As you may have already gathered from last week’s cover feature, the Panic At The Disco will be nothing compared to the Pandemonium In The Boardroom when ‘Pretty. Odd.’ reaches the ears of the accountants and A&R men at major label paymasters Atlantic. For those not paying attention in class, the story is as follows: three years ago, four unlikely lads from Vegas with a predilection for Dior eyeliner and Danny Elfman film scores became unwitting poster boys for the emo generation, attracting plaudits, platinum discs and pallet-loads of awards with their debut album, ‘A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out’. Not to mention the slings and arrows (and bottles) of outraged Slayer fans at 2006’s Carling Weekend: Reading and Leeds Festivals.
So far so MCR, but here’s where it gets really interesting. Instead of playing the game and delivering a slightly more sophisticated yet essentially similar successor, the band bolted for the mountains, wrote – and then subsequently scrapped – half an album’s worth of material, and instead settled on a new direction that owed more to the eccentric English psychedelic rock of the ’60s than turn-of the-century, kohl-rimmed rebellion. Who would have thought that the War On Emo would eventually be won by Sgt Pepper? If it weren’t for the near-omnipresent orchestra parping away for much of this album, you’d probably be able
to hear the execs’ jaws hitting the boardroom floor. And yet, once you get over the initial ‘WTF!?!’ moment brought on by bombastic opener ‘We’re So Starving’ (a knowingly tongue-in-cheek attempt to deflect the fan-boy flaming, that makes the reassuring, if disingenuous, claim “You don’t have to worry/We’re still the same band!”) and settled into first single ‘Nine In The Afternoon’ – essentially The Beatles had they taken a magical mystery tour to the cabaret room of the Mirage casino on Vegas’ main drag – there’s very little that’s actually odd about this record at all. If anything, at heart it’s more conventional than its predecessor, an album, lest we forget, that frequently sloped off-piste to indulge in electro interludes, baroque, Tim Burton-esque flights of fancy and lyrics so dark you’d need an arc lamp to determine their meaning. No, in effect all Panic have ‘dared’ to do is craft a clutch of joyously uplifting, God-isn’t-it-great-to-be-young-and-in-love-and-alive pop songs that would be familiar to fans of, say, Super Furry Animals. And while the emo kids will almost certainly switch off in their hooded thousands (it’s safe to assume that Panic won’t get an invitation to play Download any time soon) no-one involved should be unduly concerned. Any number of the more sublime songs here – the off-kilter, Kinks-y ‘She’s A Handsome Woman’; show-stopping show tune ‘That Green Gentlemen’; the harmony-drenched nods to vintage American rock radio ‘Northern Downpour’ and ‘Pas De Cheval’; the Summer Of Love- (and, indeed, Arthur Lee’s Love-) inspired ‘Behind The Sea’; or the ’70s disco funk-meets-Dickensian-folk mash-up ‘Mad As Rabbits’ to name but six – could single-handedly soundtrack the summer for millions more when American mainstream radio inevitably picks up the scent.
If the band had stopped there then they’d have a stone-cold classic on their hands. It’s unfortunate, then, that having successfully slipped their stylistic shackles, Panic proceed to run a little too wild and some of their further flung excursions come across as experimentation for experimentation’s sake. The Mississippi river boat-style period piece ‘I Have Friends In Holy Spaces’ – all comedy clarinets and scratchy recording effects – is a particularly grinding gear change six songs in, but it’s on the latter half of ‘Pretty. Odd.’ that the band
come closest to losing their way. The hackneyed harpsichord underpinning the pastoral-flavoured ‘She Had The World’ is more Muse than Mozart and feels like a lingering symptom from ‘A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out’, while the fiddle-fuelled bluegrass jam ‘Folkin’ Around’ is as incongruous as the pun in its title – a rare reminder that its authors are barely out
of their teens.
Furthermore, the abundance of Abbey Road-recorded bells and whistles (and strings, woodwind, percussion and sampled birdsong) does become a little overbearing after the half-hour mark, reaching its nadir with the ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite’ homage ‘From A Mountain In The Middle Of The Cabins’. Tellingly, at Panic’s recent Roundhouse show in London, the stripped-down live set-up put paid to this musical muddle and allowed the arrangements to breathe and the quality of the songwriting to really shine through. That said, it’s churlish to chide Panic At The Disco for overindulgence on a record that couldn’t actually exist without it. ‘Pretty. Odd.’ is a victory for artistic ambition over cynical careerism, and we should all rejoice in their decision to follow their instincts as opposed to their instructions and actually do something different. Well, that and the fact that they’ve also produced one of the feel-good psych-pop albums of the year.