In Defense of…

Let me describe an album to you. It’s not really a concept album but most of its tracks are thematically linked. It’s divided into two separate sonic halves, the first based around simple, poppy instrumentation and the second around more complex compositions and arrangements. Between the two halves is a segue track that, during its two minute run, actually transitions from the style of the first half to that of the second. Key, time signature, and tempo changes are all integral parts of how several of the songs function (especially in that more intricate second half). The lyrics and song titles are clever (albeit sometimes needlessly verbose) and make reference and allusion to art-house movies and obscure books. Sounds like a pretty interesting record, right? What artist would put out such an album? The Dear Hunter? Places and Numbers, maybe? Gates? Well, while the description I provided does plausibly fit with any of those artists, the particular release I was describing is A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. The first release by Panic! At the Disco.

Did you hear that? That was the sound of a thousand Internet windows closing at once. To those of you who were able to resist the urge to close this tab and continue Facebook stalking your exes, I tip my hat. As reward for your patience, let me try to explain why you should give A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out another shot. And given that it’s become a cultural touchstone for all that was wrong with the first inglorious wave of the Internet music boom (Remember when PureVolume was an important website? Neither do I!), that it spawned one of the most obnoxious memes in recent memory ([Insert Emo Girl’s Name Here]! At the Disco), and that it is generally loathed by anyone who considers themselves remotely music savvy (and even by a lot of folks who don’t), it’s understandable that you would be dubious about my claim. But over the next few paragraphs, I’ll let you in on a little secret that I’ve been enjoying since 2005: A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out is actually a pretty damn good record.

You’ll note that I’ve said nothing in defense of the album’s art design.

First up, let’s debunk several of the reasons that people cite for hating this record. We’ll start with the fact that, yes, that meme and the seemingly endless wave of sideswept haircuts and terrible self portraits that went along with it were terrible. Obviously. (Of this social movement, Nate Ruess cleverly quipped, “All the girls pose the same for pictures, all the boys got the same girls’ hair” in The Format’s 2006 track ‘She Doesn’t Get It’.) But just because the fans of something are terrible doesn’t necessarily mean that the thing itself is terrible. Just keep in mind that no matter who your favourite band is, there are terrible idiots who like them (I assure you, this is true), and while the terrible idiots who obsessed over the first Panic! At the Disco record were omnipresent during a crucial time in the Internet’s ascent to social prominence, that still doesn’t actually affect the sonic quality of the record (I promise). If you are finding this difficult, think of every person you’ve ever seen do or say something stupid at a concert of a band you like. Just because Duane got drunk and started screaming “EVERLONG” after every song at the Foo Fighters’ show doesn’t make them any less awesome. A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out became the record that symbolized an army of terrible, terrible emo kids, and eventually that relationship deteriorated until A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out simply was seen as a terrible, terrible record on it’s own. As Christopher Nolan is quick to point out, sometimes, in the eyes of the people, a symbol becomes the thing it symbolizes (see: Batman, The). It’s an understandable incidence of transference that happens to be – in this case – sonically inaccurate. A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out didn’t make you hate the idea of Panic! At the Disco; Myspace kids did.

And in a related note, the separation of art and artist is an important distinction to maintain. You can think Ernest Hemingway is kind of a dick for his drunken, womanizing ways while still appreciating the fact that ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ is one of the greatest short stories in American history. Your opinion of the artist does not necessarily have to color your opinion of their art – this has been a problem for Panic! At the Disco, whose art has always been, at best, secondary to their image, and at worst, utterly consumed by it. But at the core of it, the idea of Panic! At the Disco as flamboyant, make-up wearing, fancy-boys has no tangible bearing on the audio recording of A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out.

I know, I know, it’s hard. Just try to ignore this and focus on the music.

