A rising tide may lift all boats, but the bloom of poptimism has not elevated mainstream pop-punk. While Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Rihanna garner acclaim, their pop-punk counterparts have plunged into cliché and empty glitz. Panic! at the Disco’s latest release — Death of a Bachelor — is a testament to the strange monster mainstream pop-punk has become, slathered with cookie-cutter synths, disjointed samples and smarmy lyrics.
Death of a Bachelor is credited to Panic! at the Disco even though lead singer Brendon Urie is the only band member who worked on the album. It quickly becomes apparent that the album is a P!atD release in name only. Urie has scrubbed away the pseudo-intellectualism and poetic lyrics that characterized the band’s previous work. In their place, he recycles the same topics — (Hollywood) royalty, designer drugs, dance parties — that Fall Out Boy and Cobra Starship described for years. Baz Luhrmann is seemingly at the helm of mainstream pop-punk.
Musically, too, Death of a Bachelor borrows heavily from techniques that Fall Out Boy developed on Folie à Deux and kicked into gear on American Beauty/American Psycho. In a recent interview with Consequence of Sound, Urie refuted the long-running criticism that he simply reworks Fall Out Boy’s style, instead insinuating that his labelmates actually copied his sound on recent releases. The most credence that Urie gave to complaints was to note that he and Fall Out Boy share “a taste for sampling.”
“A taste for sampling” is a weak way of putting it. “Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time” opens with a “Rock Lobster” sample that imitates both the sound and idea of The Munsters theme sample that propels Fall Out Boy’s “Uma Thurman.” The most that can be said for Urie is that he is willing to push the sampling aesthetic further than Fall Out Boy. The first ten seconds of “Emperor’s New Clothes” would be equally at home on an A$AP Rocky track. Still, parts of Death of a Bachelor greatly resemble old Fall Out Boy material. The palm-muted, funky lead guitar on “Golden Days” is indistinguishable from Joe Trohman’s trademark style on Infinity on High and Folie à Deux.
The convergence of two pop-punk giants may be disappointing, but it is nonetheless predictable. Just as Urie opted to use the P!atD name for a solo project, Fall Out Boy singer Patrick Stump has admitted that he steered his band’s later work to conform with his pop sensibilities. Additionally, P!atD and Fall Out Boy have recently focused on wealth and decadence, topics that have long captivated pop-punk bands. Cobra Starship’s “The City Is At War” is the exemplar pop-punk track that laid a foundation for the genre’s tongue-in-cheek treatment of affluence. Over icy synths, frontman Gabe Saporta croons, “Bless the young and rich/with designer drugs and designer friends.”
Pop-punk bands usually toy with images of and lyrics about wealth with an ulterior motive. Mayday Parade details a casino adventure in “Jaime All Over,” but clarifies that the whole story exists only in the singers’ dreams. Cute Is What We Aim For uses elitism as a foil for sexual anxiety in “The Curse of Curves.” Death of a Bachelor, conversely, is simply the musings of a melancholy, rich 20-something who ambles between solitary dinners and drugged-up dance fests.
Urie’s lyrics most often sound focused-grouped —“Champagne, cocaine, gasoline/and most things in between” — while lacking both tenderness and angst. Obvious references and shoddy wordplay — detritus of Pete Wentz’s lyrical legacy — dominate the album. Urie stacks together soundbites (“50 words for murder, and I’m every one of them”) and restates played-out Internet jokes (“I’m not as think as you drunk I am”), but hits bedrock with a lackluster Beach Boys reference on the cabaret-esque “Crazy = Genius.” “She says you’re just like Mike Love/But you want to be Brian Wilson,” Urie sings. Unfortunately, Urie’s instrumentals have slipped just as much as his lyrics in the absence of former P!atD member Ryan Ross.
P!atD’s 2008 Pretty. Odd. still stands as the paramount example of the creative heights that pop-punk groups could reach without sacrificing their melodic and emotional core. A bona fide baroque pop release, Pretty. Odd. saw the band pivot away from the technophilic A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, swapping out drum machines for an orchestra and experimenting with British Invasion and folk sounds alike. The opening to “That Green Gentleman” and the entirety of “I Have Friends In Holy Places” made the argument for P!atD as the most instrumentally innovative pop-punk group of all time. The juxtaposition of Pretty. Odd. and over-produced, inoffensive Death of a Bachelor reveals the inexplicability of Urie’s decision to keep the P!atD mantle for any non-commercial reason.
Death of a Bachelor was not a throwaway album, after all. Urie and his co-writers crafted a pop anthem in “Hallelujah,” which succeeds due to the beauty of Urie’s multi-tracked, harmonized voice layered over brass lines. Furthermore, Urie’s lyrics sound earnest — “And if you can’t stop shaking, lean back/Let it run right through ya” — and mesh with the track’s festival-friendly energy. Urie seems unable to break through the vagueness that plagues the entire album, but “Hallelujah” at least serves as a vessel for the emotion that Death of a Bachelor palpably lacks.
Complaining that P!atD has grown too poppy implies that the genre is only enjoyable in opposition to pure pop. Pop-heavy groups like Metro Station and Hellogoodbye that carved a niche in the pop-punk scene and toured alongside the big names contradict such a notion. Rather, Urie seems stuck between two trapezes. On Death of a Bachelor, he failed to either grasp the relatable nature of accessible pop lyrics or abandon the theatrics and cynicism that brought P!atD success. Perhaps Urie will embrace his desire to be a pop performer on his next release. Maybe he will even appropriately label it as a solo release. Maybe he will drop the half-hearted sampling, but I do not want to ask for too much.
Shay Collins is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]