Twenty One Pilots have made a name for themselves with their disarmingly ambiguous brand of pop music, but I’m sure you didn’t need to hear that from me. It’s been three years since the release of the duo’s breakout effort, Blurryface, and, much to the band’s chagrin, the singles that stemmed from this album are still inescapable. They were quick to grow tired of the songs that catapulted them into the car radio’s of new fans — Tyler Joseph would often change the words to standout single “Stressed Out” when they performed it live as a means to express his frustration with the success of that particular piece. This familiar kind of burnout drove the band into a year-long hiatus of sorts. In that year, the band dove headfirst into creating something more cynical and enveloping than anything they’d released to date. The fruit’s of this effort are ripe within the depths of their new album Trench, which was only recently released on Fueled By Ramen.
Trench is, without question, the heftiest work we’ve seen from the duo. Callback to songs that span the entirety of their career run rampant through each lyrical passage and we’ve seen the character of Blurryface become fully realized as someone to be feared. Somehow, they’ve found a way to make their amorphous approach to pop music feel more cohesive than it has before. It’s immediately apparent that the album is meant to feel war-torn — the visuals are militant and stark, using hard and contrasting colors to elicit a response from viewers, and lead single “Jumpsuit” is the kind of emphatic and driving battle-cry that could motivate even the most pacifistic of people to stand up and fight. Still, each of these tracks finds a way to effortlessly bleed into the next, even when it feels like the two couldn’t exist at further ends of the spectrum. “Jumpsuit” blurs right into “Levitate,” taking the album from the throws of crunchy and aggressive rock music into one of the heaviest and most relentless flows we’ve heard from Joseph in a long time. He doesn’t take a second to catch his breath, rather, he opts to let each and every thought that comes to mind fall onto the paper in order to help further construct the narrative of this record: a stark, haunting portrait of anxiety and the violent warfare with self that stems from it.
The music videos for three of the album’s four pre-release singles paint a vivid image of the battleground that is the brain of Tyler Joseph. There is a constant battle between the need to move forward and surrendering to Blurryface: do you continue to grow as an artist or allow yourself to rest on your laurels for the sake of continued monetary success? If the visuals hold any candle of truth to Joseph’s feelings, it’s clear that this is something that he spent the better part of the last year mulling over. He’s inches from a taste of real freedom and then Blurryface grabs him by the throat to remind him of all that he’s been afforded because of their joint success. This feeling of dread lingers over the majority of the record. It’s highs and lows feel monumental, swooping from the peaks of consistently forward-moving tracks like “Morph” and “The Hype” into the harrowing depths of melancholic moments of stagnant self-loathing and social awareness that come from tracks like “Chlorine” and “Neon Gravestones.”
For clarity’s sake, I want to make note of the fact that the highs of which I speak aren’t a sunshiney moment of blissful escape from the overarching dread that ties this record together. These highs are moments that feel like a push forward in the face of it. In fact, “Morph” is probably one of the slower songs on the record. The vibe of the track is somewhere in the middle of Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” and their own one-off megahit “Heathens.” Just, without any of the sexuality that radiates from Gambino’s work. This is a stark difference from something like “The Hype,” a track which is so indebted to the vocal melodies of 90’s pop-rock legends Oasis that it would be criminal not to make mention of it. While I do love those tracks for what they are, I just can’t stop bringing myself back to the parts of this record that see Joseph at his most introspective. The most pivotal of these moments on the record is “Neon Gravestones.” This track sees Twenty One Pilots grapple with a subject matter that would have been much easier to tip-toe around: the impact of media coverage surrounding suicide. I’ve spent a lot of time both on Twitter and in real life shouting into the void about how I feel that the media frenzy surrounding suicide has allowed for the act to become weaponized, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been able to tackle it with the kind of finesse that is brought to the table here. The third and final verse is one that has really struck me on repeat listens, and reads:
Don’t get me wrong, the rise in awareness
Is beating a stigma that no longer scares us
But for sake of discussion, in spirit of fairness
Could we give this some room for a new point of view?
And could it be true that some could be tempted
To use this mistake as a form of aggression?
A form of succession?
A form of a weapon?
Thinking “I’ll teach them”
Well, I’m refusing the lesson
It won’t resonate in our minds
I’m not disrespecting what was left behind
Just pleading that it does not get glorified
Maybe we swap out what it is that we hold so high
Find your grandparents or someone of age
Pay some respects for the path that they paved
To life, they were dedicated
Now, that should be celebrated
The rightful sensitivity that surrounds the subject makes it difficult to have a conversation that doesn’t feel driven by a passionate fire meant to illuminate whichever side of the fence you may fall on. So I don’t think it much of a stretch to call this one of the riskiest songs that Twenty One Pilots has written to date. Out of context, the track could very easily come across as a preachy lecture that you didn’t ask for — the kind of grandiose and sweeping statement that people wish artists would refrain from making when it comes to a subject matter such as this, but that’s not the case here. It’s embedded in a work that brings light to the darkest, snarling voices that whisper about the comfort of death when we’re at our worst. This isn’t just a lecture to listeners, It’s Joseph reminding himself that life is worth celebrating. That darkness is tempting but the distant light is more rewarding. It’s a breath between tears that held the weight of millions of kids looking to be heard. It’s reflection that turns into what Tim Gunn would call a “Make It Work” moment that breaks the levee for the likes of “The Hype” and “Nico and the Niners.”
The latter of the two was released in conjunction with “Jumpsuit” and it’s not hard to see why. The songs are inarguably relative and feed on the same rebellious and truly free energy. Where “Jumpsuit” is the battle-cry meant to move the masses, “Nico and the Niners” is the cadence called by the soldiers of progress. It’s a rallied march across enemy lines that is meant to boast even the smallest of victories. It’s from this moment on that we see Joseph really come into himself. He doesn’t seem to be wary of the resurgence of Blurryface and now basks in the glow of the seemingly stable footing he’s found. On “Bandito” he uses the lyrics “I created this world/To feel some control/Destroy it if I want/So I sing Sahlo/Folina Sahlo/Folina” to remind himself that, at this moment, he has full control over what has plagued him. The distant light is finally in sight, and you can feel a sense of weightlessness start to surround him. He’s not unaware of the presence of his demons. He’s accepted they exist. He just won’t live in fear of the moment that they choose to rear their ugly heads again. The bishops can come, but the banditos will fight.
There’s no better way to end the conversation about this record than with its own closing remarks. On “Leave This City,” Joseph talks openly about confronting the demons he’s been dealing with since his abrupt rise to stardom, singing:
Last year I needed change of pace
Couldn’t take the pace of change
But this year, though I’m far from home
In Trench I’m not alone
These faces facing me
What I mean