Next up: a snag that everyone is familiar with, most people are guilty of, and that doesn’t honestly require much explanation. Panic! At the Disco was the proverbial ‘next big thing’ before the release of A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. Then it came out. Panic! At the Disco were suddenly and hugely popular. Consequently, after the record’s release, all the ‘cool’ kids who had thought Panic! At the Disco was just dandy (feelings based on a collection of demo tracks) thought that the record (i.e. the fleshed out versions of those very same demos) was an abomination. If you like something before it’s cool, chances are you think you’re pretty cool for doing it. And, as Malcolm Gladwell expertly pointed out, for better or worse, people who think they’re pretty cool don’t like what a lot of other people openly like (unless it’s done ironically and God, I don’t even want to go down that road). That’s pretty much all there is – Panic! At the Disco was a hit. They were liked by a lot of people and therefore could not be cool with people who are concerned about such things (as most audiophiles and music critics are, if we’re being honest). Combine that with the symbol-becomes-the-thing mentality (which applies here as well in regard to uncoolness) and it’s easy to see how A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out quickly became an album that any self-respecting audiophile didn’t want any part of.

Their image aside, much has been made of Panic! At the Disco ushering in a wave of bands who were signed to record labels without having actually played any shows, thereby destroying music and stealing contracts out from underneath the hard-working, show-playing bands that had earned the right to be on a label. Let’s pump the brakes for a minute here. While some of that sentiment is grounded in truth (Panic! had not truly played any shows before being signed as the result of a series of fortunate-for-them coincidences involving Pete Wentz) the idea that Panic! At the Disco themselves were stealing work from any other bands is preposterous. Let me reference you to Malcolm Gladwell once again who wrote an entire book based around the idea that hard work and skill are certainly a part of creating success, but that both are oftentimes secondary to circumstance. Panic! At the Disco weren’t sabotaging music (and can’t be asked to answer for any of the copycat signings that other labels committed in an attempt to replicate the success of A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out), they were just lucky. Of course there were and are bands that are very deserving of being signed that will never be given the opportunity, but look at it from Panic! At the Disco’s point of view: they wanted to be musicians, they were working in their own fashion towards that goal when fortune intervened and allowed their dream to become reality. How many bands/individuals would have turned down that opportunity because they hadn’t earned it yet? Right. None.

If this were a less reputable website, this caption would read “Don’t hate the playa,” or some such drivel.

Now that we’ve stripped away most of the cultural stigmas regarding A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, almost all of which work to negatively influence the discerning listener, we can look at the album as it is, without all the politicized drama, name-calling, and stance-taking that came to surround it. It’s not a perfect album by any means, and that’s important to mention. Just as important to mention however, is that no album that falls short of complete transcendence is a perfect album. Somehow, among all the good but imperfect records of the world, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out managed to develop a reputation as the nadir of an entire movement – as the flagship record of musical mediocrity – despite the fact that, as previously mentioned, it’s actually a pretty damn good record.

The album is divided into two halves. The first half, tracks 1-7, are the synth-heavy, dancy pop songs that ultimately defined the record (with one exception to be discussed shortly). These six full songs (the first track is no more than an introduction) are fast and blistering, featuring lots of quiet-loud dichotomy and an abundance of dancy, off-beat hi-hat. They’re pop songs, and ultimately, pretty solid ones. Melodies are mostly well-constructed with ‘The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage’ and ‘Time to Dance’ standing out as good examples (and an exception for the cynics: the verse of ‘Lying Is the Most Fun A Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off’ is notably wobbly). The polarizing synth that seemed so important to the public conception of the band is actually used primarily as background accompaniment (with a few exceptions) and this is done quite effectively at that. All told, the eighth track (the transitional ‘Intermission’) is the most over-the-top dancy thing on the whole record … until halfway through when we hear a snippet from the Orson Welles broadcast of War of the Worlds and the song evolves into a (well-constructed) vaudevillian piano solo (with a gradually shifting tempo). And just like that, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out moves from dance-pop songs with a suprising amount of technical prowess into a second half filled with lush forward-thinking orchestral baroque pop.

