For Fans Of
I love Twenty One Pilots. The duo of singer/lyricist/songwriter Tyler Joseph and drummer, programmer (and occasional horns player) Josh Dunn are a better, more diverse and far more interesting group than most would ever admit or give them credit for. Remember: disliking a band just because their songs are popular and “overplayed” is one of the laziest smoothbrain takes ever. Twenty One Pilots are not and never were ground-breaking or revolutionary; they’re just a talented, lyrically forthcoming, style-blending and highly entertaining live act that’s gone on to become one of the biggest bands in the world today since 2013. ‘Vessel‘ was earnest, energetic art-pop and it was fucking good at it. ‘Blurryface‘ (2015), my favourite release of theirs, while a little long, was so bombastic in production, such a straight-shot in how personable it was about them as people and their rising success, and so diverse in genre-hopping, that the duo truly sounded world-class. Then ‘Trench‘ (2018) dived into a darker, experimental and conceptual realm, and turned out well through grungy stoner-rock and their best rap flow.
That isn’t to say they’re flawless. While the band has strong mental health advocacy, they also carry a big ego; that their music is supposedly better than other artists under the nebulous umbrella of “pop music” simply because they act holier than others and forcibly self-actualize that introspective sentiment in many of their songs. An aspect that some portions of their fan-base get far too fucking carried away with. (That “move your feet to an introspective beat” line from ‘Holding Onto You‘ is one of the corniest, self-serving lyrics of the 2010s.) As much as I enjoy the band’s music, the way certain lyrical passages come across, and the sheer praise heaped upon them just for Tyler’s anxious lyrical honesty, can sometimes reach the hyperbolic opposite of the Boomer mindset to rock: that Twenty One Pilots are more “legitimate” than other groups due to their songs’ emotional characteristics. It sometimes gets exhaustingly self-hyping.
And I’m still scratching my head to this day about why Tyler thought it was even remotely a good idea to post a random photo of his platform shoes after fans asked him to use his large social media platform to uplift various BLM voices during 2020’s mass protests. No one thinks the guy is a racist, obviously, but if you didn’t have anything to say, why the hell would post something that’s just going to come across as insensitive over Twitter?
Anyway, we now have ‘Scaled And Icy,’ their sixth LP that turns over a new leaf for the duo and is an album that I certainly do not love.
Twenty One Pilots experimenting further and trying a new sound on is cool. I can’t and never will knock them for that. Hopefully ensuring that their output doesn’t become too formulaic and that they keep moving forward, and I’ll always be interested in what they have to offer. (And I’m sure their next record will be something different than what’s come before it.) Yet ‘Scaled And Icy,’ for the most part, despite feeling like a progression of sorts, also feels extremely safe. Ironically enough, it’s rather formulaic in how it bleeds together various millennial indie-pop ideals, with some ’80s synths and new-wave vibes, and even some of the bright art-pop mannerisms of their past. There’s funky white-guy guitars (in the intro to ‘Saturday‘), Josh’s dry, dead-room drum tones that remain punchy throughout, plenty of pitched-around vocals, Tyler’s on-his-sleeve lyricism that acts as a snapshot of lockdown quarantine life, and the usual expected abundance of synthesisers.
There’s something new and something old for the two-piece here, as well as some things borrowed from other artists and releases for this album’s forcefully happy pop sound. It’s a new direction, no doubt, but one that kinda goes off a cliff at times. The closest comparison of this record within the band’s own universe would be ‘Vessel‘, but there’s also a big disparity with the quality between their vibrant 2013 LP and this drab new effort. Beyond that, this new album reminds me a lot of Paramore’s ‘After Laughter‘ (2017), which I felt similarly about: loved a handful of tracks, tolerated a couple, disliked the rest. It’s one step forward, two steps back, as ‘Scaled And Icy’s overall impression was an inconsistent mixed bag.
Small moments of their hip-hop influences cut through like on the awkward rap section in ‘The Outside‘; some knock-off Beatles and Elton John inspirations appear in the 1970s pop piano arrangement and vocal melodies of the eerily-cheery opener ‘Good Day‘ that borders on outright awful parody. Other moments are instead only tolerable, transparent in the “party” song of the somewhat vapid ‘Saturday‘ and the cute but completely innocuous ‘Bounce Man.’ Some cool ideas on ‘No Chances‘ – those awesome low chants in the intro, for instance – don’t quite get the development time they maybe should have, everything jumping quickly from one idea to the next. And to be blunt, there’s shit like ‘Formidable‘ and the rock-orientated ‘Never Take It‘ that are so forgettable and uninspired that my mind involuntarily discards them immediately once the LP concludes.
