Summer 2017 was the weirdest one yet for Brendon Urie. Eight times a week from late May to early August, the Panic! At The Disco frontman walked out onto the stage at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, nestled in the heart of Manhattan, to thunderous applause as Charlie Price in the Broadway musical Kinky Boots.
Much like touring, life on Broadway can be, especially from the outside, unassumingly brutal. The highs are certainly high (look no further than the million-dollar smile during the show-closing “Raise You Up/Just Be”). But after the din of the curtain call fades and the crowds head home, there’s yet another show tomorrow—sometimes two.
Because of safety concerns related to the someone-call-a-fire-marshal-sized throng of fans who camped by the stage door after Kinky Boots performances, Urie, unlike his castmates, wasn’t able to leave the theater on days with both a matinee and evening performance. That led to a lot of afternoons spent watching movies, playing video games and, of course, tinkering with new music in his upstairs dressing room in the supposedly haunted theater. Over time, the grind started taking its toll.
“I [had no idea] how it was going to be,” he explains of his time in New York. “I was there because I wanted to be; I could not believe I was on Broadway. At the same time I was living out this dream, I was missing out on home life. I was getting so homesick. All I wanted to do was be home. I think I was having a little envy thinking about everyone at home chilling in their houses, swimming…and I’m out here working. But then I had to think, ‘Why am I out here? This is fun as hell. What a once in a lifetime opportunity.’”
Over big band swing and a sample of Maynard Ferguson’s “Latino Lovewalk,” Urie unfolds all the conflicting emotions that followed his thespian turn on “Roaring 20s,” a standout track from Panic!’s sixth studio album, Pray For The Wicked: elation, inadequacy and an overwhelming sense of California dreaming (“Roll me like a blunt/’Cause I wanna go home”). They’re all there, proof that no matter how successful you might become, sometimes the grass is always greener on the other side of the concrete jungle.
That internal conflict is what makes Pray For The Wicked such a captivating listen. Whereas Death Of A Bachelor largely celebrated the “and”—a kitchen-sink mentality that embraced excess, both lyrically and musically—Urie’s new album has learned to live with the “but.” Songwriter Sam Hollander, who collaborated with Urie on a handful of Death Of A Bachelor tracks and played a large role in the writing of the majority of Pray For The Wicked, talks about the set as an album that leans on fantasy and absurdity in an attempt to counterbalance the head-spinning cultural zeitgeist of the 21st century.
The first single, “Say Amen (Saturday Night),” juxtaposes deeply ingrained ties to his Mormon upbringing with his present day nonbelief, while the club anthem “Hey Look Ma, I Made It” (a collaboration with Dillon Francis) on the surface channels many of the same my-time-has-come emotions he previously mined on songs such as “Emperor’s New Clothes” or “Victorious.” But when lines like “In the garden of evil, I’m gonna be the greatest” are undercut with more melancholy, affecting honesty (“I’m a hooker selling songs/And my pimp’s a record label”), you’re not sure whether that champagne in front of you from the club’s bottle service is half empty or full.
“The storytelling is a lot more matter of fact,” Urie says of Wicked’s songs. “‘Hey Look Ma’ is like, ‘I made it, but at what price?’ At the end of the day, am I the character people see me as? How far will I let people carry that? How long will I let myself believe that?
It’s true: Urie’s not getting Best New Music status on Pitchfork any time soon, but deep down, he also couldn’t care less. While Pray For The Wicked eventually won out, he thought about adapting a Lord Byron quote, “Fame is the thirst of youth,” for the album’s title, a perfect encapsulation of his headspace as he heads into his sixth chapter.
“At the beginning of Panic!’s early success, fame was sexy to me,” he says. “It’s safe to say I was drunk on fame at times. But as I focused on what was important to me and the things I was passionate about, fame just became a byproduct. [It was] a lame hanger-on to the shit I was actually feeling accomplished and passionate about. So, naturally, I stopped caring about fame. The older I get, the less fucks I give.”
The massive commercial rebirth he’s enjoyed since the band’s 2013 comeback proves he doesn’t need to recruit Max Martin to make a hit record. He can do that with his best friends, the honesty that’s guided him this far and a blank canvas as big as his voice. Whatever success comes from that is, as he sings on the album-opening “(Fuck A) Silver Lining,” cherries on top.
“It’s so fun getting on the high points that I dread the low points,” he says. “But then when there are low points, I look forward to the high ones. It’s such a roller coaster.”
“I used to fall into a trap of keeping my expectations low, so I wouldn’t get disappointed in myself, but then you don’t make any moves or try to better your own situation,” he continues. “Looking back on it and…I don’t regret it, but I’m glad I’ve moved past it. I want to move forward and fail and remember how that feels and remind myself to never forget how it feels.
“[I want to be] constantly prepared for this moment where you can really reward yourself with something great.”
This feature originally appeared in AP issue #359 with cover star Panic! At The Disco, which is available here.