‘But It’s Better If You Do’, the first track of the record’s second half, is built around a piano-based verse and a brass-based chorus, a cappella one-liners, a handful of asymmetrical elements (claps, extra drums, an organ), and a prolonged snare roll that closes out the track before a string-quartet’s plucked staccato introduction fades into the next track, ‘I Write Sins Not Tragedies,’ which – if you’ve only heard one song from the album – is likely the one. And even if you’re loath to admit it to anyone save your innermost self, I’m betting you like it at least a little bit. And why wouldn’t you? It’s a great pop song. The melodramatic lyrics draw lots of attention and ultimately, they’re clever, if overdone; the song actually delivers believable sarcasm and this is not an easy thing to do. But it’s the instrumentation that again is worth noting. Once more, we’ve got that commonplace quiet-loud contrast, but here there are drum rolls, orchestral swells, and an amazing use of toy piano in the right speaker during the verses. With their biggest hit, Panic! At the Disco didn’t break any terribly new ground, but they did write an excellent pop song. These first few songs of the latter half of A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out begin to show the album’s ability to mix pop hooks with elaborate instrumentation, an admittedly difficult feat made all the more impressive by the album’s concluding tracks, which turn up the complexity without sacrificing any catchy goodness.

Case in point: after the bouncy ‘I Constantly Thank God For Esteban’, we come to the final two tracks of A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out – and the crux of my argument that this album is unfairly maligned. The final two songs of this record have all the unique instrumentation, atypical arrangement, modulation, and time changes that we typically associate with more respected acts, to the point where – and given my fandom of the band I’m about to mention this is not said lightly – I think that if Casey Crescenzo had sung these last two songs and thrown them on The Dear Hunter’s Violet EP people would probably be discussing them as great songs. But he didn’t. Ryan Ross wrote them and Brendan Urie sang them and Panic! At the Disco released them in the midst of a social and critical maelstrom, and now they’re remembered as throwaway tracks on a shunned album. In light of the thousand preceding words, I think it’s fair to say that this makes me sad. If you take nothing else from this article, please take this: it’s worth your time to revisit ‘There’s a Good Reason These Tables Are Numbered Honey, You Just Haven’t Thought of It Yet’ and ‘Build God, Then We’ll Talk.’ They are phenomenally constructed pop songs brimming with incredible instrumentation, arrangement, lyrics, melodies, and a style all their own. These two songs offer a version of baroque pop that is unrivalled, and they deserve your attention, even if it’s belated.

Lyrically, it’s easy to dismiss A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out because of the verbose (and therefore emo and bad!) nature of its lyrics and song titles, but things are not so simple. Songs take their titles from Wes Anderson movies and Chuck Palaniuk novels – ‘Build God, Then We’ll Talk’ even makes melodic and lyrical allusion to The Sound of Music – and given those diverse influences, it starts to become clear that A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out isn’t akin to Hemingway and his short, declarative expression; it’s more like Dickens and his cavalcade of troubled characters with their complex relationships. The album’s lyrics focus on infidelity and cheap romance, and while the execution is often over the top, the underlying question raised seems to be sincere and borderline poignant: at what cost do we cheat, lie, and steal (emotionally) from one another? (Bonus points go out for ‘London Beckoned Songs About Money Written by Machines’ which preemptively flipped a huge middle finger to both critics and supporters of the album in one of the greatest “I’m writing this album for me, not you” moments in recent memory.)

Songwriter and musical architect Ryan Ross deserves full marks for constructing something so vibrant and with such depth (especially given the difficult and pressure-packed arena of his composition) and it’s a shame that the critical community has been so quick to dismiss an album that has such life. A Fever That You Can’t Sweat Out is not the greatest album of our time, but it is a great album. It is also emblematic of a problem that is commonplace in musical criticism: when an album becomes a cultural symbol, it becomes easy to critique that symbolism rather than the music itself. We’ve learned enough to give A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out the second chance that it assuredly deserves, and hopefully our fair-mindedness will spare some future albums this same treatment.

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This post originally appeared at Type In Stereo.

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