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.