After releasing two albums, one a perfect pop/rock-meets-new wave classic, the other a very good follow-up, the Cars were game to try things a little differently on their third album Panorama. With longtime collaborator Roy Thomas Baker behind the boards, the band decamped to the Power Station in New York City and began working on a set of songs that were a little less poppy, both structurally and sonically. While the studio wasn't to their liking and they went back to the scene of Candy-O in California, they didn't forsake the more experimental aspects they had begun adding. Lead-off track "Panorama" features vocoder providing backing vocals, burbling synth sounds, and a song that's more about creating a mood of unease than it is knocking the listener over the head with a big, shiny hook, which had been their M.O. to that point. That they follow that with the lead single and catchiest song "Touch and Go" shows that the band wasn't quite ready to forsake the pop side of the fence. The pumping synths, stuttering rhythms, and a painfully needy vocal from Ric Ocasek give way to some wonderfully corny cowboy-style guitar picking and a swooning chorus that was the equal of anything they'd done to that point. The rest of the album mostly sticks to catchy new wave pop with the occasional weird synth here and odd texture there. Tracks like the moody "Don't Tell Me No," the jumpy Ben Orr-sung "Down Boys," or "Running to You" could have easily fit in on either of their first two albums; the slightly less immediate songs ("Misfit Kid," "Getting Through") are still fine modern rockers that any second-string band on a major-label would have been glad to call their best effort, and the nocturnal ballad "You Wear Those Eyes" is a lovely precursor to "Drive." While it's true that Panorama may be the work of a band in transition, taking baby steps in new directions, it's also the work of a band that couldn't help but make great music regardless. "Touch and Go" may be the song that people remember, but another spin or two will reveal a wealth of songs that are just as strong. The production, too, is just as striking as it is on previous efforts, as are the performances. Put it all together and it's difficult to understand why some people consider Panorama a weak link in the band's otherwise stellar early career. It may pale a little in comparison to The Cars and Candy-O, but it's still first-rate modern pop.
AllMusic Review by Tim Sendra