Vices & Virtues: Panic! At The Disco’s True Beginning

All things considered, Vices & Virtues is the first true Panic! At The Disco album. The tribulations of Brendon Urie and Spencer Smith in not only writing the record, but exceeding expectations and forging a new path for the band are legendary. Not only was the album Urie’s first experience acting as lead songwriter, he essentially played every instrument except percussion. While A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out made the band a household name, Vices & Virtues made Panic! At The Disco artists.

You can buy or stream Vices & Virtues on Apple Music.

Vices & Virtues came out the first year that I was finding my way in the world. College roommates had ventured off into the world while I worked a lowly job, feeling left behind and in some ways betrayed to sit with what remained of our previous lives together. I played mixtapes we had all made, many of which included many Panic! songs, to remind myself of the fun we used to have on summer nights that I now spent in my bedroom at home. It wasn’t until after the album’s release did I realize how much Vices mirrored that feeling of abandonment and looked out over the horizon for something bigger that I could scarcely imagine at the time.

A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out was the epitome of a breakout record. Stylized, edgy, wrapped between multiple genres and engrossed in a circus-like visual flair, it launched Panic! from would-be opening band to headliners over night. “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” became such a staple single that it’s still the song everyone knows by the band. Panic! At The Disco were the rare overnight sensation that stayed. For years after their debut’s release, audiences demanded the next album. Although it’s looked at more favorably in retrospect, the immediate reaction to 2008’s Pretty. Odd. was mixed at best.

Pretty. Odd.’s retro style rock was so jarring, that 13 years later I still know people who refuse to listen to the band because of it. That’s why for many, the news in mid-2009 that guitarist and songwriter Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker were leaving Panic! At The Disco was met equally with a sigh of relief and a fear that the group was dead and out of its misery. 

Just months after the split, I watched a neutered Panic! open for Blink-182 on their reunion tour. Vocalist Brendon Urie paced back and forth slowly across the stage in a suit and tie, seemingly dazed and uninterested. Shortly thereafter, one-off single “New Perspective” released in the summer of 2009. While catchy, it proved to just be a safe, lackluster pop song. 

“The Ballad of Mona Lisa”, released a year and a half later, is arguably Panic!’s most underrated song of all time. It was the first real single from the new version of the band, now consisting of only Urie and drummer Spencer Smith. Returning to the “masquerade rock” sound of Fever, “The Ballad of Mona Lisa” ushered in the true era of Panic! At The Disco. Harsh power chords, a sprawling anthemic chorus and rampant walls of percussion found a seductive mix between punk rock and radio pop. 

The song was made all the more impressive after the fact: Urie revealed that he had become lead songwriter after Ross’s departure, and that he sang, played guitar, bass, and the keys all while sporting a steampunk ensemble in the music video. He continued this blistering commitment throughout the rest of the album (sans the steampunk). 

Vices & Virtues wasn’t just a rebirth for Panic! At The Disco. It was an album of catharsis, anger and forgiveness that utterly cleared the path for Brendon Urie to become a global superstar. Despite having just become a “songwriter,” no two songs on Vices sound alike. Sweeping choruses and intricate instrumentation (“Hurricane”) permeate the album entirely. The inclusion of the defining genre sounds of Fever felt like a rebranding more than it did a retread. 

It’s hard to find a track that truly shines brighter than the others throughout the record. “Let’s Kill Tonight”, with its aggressive pop riffs teetering on the edge of new wave, stands just as brightly against “Memories”, a dance track describing the downfall of youthful love. However, “Sarah Smiles”, a song for Urie’s now wife is a lusciously haunting track teeming with layers of aggressive folk rock and punctuated with trumpets.

Hidden in the mix is “The Calendar”, arguably one of the band’s most important and often forgotten songs throughout their entire discography. Although the song is framed around a relationship, it is a direct reaction to Ross and Walker’s departure. The song balances the regret and sadness at how things ended for the full group and the shock of inspiration that spurred Urie and Smith forward. (“Don’t wanna call it a second chance, but when I came back, it was more of a relapse. / Anticipation’s on the other line, an obsession called while you were out.”)

Vices & Virtues was a redemption and reaffirmation of Panic! At The Disco that almost no one expected. Vibrant, emotional and utterly energized, it was worthy of the restored “!” in the band’s name. Although Smith left the band shortly after release as well, the confidence from Vices & Virtues gave Urie more leeway to experiment with less rock and more synth on Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!, and explore the burlesque and crooner sounds on Death of a Bachelor and Pray For The Wicked, Urie’s (current) pop magnum opus.

Vices & Virtues seems to be more or less hidden in the background of Panic!’s discography at this point, now that there are several high profiles albums that have dominated the pop world. However, the emotional energy behind this album allowed Urie to not only vent the feelings of betrayal and loss, but also test the waters of who he was as a songwriter. Despite already being two albums deep, Vices & Virtues served as the true start of Panic! At The Disco’s conquest to become one of the world’s top tier pop artists, and Urie’s journey toward becoming a superstar.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_cat

Kyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and ate a reuben sandwich with such vigor that he still feels guilty for the “slaughter” three days later

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