Thursday, June 3, 2021

ALBUM REVIEW: Twenty One Pilots - Scaled and Icy

Is this real? Are we actually doing this? Alrighty, here we go. It's time to review my second most anticipated album of 2021. 

This is the 6th studio album from Columbus, Ohio alternative rock and pop duo Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun and if you know anything about me and my taste in music, you know that this is super exciting for me. I've made it no secret in the past few years that I love this band and they're somewhat responsible for opening up that third eye for me, showing that there was more music in the world than radio country and cheesy Top 40 pop songs. I still vividly remember listening to them for the first time when a friend played Tear in My Heart in my Theater Class and just telling myself "This is amazing." For those of you who don't know the duo well outside of a few hits and me fanboying over them, the band originally started out as a trio with Tyler playing piano and singing, Chris Salih playing drums, and Nick Thomas playing bass. The first self-titled Twenty One Pilots album was released in 2009, recorded entirely in Tyler's basement, and looking back on it, it's wild to see how much he did with so little. And even wilder is how well some of these songs have aged. Sure, the lack of real drums is apparent at times, especially on the song Taxi Cab (even though it's arguably the best song on this album) but regardless, it showed that Joseph had a knack for writing great lyrics and being a great storyteller, but what it showed the most was potential. 

Tyler Joseph (L) and Josh Dun (R) are the duos two sole members. 

In 2011, the lineup of the band changed. Nick Thomas left the band to finish school and Chris Salih left due to financial reasons. However, on his way out, Salih invited one of his Guitar Center co-workers to take his spot in the band. That co-worker agreed and now we have the duo as we see them today. Now regardless of what Tyler and Josh will tell you, Joseph and Dun met after a show the original band played at a Columbus venue and the two hit it off almost instantly. Fast forward to 2012, and the band has a record deal with Fueled by Ramen who they're still signed to today. They had grown a huge cult following in their hometown of Columbus both thanks to their great social media presence and also because their live shows were amazing. Even to this day still, the energy that Tyler and Josh bring on stage along with the stage show is unbelievable, and even if you're not a fan of their music, I highly advise seeing them when you get the chance, it's one of the best shows money will buy you. 

I know I went on a little tangent but I'll bring it back. Their next album Regional At Best Vessel, released in 2013 really broke the band through to a bigger, more mainstream audience. They started touring with Paramore and Fall Out Boy, they were playing overseas and doing festivals, and the album received a lot of praise in the music press. And rightfully so, Vessel is a fantastic album and my favorite project by the duo, and the band's popularity just continued to grow, especially when Blurryface was released in 2015 however, I'm still not entirely a fan of this album. On one hand, there are some genuinely great songs here and I enjoy Tyler's writing all over the album but musically, I think there's a lot left to be desired on here. I think the main reason for that Tyler had a great concept for an album but at some point, having a bunch of additional producers on board made the album get away from him and that's why I think the following album, Trench, released in 2018, is so great, maybe even their best album. Tyler was in full control of the production with some help here and there from Paul Meany of Mutemath and recorded everything besides Josh's drums in his basement in his home studio. 

Dun and Joseph on the set of the Shy Away music video, Scaled and Icy's lead single.

And without Trench, it's gonna be hard to explain some of the themes and lyrical topics on this new album due to all of the lore that surrounds both of these albums. I'm gonna try to summarize the Trench story as quickly as possible but a few things might get lost in translation. Pretty much, Trench tells the story of a guy named Clancy who lives in a place called DEMA, and as he's grown older he starts to see through all of DEMA's lies and authoritarianism. There are two other main groups in this story that need to be mentioned and those are the Bishops and the Banditos. The Bishops are the political entity in DEMA with one of 9 bishops assigned to a different district of the city while Nico is the head honcho in the group. The Banditos on the other hand are the resistance group. They, like Clancy, aren't fond of the powers that be in DEMA and the ultimate goal in their quest is to escape, which Clancy tries to do a few times but each time, he's caught and brought back to the city. The story of Scaled and Icy, doesn't exactly pick up where Trench left off however. It begins with flash drives that were sent to fans in the aftermath of the Level of Concern ARG the band ran. On the flash drive were some early demos from the band and video messages from Tyler and Josh with a TV in the background of Tyler's video flashing a cryptic message that reads "CLANCY IS DEAD." Things got even more intense when the duo dropped a Christmas song and on the cover is a present...for Clancy. On the front of another present reads the message "SAI is Propaganda."

