REVIEW: ‘Pray for Wicked’ belies frontman Brendon Urie’s clear potential

Rating: 2.5/5

Under the direction of frontman Brendon Urie, Panic! at the Disco has pledged its allegiance to pop punk with its newest record, “Pray for the Wicked.” The album marks a subtle departure from the band’s angsty sound, as Urie turns to mainstream radio influences following the band’s epic comeback project “Death of a Bachelor.”

While earlier Panic! albums featured complex guitar riffs and literati song titles, “Pray” ventures into staccato instrumentation and laconic titles, presenting listeners with a record that appears perfectly clipped and computerized.  

The record’s hamartia is exactly that: The music relies more on electronic production than natural acoustics. While the contemporary influence has artfully and interestingly taken over the industry through artists across the musical spectrum, Panic!’s interpretation of the trend renders its songs nearly indecipherable from one another.

This lack of strong instrumental distinction between songs, paired with repetitive lyrics, waters down the potential behind many of the tracks on “Pray.”

For instance, on “Roaring 20s,” while Urie’s belting almost overshadows his overdone bachelor persona, the lyrics become tiresome during the repetitive chorus: “This is my roaring, roaring 20s/I don’t even know me/Roll me like a blunt ‘cause I wanna go home.”

Similarly, many tracks seem to recycle old assertions with variations on common phrases. On “(F*ck a) Silver Lining,” Urie sings: “It’s coming up cherries on top!” Only a few tracks later the line becomes “Everything’s comin’ up aces, aces!” on “Hey Look Ma, I Made It.”

Panic! at the Disco’s sixth studio album, “Pray for the Wicked” was released on June 22. (Photo courtesy of Fueled by Ramen).

However, there are several redeeming moments on the record, particularly when Panic!’s clever songwriting overcomes Jake Sinclair’s tired production.   

On “Hey Look Ma, I Made It” and “Roaring 20s”, Urie sings about career woes and keeping up the momentum of success. It becomes clear, now and again, that underneath his slick, bad-boy charm, Urie is still struggling with his fame. “Maybe I’ll elevate, maybe I’m second rate/So unaware of my status,” he sings on “Roaring 20s.”

Moreover, Christian faith lingers as an overarching theme of the album. Apart from the title itself, words like “baptize,” “heaven,” “demons,” and “Holy Spirit” all find their way throughout the record, suggesting that Urie is looking beyond secular methods to deal with his struggles and towards a higher power.

In a similarly vulnerable fashion,  “Dancing’s Not a Crime” takes an interesting spin on infidelity. Notably, the most fascinating aspect about the track is that it seems to be a direct response to the band’s 2013 hit “Girls /Girls / Boys.”

On “Girls / Girls / Boys,” Urie consciously avoids a relationship, singing proudly about his aversion to becoming a “boyfriend.” In a complete character-arc, Urie has a change of heart on “Dancing’s Not a Crime,” as he sings, “And I just wanna be your boyfriend, girlfriend, yeah.”

It isn’t until the closer track that Urie presents the album’s standout track, “Dying in LA.”

Markedly different from the rest of “Pray,” this somber ballad expresses the heartbreak of unfulfilled Hollywood dreams with resonant, harmonic piano chords. While Urie never shies away from showcasing his impressive vocal range, “Dying in LA” particularly provides intimacy and connection to Urie’s bittersweet vibrato—something lacking in the remainder of the LP.

While “Dying in LA” highlights the isolation that can come from being unsuccessful, it also brings dreams together in a twisted, melancholic unity. The song is  undeniably sad, but it ends on a semblance of hope, not necessarily for L.A., but for the future of Panic!’s evolving sound. “Dying in LA” is an example of just how brilliant the band can be.

While most of “Pray for the Wicked” include Urie’s classically confident chants, there seems to be some hurt just beneath the surface. Perhaps the album cover could provide some insight: Urie stands on top of a building, looking down at the cityscape with his toes right at the edge of the building. What’s more — he appears to be praying.

Perhaps fans can join in and pray for a new outlook on a future album: one that’s more inspired, and possibly more original.