Twenty One Pilots: Safe and Sorry?
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“I can feel my saturation leaving me slowly,” Tyler Joseph sings in the opening line of Twenty One Pilots’ latest album, “Scaled and Icy.” After a nearly three-year hiatus, the band’s highly anticipated new album was released on May 21, 2021 to their millions of dedicated fans. Unfortunately, “Scaled and Icy” quickly met a great deal of criticism for its vapid lyrics and changes to the band’s sound. But while many fans may lament the band’s departure from their traditional style, does that mean the album deserves the hate it’s getting?
It’s hard to know what to expect from a Twenty One Pilots album, considering they’ve played almost every genre known to man. From reggae to hip-hop to rock to electropop, the duo has always managed to shake things up. Though they’re mostly known for their rap songs with deep, ominous beats and cryptic lyrics, they’ve also put out countless pop hits with upbeat, danceable melodies, best exemplified by their two previous projects, “Blurryface” (2015) and “Trench” (2018), as they cover the entire spectrum of human emotion with a wide range of styles. But after the horrible year that was 2020 and the hardships from COVID-19 that persist in 2021, Twenty One Pilots seem to have abandoned that kind of style and have begun to focus more on the good parts of life.
Frontman Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun have expressed a lot in their music. Each song is carefully crafted to cause listeners to reflect and think deeply about themselves. “Scaled and Icy” strays from that pattern, introducing a mostly jubilant vibe, something that the average lore-obsessed fanatic probably isn’t interested in.
To anyone who has been following the duo since “Blurryface,” it's well known by now that the two have a habit of writing ridiculously confusing lyrics that only make sense in the context of the larger plotline told through the band’s music. Each of the band’s albums tells a part of Joseph’s story as he deals with mental illness. Within the past few years since “Blurryface,” the two have developed the arcane, mysterious lore in which Joseph conceptualizes and depicts his struggles with depression.
“Scaled and Icy” might seem like an abstract title, but it’s actually an anagram for “Clancy is dead.” This phrase has no significance to anyone unaware of who Clancy is, but to those keeping track of posts on the band’s website, Clancy is a fictional character who represents Joseph’s emotional and mental state. Through their last album, “Trench,” we see Clancy try to escape the fictional city Dema, which represents the prison that depression and doubt can create over a person’s health. Essentially, “Trench” tells the story of Joseph struggling to breach the hold that his depression has on his life.
As for their newest album, it’s unclear where exactly it fits into the story. Some think Joseph has finally breached the grip his mental illness has had on his life, given the joyful melodies of “Good Days” and “Saturday” (which are void of any depth to be good Twenty One Pilots songs but aren’t upbeat enough to succeed as pop songs). Others think the album is some sort of distraction or fake, as a message written on the cover of the band’s single “Christmas Saves The Year” reads “SAI is propaganda” (SAI being “Scaled and Icy”). The duo has managed to hide hundreds of Easter eggs and enigmatic hints that add to Joseph’s story in their website posts, song covers, and lyrics, but how these fit into the story is still very much in the air.
While some of the songs are a bit underwhelming and lack the band’s trademark lyrical ingenuity, they don’t undermine the success of the other tracks on the album. Songs like “Never Take It” feature a strong bassline and confident lyrics about societal divide, standing out from the otherwise mellow style of the album. “The Outside” features more R&B influences while focusing on the search for purpose. In “Redecorate,” Joseph returns to his fictional world, establishing that Clancy has left Dema. The song speaks of what the future might hold and what new changes might bring, using softer beats to create a soft, vibey song that fades into a simmer by the end.
In regards to the band’s future, Joseph has mentioned what he thinks will happen if he manages to move on from his depression. The question of whether or not artists such as himself would be able to create music without their emotions and mental problems guiding them is a hard one, especially if an artist has been dealing with those issues for a long time. As written in the Blurryface cut “Doubt,” Joseph remains “scared of [his] own ceiling,” the “ceiling” being the threshold of depression and anxiety that he must cross one day. Fearing that Joseph has breached this threshold, many believe the band will inevitably lose its edge. The fans’ criticisms of this album are exactly what many artists fear––that once they get to a place where their problems no longer motivate them, people will feel like they’ve lost their artistic talent.
However, just like My Chemical Romance’s “Danger Days,” “Scaled and Icy” proves that the group isn’t tied down to one specific style or genre of music. Both Joseph and Dun have moved on in their lives from that uncertain, depressive era when the band was only starting to gain traction. Now, with marriage, fatherhood, and so many other progressions in their lives, the album reflects an optimistic era for the two, something entirely different from what fans have previously been exposed to. Overall, though some of the criticism may be warranted, the album doesn’t deserve to be dismissed entirely. Made in an effort to alleviate the stress and hardships faced during the past two years, “Scaled and Icy” delivers a positive outlook on change and the future––something we could all benefit from.