After the legendary pop-rock and emo project’s biggest breakthrough into the mainstream yet with Pray For The Wicked – Taylor Swift collabs and politicians dancing to the inescapable “High Hopes” included – the third release as a Brendon Urie solo act, now verging on a 20-year career carrying on the Panic! moniker, arrives after a four-year hiatus. Despite the pristine pop and theatrical tones of their last project eventually getting tiresome after being played to death, the first couple listens certainly proved just how good Urie can be at firing people up with one of his soaring choruses, delivered with a seemingly boundless vocal range. With so much time off, what in the world possibly went so wrong? I have to imagine that Viva Las Vengeance sounds like what everyone who vehemently despises the project thought they sounded like on its previous albums, as Urie takes everything obnoxious about his songwriting instincts and pushes each to maximum overdrive, coming across as the world’s most horrifying theatre kid who just got out of the cinema at a screening of Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s truly baffling how any of these songs got approved to go out into the world, but if nothing else, it’s ripe for unintentional comedy.
For all of the misguided lyricism on this project, the biggest factor to it being such an excruciating listening experience from beginning to end is, surprisingly enough, Brendon Urie’s vocals. He’s always been highly melodramatic and theatrical in his delivery, which might not be for everyone, but he’s never truly sounded bad before now. Nearly every performance on this project, on the contrary, feels strained and off-key, like he’s trying to push himself to hit big notes that feel out of place with the song’s melody, conscious that he’s losing the ability and trying to overcompensate to correct it. The instrumentals here are always competently produced to emulate a grandiose rock opera, but there’s nothing that could make it fall flatter than a frontman who sounds like he’s struggling drunkenly through the melodies, the polar opposite of someone like Freddie Mercury who he tries so hard to evoke. The one on the opening title track is so meandering that it doesn’t help his cause. Unfortunately enough, with a decent bridge, the track is one of the more competent on the project as a whole. But when he belts “shut uuuuuuup,” it just makes you wish someone would have said it to him before he recorded something like “Middle Of A Breakup.” The track opens with a disjointed cascade of drums, making me picture Urie frantically stumbling into the studio late and improvising one of the worst choruses of his life. It even begins with an off-key “oh s**t,” like he lost his place in the song, and the dissonant shifts in key persist through nearly every section. The background constantly alternates between two notes, bringing a morning alarm clock to mind.
The single “Don’t Let The Light Go Out” is truly the only song on the album that isn’t unlistenable – despite still being derivative of older country-rock classics and boiling down to what is essentially a climactic, strained and belted X-rated joke in the middle of otherwise serious proceedings. If you can imagine that the singer delivering the emotional chorus is a better singer and lyricist, it has the bones of a good song underneath. The track introduces one of the most unfathomable 3-song runs I’ve ever heard. “Local God” features what might be the worst vocal performance on the album – it genuinely sounds like he’s heaving, as if he were about to throw up – which is ironic because the subject matter is Urie mocking his ex-bandmates for not being as famous as he is, painting them as unredeemable bad guys because they had the audacity to care most about the music and not the fame. It’s one of the worst looks I’ve ever heard an artist depict themselves in. “Star Spangled Banger” utilizes some patriotic melodies at the worst possible time and combines them with starry-eyed, musical theatre-style gang vocals toasting to the underground movement they’re a part of and sudden tempo shifts to Urie trying to fit as many words as possible in a line and falling off beat while boasting about his past hookups. It’s an incomprehensible mess.
Like the previous track, it almost feels like Urie chose the title of “God Killed Rock and Roll” before writing the song to accompany it. With some resonant melodies and a highly derivative piano melody introducing things – just to make it patently obvious that Urie is blatantly ripping off “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a song he’s already released a cover of – the off-key vocals are worse when it’s a chorus of kids. The song builds up to what sounds like the worst song from the worst musical you’ve seen, with everything behind him hitting the same three notes on a repetitive “God killed rock,” a concept that is unintroduced and feels disconnected from the rest of the song. “Say It Louder” finds him returning to tired images of legends and gods, dedicating full choruses to dead memes, and referencing his “beautiful voice” while sounding worse than ever – emphasized by the music cutting out on a take when he fully misses a note. “Sugar Soaker” is a track that had the potential to be the one that’s so bad it’s good, the cheesiness verging on charming as he runs through car metaphors in an anthemic chorus rife with “c’mon”s, but the vocals and the insinuation that he might be having intimate relations with real cars drag it back own to earth. “Something About Maggie” continues the bewilderment with the most sunshiney, cheerful-sounding song you could imagine as Urie encourages the song’s subject to commit domestic violence and throws in an out-of-place reference to self-harm.
The fact that the EGOT champ Robert Lopez has a songwriting credit on “Sad Clown” might be one of the most confusing things about the album, with quite a few options to choose from, as it kicks off a final run of tracks offering a couple more helpings of all the worst parts of what came before. With whiplash tempo shifts here, the most blatant ripoff of the project on “All By Yourself” of the similarly-titled Eric Carmen original, and an track that feels like it ends twice before giving us more of the same on closer “Do It To Death.”
2022 has already provided us with a solid handful of colossal failures when it comes to its biggest projects, and the release and handful of promotion behind Viva Las Vengeance might be the most incomprehensible attempt of all. At least it has a kind of Man of the Woods quality to it, something almost charmingly laughable that’s always there to remind us of just how bad things can get.
Favourite Tracks: Don’t Let The Light Go Out, Sugar Soaker
Least Favourite Track: Star Spangled Banger