’s about a feeling I personally don’t like getting into – being drunk and wild. So I get my fix from this song. It’s also very, very reminiscent of older Panic!, and it sounds like it should be played in an underground bar or club somewhere. It’s very fun and very over-the-top, incredibly silly and boyish, but…”It’s a hell of a feeling, though!”

I also really enjoy the retro vibe this album employs. Tracks like “Golden Days” – with its staccato guitar riffs – and “Death of a Bachelor” – and its lounge-y and languid tone – are, again, very underground. Very out of time. But importantly, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is still a record produced for release in 2016. It doesn’t sound discernibly “old” because even when Urie’s voice sounds the most like luscious velvet, those trap sounds are unmistakable.

Speaking of Urie, he sounds as good as ever – we know he can sing – but it’s his personality that really sells the songs. It’s hard for musicians that spawned from the mid-2000s pop punk music boom to sing anthem calls towards debauchery, in my opinion, because that general ethos seems repeated far too often. Boys who do ridiculous shit in the name of boyhood, etc. However, Urie’s showmanship coupled with a budding level of awareness in his lyricism prove to be an apt combination. Because honestly, I enjoyed Too Weird to Live…, but it was paper-thin in comparison to Death of a Bachelor. It was fun but didn’t last; a disappointing follow-up to something as iconic as Vices & Virtues (even though someone like me wouldn’t have admitted it at the time). However, in hindsight, it was simply a precursor to bigger and better things. This newest record sounds honest despite the theatricality, and I’m able to take it seriously while dancing carelessly to the more blithe stuff. A new balance is reached.

Death of a Bachelor may not touch new ground when you’re looking at it on the surface, but it certainly feels like – overall – a more grown-up record. Urie himself has stated a shift in mindset when tackling the writing process of the record (source 1) (source 2), and maybe it comes at the right time for many fans of the band who’ve been with them since the beginning. Panic!’s evolution has always felt much less spur-of-the-moment, even if they jump from genre to genre quite frequently. One could plot a trajectory amongst all five releases they’ve had so far to come across the logical conclusion that, yes, they still embrace the wild side, and they’ve always been a little strange (or… pretty. odd.). Their brand of playfulness is constantly present, but their micro-level progressions have been extremely organic and well-paced. Death of a Bachelor is perhaps more spiritually “Panic! at the Disco” – the band from 2005 – and actually Brendon Urie’s passion project, but it pays off. He sounds a little less bombastic these days and it does him favours.

★★★★

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