For those of us who were teenagers in the late 2000s, pop punk music was defined not only by its sound, but also its look — skinny jeans, band T-shirts and Vans shoes. Skater-inspired teenagers adamantly defended their favorite bands and devoutly followed major acts such as My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy. Lesser-known bands performed in small venues where fans would push against each other (light “mosh”-ing) while the bands played overloud guitars, singing snappy choruses in a nasal tenor. Frontmen and band members alike attracted devoted followings, drawing attention to their sometimes ambiguous sexuality in performative ways.
After signing to Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz’ label Decaydance Records (later renamed DCD2), Panic! At The Disco became a major force in the scene with albums “A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out” (2005) and “Pretty. Odd.” (2008). Frontman Brendon Urie, the only original member who still remains in the group, has continued to release hugely successful music under the original band name. He recently made his Broadway debut in “Kinky Boots.”
Urie, who has discussed his attraction to both men and women on several occasions, joined the Human Rights Campaign’s Equality Rocks project last year and has recently pledged $1 million in support of LGBT youth through his newly founded Highest Hopes Foundation.
The new album “Pray For The Wicked,” which debuted at the No. 1 Billboard spot, showcases the band’s signature theatrics and Urie’s outstanding vocals. Like most pop punk revival albums in recent years, “Pray For The Wicked” tilts strongly pop, with the rock influence largely lost in the mix. But Urie manages to remain innovative, experimenting with irregular instrumentation, fusing electronic and pop rock.
Lead single “Say Amen (Saturday Night),” a rebellious anthem dealing with religious themes, features a boisterous brass section in the chorus. Thematically, the song speaks of internal religious struggle: “And every morning when I wake up/I wanna be who I couldn’t say I’d ever been.” It’s heavy handed in terms of both music and lyrics, but works well overall. The bridge gives a welcome contrast to the preachy brass with Urie moving to whispery lower register above a salsa-inspired piano accompaniment before he soars to an astoundingly high note in the final chorus.
“Hey Look Ma, I Made It” is an up-tempo, heavily electronic track. Its clever, at times smart alecky lyrics are a refreshing departure from the filler words of most electronic-influenced pop tracks. As Urie quips in the first verse, “I’m a hooker sellin’ songs/and my pimp’s a record label.” Musically, this track is the furthest from Panic! At The Disco pop punk origins. The song rolls into “High Hopes,” a slightly underwhelming upbeat track that has been released as a single.
“Dancing’s Not A Crime” is one of the best tracks on the album. The superbly engineered, upbeat song has a lively horn accompaniment, which mixes perfectly into the balance. It’s the sort of funky brass instrumentation we have come to expect of someone like Bruno Mars. And melodically, the chorus is vaguely reminiscent of Lady Gaga’s “Yoü and I.” It’s a delightfully fun song.
The single “King Of The Clouds” has an operatic vocal quality that appears at least loosely inspired by Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But it’s neither the best nor the most interesting song on the short yet robust album and seems a peculiar choice for a single, though it’s certainly enjoyable. The ballad “Dying In LA” has beautiful melody that Urie delivers in his sharp, clear tenor above an alternating piano and string accompaniment. It makes his recent stint on Broadway seem an obvious corollary.
With few exceptions, the current iteration of the pop punk revival is living on borrowed time. Its existence depends on name recognition and nostalgia. And the remaining acts have largely been assimilated into more traditional pop. But if there is anything left of the innovative, angsty spunk of pop punk, Brendon Urie may well be its last prophet.