Given the success of its emo-whelped debut A Fever You Can't Sweat Out and sonically adventurous follow-up, Pretty. Odd., Las Vegas outfit Panic! at the Disco appeared to be in it for the long run.
Then two key members — co-writers Ryan Ross and Jon Walker — casually bowed out to launch their Byrds-influenced combo The Young Veins, essentially leaving vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Brendon Urie and drummer Spencer Smith in the dust. The two musicians were graciously allowed to retain the Panic moniker.
But seriously — what could they really do with it?
A lot, as it turned out. For the remarkably solid comeback, Vices & Virtues, the duo hired pop-savvy producer Butch Walker, retained their longtime knob-twiddler John Feldmann, and emerged with a sweeping, panoramic 10-song suite that borders on the symphonic brilliance of vintage ELO and Queen. And they did it in total DIY style.
"I played everything but the drums," notes Urie, who was already one of rock's most unique neo-vaudevillian singers. "So I did vocals, keyboards, guitars, bass and other little keyboard stuff, like a little piano and organ. And other than that, we definitely needed the help of Rob Mathes to create the string arrangements with us. But we're kinda proud to say that we played most of the stuff ourselves."
Listen closely to 2008's Pretty. Odd., and the schism now seems inevitable. Urie's compositions were starting to skyrocket into prog/glam left field, while Ross' felt more grounded in the Dylan/Beach Boys/Roger McGuinn direction he would soon pursue with Walker.
"It was kind of a slow process," says Urie, who's now based in Southern California. "Ryan and Jon didn't just spring up and go, 'Hey, guys — we're leaving!' It was a slow realization. We'd been on tour for a while, and in the studio, and the musical differences were so vast and huge that we should've seen it coming. But you see them some days, and then other days you wouldn't see them until everybody got onstage.
"It just took a while to slowly realize that, yeah, this is the best decision. Because if we try to force a record out, we're all gonna hate it, it's not gonna be fun, and that's not what we're all about. So it made sense, and I'm glad that we did it, because we're all able to stay friends now. Ryan is such a talented writer, but it does make it harder when you have four different opinions to compromise through."
Freed from the more collective approach, the duo delved into surreal cuts like "The Ballad of Mona Lisa," which parlays a tinkly music-box melody into a huge arena-rock chorus. Then they hired a team of artists called The League of Steam to create a campy, steampunk-themed video, after which they began figuring out how to incorporate steampunk motifs into their live shows. "It just opened up another door on our creativity."
For the avid ELO fan, who admits to spinning their Discovery and A New World Record albums nearly every day, it was an opportunity to stop second-guessing himself.
"I was hiding in the shadows with things that I knew I wanted to do, but I never made it clear," Urie says. "But now, working through this record and having the responsibility for writing all the lyrics and stuff, it's forced me to be more definitive with the things I've wanted to do and say."