Of course, other songs are downright terrific! Massive hooks propel the alternative-leaning and fast-paced ‘Shy Away‘ and the mental-health heavy, character-growth of ‘Choker‘ into rulers of the refrain-driven realm, creating two huge back-to-back early highlights for the LP. The ’90s-esque, low-key and moody closer ‘Redecorate‘ becomes the album’s greatest moment, with a very basic but effective instrumental, perfectly positioned as the final song to match the lyrics of someone about to die, suddenly wishing they could organise their worldly belongings – the physical stuff that makes up their personality – so those they leave behind aren’t burdened by the choice of keeping or throwing out their possessions. It’s that fear of leaving loose ends, telling the story of three different characters and their final thoughts: “I don’t want to go like this. At least let me clean my room.” It’s a grim metaphor but executed well. So much so that ‘Redecorate‘ is now one of my favourite songs of 2021.
Through all of this, the album tries to put on a quaint smile. Though a majority of the record isn’t positive and optimistic through natural means; much of it comes across as insufferably happy for the sake of it, like the band have been heavily dosed with Nitrous oxide. ‘Saturday‘ and ‘Good Day‘ reak of this the hardest, and while ‘Mulberry Street‘ has some endearing musical and lyrical suggestions that evoke youthful big-city dreams, it feels uneasily forced. I don’t blame the band or listeners for wanting a record like this in 2021. Shit’s bad no matter where you look in the world today, and escapism is a necessary coping mechanism for any individual from time to time. Yet ‘Scaled And Icy‘ feels like a cynical example of this; like a poor attempt at the popular “happy song, sad lyric” trope people clutch their pearls over like it’s the be-all-end-all of what makes something good. That’s an effective trope that’s been true of prior Twenty One Pilots releases, and one that’s always been well-intentioned and pulled off well by the duo before. Yet when applied here, when seen as a whole, it never feels as clever as they and their most ardent gate-keeping fans will think it is.
A fan-theory defence brought up to critics who’ve mentioned this record’s lamely digestible direction and less impacftul songwriting is that it’s a follow-on to the concept of ‘Trench‘. That it’s the band not worrying about that album’s protagonist, Clancy, as the pair are now in-universe being supposedly forced to write a safer, sappier and forgettable pop record by DEMA, the villainous organisation in that previous album’s story. Which is, might I just say, the worst fucking defence imaginable! To all conceptually driven artists: your music’s mythos and lore is not an excuse for poor songwriting and mediocre songs.
The likelier scenario is that Twenty One Pilots aimed for something a little different: to create overtly happy-sounding poppy music to contrast the bleak year that was 2020 amidst the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic when it was written in. To make something that was “scaled back and isolated” – the album’s full naming motif – to reflect that context better. Which is fine, and I’m not going to say that the band can’t or shouldn’t do that. Yet that’s manifested in an 11 song LP where half the tracks aren’t particularly memorable at best. At worst, certain cuts are painfully disposable, ringing hollow and feeling shallow.
While I will likely always love Twenty One Pilots, and have the time and interest for their past and future output, that enjoyment and interest will never turn into blind loyalty. As the overly safe and uninteresting boredom that exists behind much of ‘Scaled And Icy’ culminates in an extremely average mark on the duo’s mostly stellar track record. ‘Scaled And Icy’ simultaneously features two bonafide massive new hits (‘Shy Away’ and ‘Choker’), one of my favourite songs of not only Twenty One Pilots’ career but the whole goddamn year (‘Redecorate’), yet is marred by tolerable yet forced entries (‘Saturday,’ ‘Wilberry Street’) and totally dull songs that I genuinely forgot the names of until writing this review (‘Formidable,’ ‘Never Take It.’) Twenty One Pilots’ sixth album and it’s dry, synth-heavy and shoehorned indie-pop sound is the mixiest of mixed bags and I can see it being a highly divisive record.
Never Take It
‘Scaled And Icy’ is out now: