Influenced: Twenty One Pilots, Crown The Empire, The 1975, Lil’ Peep, dodie
Influenced by: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Kinks, The Small Faces, The Band, Queen, The Cure, The Smiths, Green Day, Blink-182, Jimmy Eat World, Fall Out Boy, Death Cab For Cutie
The year is 2008. You’re standing in the crowd of Panic At The Disco’s “Live In Chicago” – the cornerstone live performance that marked the end of their monumental Pretty. Odd. tour and possibly had the ‘old Panic’ on stage together for the last time. There arere bubbles floating about, fake flowers seem to have climbed up the mic stands, and projections of abstractions ranging from humanoid shapes to just a plain picture of a flower are being blasted on the screen. On the stage stand three mop heads, wearing the simplest jeans and a shirt variation, asking you to wave your hands in the air to the dreamy ‘Behind The Sea’. Everyone joins in, swaying along to the tune, singing the “hey!”s , fully giving themselves away to this almost familial, intimate experience of a concert, where harmonies and acoustic guitars rule over strobe lights, tight dandy waistcoats, clownish face makeup and flashy stage dancers in Moulin Rouge fashion, which was the case just a couple years back when Panic stormed Denver on their first tour, giving a heck of a cabaret inspired show.
At that time, they were pumping out heaps of the ‘poetry in a strip club’ steam, spitting out mouthfuls of lyrics on the themes of sex, suicide, shotgun weddings and closing that goddamn door. It was as if the quartet from Sin City had ripped off their ‘emo’ identity like those track trousers that basketball players wear just before a match, to reveal a more relaxed, ‘60s British-rock inspired outfit, putting on a bright wide musical smile through the haze of psychedelics. Critics were quick to yell ‘Sgt. Pepper’s rip off’ at the time, but ten years down the line, Pretty. Odd. stands out as one of the most genuine and musically complex albums for Panic! At The Disco, and indeed the 2000s as a whole. Marking the stylistic breaking point after which the band literally split in two, Pretty. Odd. is a charming, optimistic, tongue-in-cheek record, with Ryan Ross’s signature abstract lyrics alongside flowery orchestral arrangements and decadent harmonies.
Initially a Blink-182 cover band consisting of Brendon Urie on vocals, Ryan Ross on guitar, Brent Wilson on bass and Spencer Smith on drums, Panic! At The Disco were freshly out of high school when they released their 2005 debut A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. Despite not having done any proper live shows, they dazzled the eye and ear of Pete Wentz online, they were signed on Wentz’s Decaydance (now D2D2, an imprint label of Fueled By Ramen) and their choppy, crazed, techno plink-plonk-plonking infused with vaudevillian cello solos and accordion flourishes full of that well-rounded angst, recorded and written in five-and-a-half weeks, caused a ruckus. Even though A Fever… was its own specific flavour of ‘emo pop’, it received both major backlash (on their first set at Reading Festival 2006, Urie got knocked out for a couple minutes by a bottle from the crowd and recalls the experience here) and chart success, going platinum in the United States.
The punctuation accessorized Pretty. Odd. that emerged two years later was an entirely different story. For three months, Panic At The Disco, now without the exclamation mark, holed up in a cabin in the mountains of rural Nevada. High off psychedelics, they came up with three quarters of an album that never saw the light of day and got scrapped for Pretty. Odd. to be born, which was written in Panic’s old rehearsal studio as seen in Calendar Business film and sung about on the album’s lead single ‘Nine In The Afternoon’ in joyous, ecstatic fashion: “Back to the street where we began / Feeling as good as lovers can, you know / Yeah, we’re feeling so good”. The majority of recording was done with the help of producer Rob Mathes in Studio At The Palms of Palms Casino Resort, who in the aforementioned documentary proclaims that “with you guys I get the sense that it’s kind of off-kilter, I’m not sure where it’s gonna go, you know? Not everything is predictable”.
That basically sums up the general confusion that followed Pretty. Odd.’s release, which sounded and looked nothing like its predecessor and threw both the critics and their fans. It did worse chart-wise, going ‘only’ gold as opposed to the platinum that A Fever… was quickly certified for, but received both intense praise and scorn from the musical community. Some were pleasantly surprised that the sound of Panic was ‘maturing’, though acknowledging that the younger fans of the band might not buy into that idea as easily, while others argued that this stylistic bow to the ‘60s was in vain, as Pretty. Odd. sported the era’s musicality but none of its hefty political relevance or profound ideas to back up the embellished polyphony.
Critical notices on the album ranged from “Pretty. Odd. never sounds anything but a highly refined modern beast” (Drowned in Sound) to “Panic At The Disco have matured as full-fledged musicians (…) But they have digressed as songwriters, wearing the threads of their influences without properly ‘channeling’” (Sputnik Music) and “for all its craftsmanship, Pretty. Odd. comes across as mannered and overbearing, more studied than exuberant, the magnum opus of a talented band charging wholeheartedly down a blind alley” (The New York Times).
Ten years down the line, the outlook on Pretty. Odd. is very different, heavily influenced by the fact that the world never got to see what the Panic At The Disco of Pretty. Odd. would create in the future, as the main lyricist Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker, both prominent writers of the album, left the band in 2009. Each to their own, the remaining members of Panic reclaimed the exclamation mark in the group’s name and turned to baroque pop music on 2011’s Vices & Virtues while The Young Veins (the newfound band of Ryan Ross and Jon Walker) released material that sounded even more like the ‘60s rock they’ve been compared to in the past, so who knows how the third album would have sounded?
