When Panic! At the Disco called it quits earlier this year, it bared little resemblance to the band Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz signed to his Deycandance Label back in 2005 after getting demos from former lead guitarist Ryan Ross via Live Journal. In fact, there was no band. After years of lineup changes, Brendon Urie used the Panic! At the Disco name for his solo project starting in 2015. But this dramatic shift didn’t hinder their success. If anything, they seemed to be bigger than ever thanks to chart-topping albums like Death of a Bachelor and Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! But before the lineup changes and Urie’s solo career, Panic! At the Disco were five friends from Vegas who shook up the alt-rock scene with their stellar debut album, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out.
Urie said he wanted the band to do “whatever we wanted” and that’s exactly what they did on their 2005 debut, but making it was a daunting task. After getting signed to Deycadance, the band entered the studio in June 2005 with only three and a half weeks to record on a budget of $11,000. Recording sessions were strenuous often lasting 14 hours a day five days a week. Adding to the tension were the band’s cramped living conditions; they shared a one-bedroom basement apartment that was so small they had to sleep in bunk beds. And because things weren’t stressful enough, Urie blew out his vocals after tracking the album.
During recording, the band went through “an identity crisis” trying to figure out the album’s sound. The electronic-based demos they wrote in Vegas didn’t match the rock-forward songs they wrote in the studio. Rather than ditching the rock songs, producer Matt Squire convinced them to include all tracks they recorded and use “the creative evolution as the theme of the album.” This was an ambitious move that would eventually pay off when the record was finally released three months later.
For an album that was a mess to make, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out is nearly perfect. It’s bold and unique with an eclectic sound and theatrical vibe not found on many albums of the time. This is a no skips album; each song is a banger. And if it weren’t for a well-timed and clever “Intermission” calling attention to the stylistic shift, you wouldn’t really notice it. It’s not jarring or disjointed. Rather both styles feel genuine coming from Panic! At the Disco.
What makes the album stand out is how it’s more of a weird, theatrical experience rather than just a collection of catchy songs. Urie and crew invite us to step inside this twisted world filled with sordid tales of illicit affairs, lust, greed, and Chuck Palahniuk references. Seriously, a lot of Chuck Palahniuk. Unlike their peers, Panic’s album wasn’t angsty and angry. Instead, it’s like sitting down for a cabaret show. The entire thing has this fantastical air to it as if it’s a soundtrack to a Tim Burton movie. Merging elements of pop punk, emo, baroque pop, and electronic shouldn’t work on paper, but the result is absolutely infectious. It’s hard to stop yourself from dancing when listening to the album.
Panic’s songs were not only catchy, they were clever and witty too. Beneath the sing-a-long hooks and upbeat music were tongue-in-cheek lyrics ranging from the deeply personal to straight-up satire. Some reference in-band jokes (“I Constantly Thank God For Esteban”), while others use personal experience to tell stories of infidelity and lust (“But It’s Better If You Do,” and “Lying Is the Most Fun a Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off”). Their wit shines on biting tracks like “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage” and “London Beckoned Songs About Money Written by Machines” where they gleefully took shots at critics and the music scene. They even made fun of the long song title trends with their own absurdly long song titles. Meanwhile, “Nails for Breakfast, Tacks for Snacks” and “Camisado” are oddly heavy dealing with issues of addiction.
Clever pop culture references are sprinkled throughout the album. As mentioned earlier, quotes from Chuck Palahuink’s work can be found on several songs, like “London Beckoned…” which includes a line from his 2003 book Diary: “Just for the record the weather today…” Meanwhile, “Time To Dance” is a retelling of Invisible Monsters and includes visual cues and quotes from the book. Elsewhere, the band parodies The Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things” on “Build God, Then We’ll Talk.” Urie sings “There are no raindrops on roses and girls in white dresses/It’s sleeping with roaches and taking best guesses,” condemning all elements of pageantry we face in life.
Their satirical and witty lyrics only added to the band’s devil-may-care attitude. Everything Panic did came with a wink and a nod, especially Urie who proved to be a charming showman. Before his problematic behavior became well known, it was easy to fall in love with his charisma. He was a great performer yet never took himself seriously with a playful and flamboyant air to his style. Even this early in his career you can hear his singing prowess. He has one of those instantly recognizable voices that’s harder to come by these days. He also sounds more natural here, not straining and stressing his voice as he would do later in his career. Showmanship comes naturally to Urie. It’s a shame that his later antics would overshadow his talent as a performer.
Upon release A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out wasn’t an instant success, rather it was a slow burner. It debuted at No. 112 on the Billboard 200 and would later peak at No. 13. Though it divided critics at the time, some praising the unique sound and others finding it too messy, the album would go on to sell 30,000 units per week thanks to their rabid online following and subsequent tour with Fall Out Boy. Their second single “I Write Sins Not Tradegies” made them breakout stars in the mainstream. That opening pizzicato still drives elder emos wild. By the end of the year, Panic! At the Disco were critical darlings of the alternative scene. The band would quickly abandon the sound that made them famous on the maligned Pretty Odd. Since its release, the album has gained a cult following, but it’s still considered a low point in their discography. Still, you gotta give them credit for staying true to their mantra of doing whatever they wanted instead of making A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out 2: Even Sweatier.
Looking back at their debut, Urie and Wentz admit they had no idea what they were doing in the studio, but that doesn’t come across on the album. They took the safe pop punk formula, injected it with baroque pop, camp, and theatrics to create a unique sound. The album captures everything that made Panic! At the Disco stand out from their peers: their witty humor, Urie’s over-the-top performance, their theatrical edge, and their weird style. Nearly 20 years later, the album remains as fresh and exciting as it did back in 2005. Nothing was like it at the time. There’s little that sounds like it today. Panic! At the Disco may be over, but A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out reminds us why we fell in love with them in the first place.