Boys in emo bands have it pretty good these days, don’t they? The chords are easy, the girls adoring, and the Facebook friends bountiful. Plus, for all the specificity of their tribal markings — the guyliner, the geometric swoops of hair, the exquisitely tight jeans — today’s scene makers cut an increasingly large swath demographically: Last year alone, Fall Out Boy dabbled in hip-hop by nabbing a Jay-Z cameo (”Thriller”); Gym Class Heroes repurposed a decades-old Supertramp hook for a top 10 pop hit (”Cupid’s Chokehold”); and the Plain White T’s pleased tweens and moms alike with a sweet acoustic ballad (”Hey There Delilah”).
As for Panic at the Disco? Just barely out of their teens, the Las Vegas foursome sold more than 1.7 million copies of their propulsive 2005 debut, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, and in 2006 snagged MTV’s Video of the Year award. Though they scrapped a mysterious concept CD last year, they’ve managed to bust through any remaining confines of the genre with Pretty. Odd., an admirably ambitious musical bonanza. There are arena anthems (”Nine in the Afternoon,” ”That Green Gentleman,” ”Pas de Cheval”), fiddle-ridden goofs (”Folkin’ Around”), intricate Beatles psych-outs (”She Had the World,” ”Behind the Sea,” ”The Piano Knows Something I Don’t Know”), orchestral Smiths-ian rambles (”Do You Know What I’m Seeing?”) — even a kicky juke-joint swinger (”I Have Friends in Holy Spaces”).
Meanwhile, the twisty song titles of the past — e.g., ”The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage” — are gone. And the band’s arch, almost smarmy lyrics are here replaced by more sincere, if less clever, sentiments: ”Oh how it’s been so long/We’re so sorry we’ve been gone/We were busy writing songs for you,” singer Brendon Urie coos cozily on ”We’re So Starving.” In fact, nearly all the signposts of modern-day emo are AWOL; this is a showy, sprawling, old-fashioned pop experience, pure and simple.
In the end, Pretty. Odd. is more pretty than odd. The band may occasionally outpace themselves in an eagerness to make a Big Important Record (the songwriting occasionally falls flat, and their inspirations are sometimes too transparent), but they succeed an impressive amount of the time. It’s almost — dare we say it? — a headphones album, a dense, largely enjoyable layer cake of ideas and instrumentation that might actually alienate its teenage fans. Or, one hopes, it may inspire them to delve into their parents’ record collection for Sgt. Pepper’s, Cheap Trick at Budokan, Kris Kristofferson’s The Silver Tongued Devil and I, and all the other stuff that, you know, ”old” people dig. And that may be Pretty‘s best surprise of all. B+
DOWNLOAD THIS: Hear ”That Green Gentleman” and the rest of Pretty. Odd. at mtv.com