That second message is the driving force of the lore behind this album. While it's not 100% concrete, we're led to believe that the bishops captured Tyler and Josh and got pissed at them for exposing the darker sides and truth about DEMA so they're now in control of the music they're putting out, the lyrical content, and making sure everything is bright, happy, and paints DEMA in a positive light. And after multiple listens, I think they executed that concept perfectly because compared to Trench, this album is a lot brighter and a lot happier but it comes at a cost, mainly a few songs here with bland production or instrumentation and Tyler's writing all over the album just generally feels a lot weaker. And even though I wish I could chalk this up to DEMA being in control of this album, I think that's just a cop-out honestly. 

There we three teaser tracks leading up to the album's release and as each one got released, I started getting a little more nervous about the album. The lead single, Shy Away, kicked this album cycle off with a bang. I love everything about this song from the infectious chorus to the driving drum groove throughout the song, the two little breakdowns are fantastic too. I also have to point out the bassline and the guitar licks on the song too because they are fantastic and fit perfectly here. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Tyler taught himself guitar during the lockdown and it's a prominently featured instrument on this album. He even rips out a solo on the song Never Take It but we'll talk about that more later. When Shy Away first dropped I couldn't really pinpoint one influence as I got flavors of The Strokes, The Killers, and Phoenix but then I realized that all of these bands were taking notes from each other in the mid to late 2000s so any one of those works. 

Then there was the song Choker which has grown on me a lot since its initial release but I'm still pretty indifferent towards it. My main problem with the song is that there are three prominent portions of the song but I don't think any of them necessarily fit well together. I honestly think this is what Twenty One Pilots probably sound like to people who hate Twenty One Pilots. However, to this song's credit, I do like a handful of the lyrics here and I don't hate the rap verse as much as some people do. If the Livestream Experience the band put on is any indication, this song is gonna be fantastic live. The final single released before the album was Saturday which I was actually super excited to hear given that Greg Kurstin (Previously worked with Sia, Adele, Foo Fighters, and many others) had production credits on the song. I'm sure by now most of you guys have seen all of the memes and TikTok's about this song and I'll be honest, it's deserved, this is probably the weakest song the band has date. It's also ironic that a song with a lot of lyrics about overcoming writer's block and feeling uninspired happens to be the most uninspired song on here. BUT, yeah I don't think this song is horrible, sometimes basic, bland pop music does the trick for me. I can dance to it, I can sing along to it, and Josh comes through with a solid drum performance so I'll hold back my complaints a little bit. 

I think overall, the singles did reflect the sound and style of this album well. Just like the singles, the album is a mixed bag. I know a lot of people probably expected me to come in here, praise Tyler and Josh to the sky, give this a super high score, and put it super high on a year-end list but that's not the case here. Don't get me wrong, I like this album quite a bit but it's understandable why a lot of longtime fans are disappointed by this album. This isn't exactly the follow-up to Trench a lot of people were expecting to the point where I don't even think this is supposed to be the follow-up to Trench. And look, I could sit here and complain about this album for this whole review and talk about how I know Tyler is capable of more or say that this album didn't live up to my expectations but I feel like that would do this album a disservice because, like I said, I do like a bunch of the songs on here. 

Starting with the opener Good Day, I think this is a fantastic song to open up the album with. The song has the upbeat cheeriness of Billy Joel or even Mr. Blue Sky by ELO but the lyrics pack a funny, dark punch sort of like a Father John Misty song. Tyler sings on the song about how he would react if he were to lose everything close to him, how he would deal with that first week of grief, and according to him, he would be brushing everything off and telling everyone, "I'm fine! Everything is fine!" There's a hilariously dark line at the beginning of the second verse where Tyler sings, "Lost my job, my wife and child / Homie just sued me," the whole thing is also supposed to be set on vacation with his mom too so the added punch of that is hilarious. I also really like the bridge and chorus on here too. It's really bright, fun, and catchy too. While this is definitely an unorthodox opening song for the band, I think it works perfectly. 

