The emo heartthrobs’ second album alienated their fan base and damn near split up the band. But was it as bad as the reaction made out?
Slathered in eyeliner and packed full sentimentality, Panic! At The Disco’s emergence was pivotal in the rise of second wave emo. Bursting out of their gaudy Las Vegas home with an innovative, kaleidoscopic first album, ‘A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out’, they quickly planted their glittery flag in the sand. Fusing electronica and classical passages with the spiky guitars and plaintive vocals so essential to emo’s mid-00’s resurgence, they inspired hatred and devotion in equal measure, and ended up both bottled at Reading 2006 and double-platinum (two million sales) within the decade. Their second album scrapped all that.
‘Pretty. Odd.’, released ten years ago this week, was a stylistic heel-turn that alienated huge swathes of Panic!’s fanbase. Inspired by the psychedelia of latter-day Beatles albums, the pacy pop-punk of the debut was swapped out for twinkling interludes, happy-clappy attitudes and bizarre lyricism. ‘A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out’’s lyrics were thesaurus-munching levels of verbose, but ‘Pretty. Odd.’’s were often dismissed as pure nonsense – “I never gave a damn about the weather, and it never gave a damn about me,” frontman (and sole remaining member) Brendon Urie croons on ‘Do You Know What I’m Seeing?’. What’s more, they even ditched the exclamation mark, going by just Panic At The Disco for the duration of the album campaign. Sacrilege, in certain circles.
‘Pretty. Odd.’’s critical reception wasn’t quite as brutal as the fans’ reaction – NME awarded it a solid 7/10 – but the record struggled commercially, too. Where ‘A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out’ went double-platinum, ‘Pretty. Odd.’ limped out of the starting gates, only achieving Gold certification (500,000 sales) in 2016. Understandably, the huge dip resulted in a few fractured relationships – once that damn near sunk HMS Panic.
Guitarist, primary songwriter and founding member Ryan Ross – who was said to have spearheaded the Beatlemania of ‘Pretty. Odd’ – left the band during the touring cycle for the record, taking bassist Jon Walker with him. “Jon and I just realised that we were never going to be happy being in that band because of certain compromises that we had to keep making,” he later told NME, adding that he was surprised that the band carried on without him. Almost every track from ‘Pretty. Odd.’ has since been trimmed from the band’s live sets, though Urie insists there’s no bad blood.
After a slightly faltering start, Panic! At The Disco (and their reacquired exclamation mark) are back on an upward trajectory. This year they’re returning to that same Reading & Leeds main stage that once saw Urie knocked out cold – this time to co-headline alongside Kendrick Lamar – and releasing their sixth studio album, ‘Pray For The Wicked’. What better time to reassess their most divisive record?
Upon its release, I balked at ‘Pretty. Odd.’ As a recovering emo kid who, to this day, doesn’t really understand the appeal of The Beatles (don’t get me started), I felt betrayed. A pre-ordered CD was whacked on eBay; a wardrobe full of Panic! T-shirts soon followed suit. Over-emotional, me? Never. But, given a decade to recover, I’m ready to dip my toes in again. Be gentle, Brendon.
And, if I’m honest, it’s actually… not that bad? What, to my adolescent ears, sounded like borefest Beatles-worship, actually now proves itself to simply be a richer form of Panic!’s first album ambition. It’s not flawless – ‘She Had The World’ plods along like the soundtrack to a straight-to-DVD animated movie, and the latter half of the record in general skips off into a bizarre, half-arsed attempt at acid-trip psych-pop, and misses the mark quite flamboyantly – but there’s bangers galore.
‘Nine In The Afternoon’ is an alt-pop belter, fully deserving of its emo night staple status, and ‘Pas De Chavel’ chugs along with the rollicking pace of Panic!’s best. ‘Do You Know What I’m Seeing?’, daft lyrics and all, sounds like the greatest b-side The Smiths never wrote. Throughout it all, Urie’s show-tune vocal range (which has since earned him a stint on Broadway) keeps things from veering into noodling, amateur-hour psychedelia. It’s easy to see where the friction formed – Ross and Walker’s post-Panic project The Young Veins was decidedly more dated, suggesting that Urie’s dedication to pop immediacy likely left his retro-obsessed bandmates frustrated. But given Panic! At The Disco’s subsequent return to more punchy, pop-punk influenced material, and a more recent transformation into a straight-up pop behemoth, ‘Pretty. Odd.’ stands up as an interesting experiment in an admirably varied career, rather than the failed footnote I had presumed.
So consider me converted. All apologies to Panic(!). See you at Reading & Leeds. Now, where can I buy back all those t-shirts?