Would it surprise you if I, a professional music critic, told you that I don’t particularly care for Twenty One Pilots? As this rap/electro-pop/alt-rock duo — it might be easier to list the genres this group doesn’t dabble in — ascended to pop ubiquity in 2016 on the strength of the hit singles “Stressed Out,” “Ride,” and “Heathens,” the music press largely ignored Twenty One Pilots, a fate worse than panning. They weren’t even deemed worthy of bad reviews.
But the music press was wrong. Twenty One Pilots matter whether you (or I) like it or not. Now that they’re back with Trench, their fifth album and surely one of the biggest ostensibly “rock” releases of 2018, it seems silly, if not like an outright dereliction of duty, to not explore why, exactly, this band leaves me cold.
First, some background for the uninitiated: Twenty One Pilots is a duo from Columbus, Ohio composed of singer and principal songwriter Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun. The band’s name is a reference to Arthur Miller’s 1947 play All My Sons, in which the lead character is haunted by his culpability in the military-related deaths of 21 airmen. (Call them the literary alternative to Imagine Dragons.) When the group formed in 2009, there were two other guys, but they exited in 2011, back when Twenty One Pilots had to hustle for an audience. During those lean days in the late ’00s and early ’10s, they used to “drive door-to-door hand-delivering tickets for club shows,” eventually encouraging “fans meet them at a table outside the Chick-Fil-A in the Polaris mall’s food court,” as a 2016 Rolling Stone profile recounts. These humble grassroots efforts — which extend from the band’s tangential connections to the underground emo and Christian rock scenes — paid off by creating a genuine groundswell of young, rabidly devoted fans, setting the stage for a mainstream explosion toward the end of 2015.
Like all cult acts, Twenty One Pilots is most rewarding for those willing to put an insane amount of thought into their songs. While the music barely, if at all, scans as “rock” — more on that in a moment — the band’s elaborate mythology and iconography descend straight from the fanciful prog-rock concept records of the ’60s and ’70s. Twenty One Pilots’ prior release, 2015’s blockbuster Blurryface — the first album ever to have every track receive at least a Gold certification from the Recording Industry Association of America — centered on the shadowy titular character, an allegorical vehicle that “represents a certain level of insecurity” for Joseph, who covers his face and hands with black paint on stage.
To a casual fan, this will all likely register as nonsense. But as I delved into Trench, which has been billed a sequel of sorts in the Blurryface saga, I did find myself poring over the lyrics and looking for connections between seemingly random references, like Nicolas Cage scouring national monuments in search of an interesting album. In the song “Morph,” for instance, Joseph references Nicolas Bourbaki, which I learned is the alias for a group of innovative French mathematicians that originated in the mid ’30s. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) What does this have to do with Blurryface? No idea! However, Nicolas Bourbaki is subsequently referred to simply as Nico in another track, “Nico And The Niners,” in which the renegade group battles against a mysterious, apparently nefarious organization known as Dema.
Get it? Me neither. But I tried my best to understand. I dug into Reddit to decipher the meaning of “Sahlo Folina,” a phrase that appears in the song “Bandito.” (“Sahlo” means “enable” in Somali, while “Folina” translates as a feeling of creative fulfillment … I guess?) But as far as I can tell, the mysteries of Trench are set up to engender precisely this sort of dead-end speculation without adding up to much.
Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe some message-board oracle can explain, with only minimal condescension, why the cheetah in “Pet Cheetah” is named Jason Statham. Against my better judgment, I sort of want to know now.
If you’ve never listened to Twenty One Pilots, they probably don’t sound like what you expect. “Name any white-male-fronted musical act from the past two decades that’s achieved significant commercial success while inspiring critical apathy, and you will hear that sound in Twenty One Pilots, if you listen long enough,” The New Yorker‘s Jia Tolentino observed — and she’s right, but only sort of.
In the ’90s and ’00s, the middle-American “people’s bands” to which she refers tended to play some combination of metal, punk, and hip-hop, with some goth make-up often slathered on top. It was loud, angry, immature, and defiantly visceral music that spoke directly to the alienation experienced by the latest generation of teenagers. Even better, it was expressly designed to irritate and even frighten adults, due to the extreme, violent sonics inherent to angsty adolescent soundtracks.
While Twenty One Pilots is definitely angsty and unabashedly adolescent, they are far from sounding extreme or violent. As Tolentino put it, accurately if also archly, the band’s big breakout “Stressed Out” is “a lyrical, emo, rap-rock song about a boy’s need for his mommy” that sounds like a light-hearted Macklemore song laced with Coldplay pianos.
On Trench, these musical reference points remain unchanged: “Neon Gravestones” climaxes with earnest, perfectly enunciated rhymes about how pop stars shouldn’t be glorified for dying young over laid-back beats and more plaintive piano tinkling. On the poppier side, “My Blood” sounds like MGMT if it had been crass (or smart) enough to recycle “Electric Feel” over and over for the past 10 years. Throughout the record, the hooks — especially on “Jumpsuit” and “The Hype” — sound positively huge, if also a little obvious. Clearly, Twenty One Pilots has acclimated to the requirements of putting songs over in an arena and crafted Trench accordingly.
If a teenager played Trench for a parent raised on N.W.A, Nine Inch Nails, Korn, or early Eminem, the oldsters would be shocked… by how utterly soft and smooth this music is. This is the sound of pissed-off youth in 2018? Really? Where is the screaming? The wanton cursing? The down-tuned guitars, mile-a-minute blast beats, and provocative lyrics that denounce the systemic corruption of the adult world?
Ever since the ascendence of streaming sites, which began around the time that Twenty One Pilots started building an audience, I’ve been fascinated by how the format has influenced the actual creative output by artists. The LP format compelled musicians to think in terms of albums, in which two 20-minute blocks of songs are stacked on top of each either on a double-sided piece of vinyl; then the CD doubled that unit of information to 80 minutes, encouraging the inclusion of skits, interstitial tracks, and “hidden” songs buried several minutes after the album “ended.” What streaming has done is implore artists to dial back the obnoxiousness, sand off the rough edges, and excise anything else that might interfere with the endless flow of carefully modulated data pouring out of your laptop speakers.
When you stream music and have access to literally millions of other options, the imperative (creatively but more importantly financially) is to keep you from hitting the forward-arrow button. And nothing makes people hit that button faster than hearing something that genuinely shocks or even hurts them.
Musicians working in the streaming era have internalized this reality, which I think partly explains why so much popular music sounds so mild now. No act better epitomizes this phenomenon to me than Twenty One Pilots. The songs on Trench rarely move faster or slower than a resolutely steady mid-tempo. The guitars are subdued, the beats hit at medium strength, and the keyboards supply sonic textures that almost always soothe. There is absolutely nothing that is abrasive about this band. And that’s why they bother me. And also why they’re huge.
Trench is out now on Fueled By Ramen. Buy it here.
Twenty One Pilots is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music.