Ever since he was a hypersyllabic, top-hat-clad emo-pop upstart in the mid-2000s, Brendon Urie has always been about the grand gesture. His project Panic! At the Disco, which began as a band with his childhood friends and has evolved into a solo venture, has trafficked in big moves, whether it’s following up TRL success with knotty baroque pop as it did on 2008’s Pretty. Odd. or covering Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” in concert.
Despite the of-the-moment trappings of Panic! songs like the speedy 2006 breakthrough single “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” and the relentlessly peppy 2018 cut “High Hopes”—not to mention his April 1987 birthdate—Urie’s showmanship and ability make him something of a throwback to the eras that have since been calcified as “classic rock.” Viva Las Vengeance, a poison-pen love letter to his hometown, makes that comparison explicit, nodding to (and sometimes wholesale borrowing from) jukebox classics while adding a maximalist, meta-reference-stuffed spin that’s very 2020s. The album is like a wild ride in a muscle car where someone’s constantly fiddling with the radio, forever chasing the high that comes with hearing the perfect riff at the perfect moment.
Recorded to tape with longtime collaborator Jake Sinclair (Weezer, Fall Out boy) and power-pop guru Mike Viola (Candy Butchers, Andrew Bird), Viva Las Vengeance sounds great, its piston-like licks and soaring solos acting like time machines to a rose-colored-glasses-refracted era. Urie is in reflective mode lyrically, although the outsized music can distract from just how pensive he gets (“Stare at a wall that’s told a thousand tragedies/ Holding a hand that’s loved every part of me,” he muses on the Janis Ian-interpolating “Don’t Let the Light Go Out,” which mushrooms into a chorus where Urie is in full wail). There are references to his quick come-up nearly two decades ago on “Local God,” which explodes its taut opening riffs into a sparkling stacked-harmony chorus; “Star Spangled Banger” finds Urie channeling Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott on the boogieing verses, which take a nostalgia trip back to his rule-breaking teen years. Viva Las Vengeance is at its most satisfying when Urie leans fully into movie-musical mode, like on the breakup-encouraging “Something About Maggie” and the mini-epic “God Killed Rock And Roll,” which uses Argent’s 1973 power ballad “God Gave Rock and Roll To You” as a springboard into a gleeful demolishing of rock and roll mythos. “Sad Clown,” meanwhile, finds Urie fully channeling the spirit of Queen (and their studio-wizard heirs like Jellyfish), complete with operatic backing choirs acting as his all-seeing narrators. It’s a gutsy move that succeeds as much as it does because of its audacity—a theme in Urie’s career that’s made Panic! At the Disco one of modern pop’s more compelling acts.