As far as the fan opinion goes, the forums and Tumblr blog posts of 2018 bear Panic! At The Disco fans that miss the joyous times of Pretty. Odd. and express that it was an underappreciated album at its time, exceptional in its vibrancy and lyricism – completely unique in Panic’s discography, as its tone and aesthetic was nothing like the earlier or the following releases of the band and therefore iconic.
Almost sickeningly sweet and optimistic, Pretty. Odd. narrated tales of love, weather and travel in the metaphorical style of fairy tales. It’s as if the second album wasn’t as much a ‘larger step than we thought’, as Ryan Ross puts it in the Calendar Business documentary, but a backflip into another dimension, landing in a sea of ten foot daisies, cotton candy clouds above and sporting ‘watermelon smiles’, everything in bright technicolour. If on A Fever… Panic was current, fresh and painting ironic, theatrical pictures of the world they see around them (“Swear to shake it up, if you swear to listen / Oh, we’re still so young, desperate for attention / I aim to be your eyes, trophy boys, trophy wives”), on Pretty. Odd. they are acting on their urge to do what feels right and pulling from the music they’ve recently been listening to, ending up with an unshakable imprint of ‘60s-‘70s British rock – very Sgt Pepper’s in visual terms in their music videos and ‘White Album’ musically, while channelling Brian Wilson on the vocals. “The goal is never ‘different from the first record’, the goal is to just write the songs that we like”, says Spencer Smith. And write they did, only to come out with the most down-to-earth, but at the same time, fairytale-like Panic album to date.
It starts off with the energetic opener ‘We’re So Starving’, stating that “You don’t have to worry / ‘Cause we’re still the same band”, as if to assure that this track, stylistically miles away from the cabaret inspired spitfire songs of A Fever… still comes from the same people that wrote that notorious track about how ‘Lying Is The Most Fun A Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off’. Its sound is uplifting, punctuated by strings and accompanied by a crowd cheering, as if the whole album was already performed before a live audience, giving it lively flair.
It quickly fades into ‘Nine In The Afternoon’ – a lush rock track that can be seen as narrating both the writing process of the album and as a love story, which is probably telling a lot how the band itself felt about Pretty. Odd. Trumpets embellish the catchy and harmoniously arranged chorus that is almost impossible to shake off: “Cause it’s nine in the afternoon / And your eyes are the size of the moon / You’re good ‘cause you can, so you do / We’re feeling so good, just the way that we do / When it’s nine in the afternoon”.
The following track ‘She’s A Handsome Woman’ offers a more idiosyncratic melodic material, with its grungier guitars and minor melodies that highlight the metaphorical lyrics about an affair: “Innocence sunk the glow and drowned in covers / Send for all your absent lover’s things / Sheepish wolves looking lived-in, eating buttons / Wink, just don’t put your teeth on me”. ‘Do You Know What I’m Seeing’ manages to sound whimsical while simply talking about the weather, while ‘That Green Gentleman (Things Have Changed)’, as well as being a nod to marijuana, is a staple feel-good track about change and disappointing romantic ventures.
‘I Have Friends In Holy Spaces’ questionably plays with the ‘old-timey feel’, as well as ‘Folkin’ Around’, which sounds almost too folk for its own good. Nevertheless, the acoustic ‘Northern Downpour’, which is probably the only track that is still sometimes played live ten years later and is a fan favourite, brings in some much-needed melancholy to dilute the saccharine of Pretty. Odd. with the iconic lyrics “I know the world’s a broken bone / But melt your headaches, call it home” that make Brendon Urie tear up to this day, as during the writing process, Ryan Ross told him to pay ‘special attention’ to that line.
‘When The Day Met The Night’, narrating the falling in love of two polar opposites, is said to be one of the most Beatles-esque tracks lyrically and musically, as it refuses to talk about ‘simple things’ in simple terms. The influence of The Beatles can be generally felt throughout the whole album, but overall is more ideological (“I was partly drawn to them because they weren’t afraid of doing any kind of song”, says Ryan Ross) and visual rather than literal, as the music videos borrow from the Sgt. Peppers aesthetic heavy-handedly with their marching bands, moustaches and dream sequences in candy land.
Other stand-out tracks are the nautical ‘Behind The Sea’, which flexes Ross’s lyrical writing the most with its abstract but profound lyrics about creativity and its expression, and the closing track ‘Mad As Rabbits’ that is iconic both in its lyrics and exuberant musical composition – vibrant, slightly over-the top, but inclusive of all members vocally, resulting in the triumphant “We must reinvent love” line, crowning the live shows of the Pretty. Odd. era.
Pretty. Odd. is that one Panic! At The Disco album that can and does stand on its own. Its optimistic, romantic tone, unheard of lyrical flourish and the rich and heady musical material that keeps on giving with every new listen is the peak of the ‘old Panic! At The Disco’, symbolizing the end of the Urie-Ross partnership that created the specific flavour and urgency that A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out began to show and which blossomed fully with Pretty. Odd.
The split of the band might have been for the best, but one can keep wondering what musical endeavours Panic! At The Disco would have gone on if the band managed to resolve their differing musical ambitions and move forward together. Now, only Brendon Urie is left as a constant part of today’s Panic! At The Disco, still pioneering his own specific shade of pop and blowing audiences away with his charisma, wit and vocal range, but having lost that ‘four religious adolescents from Las Vegas singing about sex and death’ charm, for better or worse.
Listen to Pretty. Odd. by Panic At The Disco here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: 10 years old, 10th anniversary, Aiste Samuchovaite, Brendon Urie, cult '00s, Jon Walker, Panic At The Disco, Pretty Odd, Ryan Ross, Spencer Smith
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