The songs The Outside and Never Take It (which I mentioned earlier) show Tyler in a more opinionated way. The Outside is Tyler giving his 2 cents on the music industry today both pondering his relevance and worrying about people biting the band's style. Musically, this feels like if Glass Animals and MGMT were locked in a studio together. It has the moodiness of Little Dark Age but the quirkiness of a song off of How To Be A Human Being. I also like the rap verse on the back end with Tyler rapping about the fear of the clique and all of the band's fans just dissipating saying he feels like a Megladon in a pond with a meteor coming straight towards him. Never Take It on the other hand is Tyler delivering a critique on our modern media in today's age of information singing about how to big media, information is "just a currency and nothing more" and how they "profit from a great divide." I also really love the bridge on here with Tyler singing:

Which, on its face, might seem insensitive after the year we had last year but knowing Tyler, it's likely coming from more of a mental health angle or more from a place of reason. Pretty much saying it's good to learn, but don't learn so much to where your mental health either takes a toll or you start believing everything you hear. Also, I never thought I'd see the day where there was a guitar solo in a Twenty One Pilots song but here we are, and it slaps. 

I do think that it's after this point in the album where things start going south because from here on, this record is very hit or miss. I think Mulberry Street is a standout on this half with some bright pianos and a groovy beat, there are definitely some more Billy Joel and Elton John vibes here. Lyrically, I think this song is leaning a bit more into the lore. I can see the lyrics about "synthetic highs" and tying strings to peoples hands and feet could be referring to the Bishops having authoritarian control but man, there has to have been a better way to have written this because with no background on any lore or theories, this song honestly just sounds like Tyler telling everyone to throw away whatever medication they're taking because you won't be truly happy taking it. Formidable is a song that should be right up my alley. It's a nice piece of acoustic rock and honestly reminds me of The Cure a little bit but this song is boring. Besides a solid bass line, I don't think this song offers much of anything. The same goes for Bounce Man which, and stay with me for this comparison, sounds like an AJR song that everyone thinks is a rip-off of a Twenty One Pilots song. I think Tyler's vocal performance here is solid but once again, the lyrics are disappointing to say the least. As I was writing this I read on Genius that this song may be about Ned who was the main character of the Chlorine music video but I really think people are just reaching for stems at this point. 

The last two songs on this album are...confusing? I guess that's the best word for it because they're both fantastic but they don't feel like they belong on this album. Especially No Chances because this is the farthest down the lore rabbit hole they go on this album as this song is the best definition of the propaganda this album is supposed to be. The chorus is supposed to depict DEMA telling their citizens that if someone runs away that the Bishops will go hunt them down but they promise to be gentle because they want everyone back home safe and in one piece, even though throughout the song there's a haunting chant with the "Bishops" saying "WE COME FOR YOU / NOOOOO CHANNNCES." And Redecorate is a fantastic closer, in my opinion, probably one of their best album closers to date. Tyler said he was inspired to write the song after the son of one of his friends passed away and he was told that the son's bedroom was left intact, his parents didn't touch a thing. So lyrically, the song tells the story of a few people whose time is almost up and who can't decide what to do with their rooms but maybe also some trauma or emotional baggage they have with them too. BUT I still have a complaint, the chorus would be perfect if it weren't for those high-pitched, almost chipmunk vocals? While Tyler's writing is still very compelling, I think just his voice is all that needed to be singing. 

It's really hard to try and sum up my thoughts and opinions on this album in a word or in a quick saying because I really don't know with this. I don't know if I just had my hopes too high but I honestly feel a little let down after multiple listens to this album. Yes, there's still a handful of decent songs on here but even I have a tough time defending a song like Bounce Man or even Saturday (oh btw, send me whatever Saturday slander TikTok's you see, I love those.) To be clear, as a huge fan of this band, I was gonna like this album no matter what just from a fan perspective. If I didn't have to put too much thought into analyzing or breaking down this album, I could probably just slap a 9 on this and go about my day thinking it's amazing. But from a critical standpoint, I've just come to expect more from Tyler and Josh and with Scaled and Icy, I think they just barely reached those expectations rather than shattering them like they did for me on Trench. I think my main takeaway from this album is that it left me with a lot of questions and I'm really hoping the next album can answer those questions. Until that time though:

I would rate
Scaled and Icy
by Twenty One Pilots


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