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Panic! at the Disco, ‘Vices & Virtues’ (Decaydance/Fueled by Ramen)

The competition is tough for Emo’s Most-Avowed Dramatist — Gerard Way? Jared Leto?! — but Panic! at the Disco singer Brendon Urie might take the golden compact.

To wit: In 2009, Urie’s devotion to theatrical pomp forced the Las Vegas quartet to split over creative differences. Drummer Spencer Smith sided with Urie, while guitarist Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker left to explore the ’60s British Invasion sounds that defined 2009’s Pretty. Odd. Urie’s first move post-split? Restore the band’s original punctuation (Pretty. Odd. lacked the trademark exclamation point). That’s the equivalent of raising the emo-for-life flag, and Panic!’s new album is a pledge of allegiance — Vices & Virtues‘ opening track and first single, “The Ballad of Mona Lisa,” deals in black fingernails, empty gin bottles, and desperate teen melodrama. The video is a hyper-stylized steampunk funeral scene.

With help from songwriter-producers Butch Walker (Avril Lavigne, Weezer) and John Feldman (Good Charlotte, Foxy Shazam), Vices & Virtues returns to the slick, big-production pop of the band’s two-million-selling, 2005 debut A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out — heart-collapsing arena guitars, swelling strings, and overheated, mallrat-baiting choruses. But without Ross, the group’s main songwriter, who drew on his own scarred youth (including the early death of his alcoholic father), Urie steps in to pen the lyrics, and the result is verbose and generic diary-entry romance (“‘Sentimental boy’ is my nom de plume,” he wails in “Trade Mistakes”).

Vices & Virtues’ saving grace, though, is the varied instrumentation — marimbas, xylophones, accordion, synths, digital atmospherics — which brings stronger footing to Pretty. Odd.‘s go-for-baroque Beatlemania. On the album’s most compelling track, “Let’s Kill Tonight,” drum machines, 8-bit video-game synths, and goth-industrial effects collide in a castle-storming chorus. Unfortunately, Urie is left at the gate, still bitching about “cold hearts.”