by Alison Standish, MUSIC CRITIC
11 October 2018
Twenty One Pilots have often been associated with the complexity, depth, and occasional darkness found within their lyrics. In their three albums, Twenty One Pilots (2009), Vessel (2013), and Blurryface (2015), themes that are often somber, intriguing and thought provoking weave their way through nearly every song. These songs are pervaded with meaningful lyrics, lyrics that require a large amount of careful attention and speculation from listeners. Symbolism that often relates to the grand scheme of a storyline or concept can also be found in much of their music, specifically in the 2015 concept album Blurryface.
With their new album Trench, (released October 5th) Twenty One Pilots deviate slightly from what is typically their standard, as the loaded lyrics and dark elements that they’re known for somewhat filter themselves out of their music. But even with songs that aren’t completely aligned with the style and sound of much of their previous content, band members Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun have still found a way to be themselves by creating a unique album featuring an interesting story, strong instrumentals, and intriguing lyrics.
The album features nuances and references that connect to a bigger story within the web of the Twenty One Pilots universe. Trench is a concept album about a fictional character played by Tyler and how he, aided by a group of nonconformist Banditos led by Josh, escapes a constricting and cultish city called Dema which is ruled by nine ruthless bishops. Fans on sites like Reddit and Tumblr have enthusiastically picked apart the symbolism and allusions found within the album, establishing clues and theories about the lyrics and how they relate to the deeper meaning behind the story. But to enjoy Trench, you don’t necessarily have to understand the entirety of the massive web of symbolism that Tyler and Josh have created for their speculative fans. You simply need to have an appreciation for good music. And as a music album, Trench isn’t hard to appreciate.
The overall ambiance of Trench is hard to pinpoint, because the songs and sounds are all rather disparate. The album features a few tracks that are rather upbeat in tone along with a few that are more heavy and ponderous. As for the sound quality, Trench is very idiosyncratic. Songs like “Morph,” “Chlorine,” “Pet Cheetah,” and “Levitate” feature a strong electronically based instrumental, while “Nico and the Niners” and “Legend” break up the intensity found elsewhere in the album with ukulele chords. The instrumental sounds of Trench are what, at surface level, stands out as a defining feature. The lyrics, while intentional and substantial, aren’t the lifeblood of the album. This is what makes Trench so different, because in their previous albums, Tyler and Josh’s lyrics seem to have been some their strongest components.
Songs such as “Neon Gravestones,” “Bandito,” and “Leave the City” do add a sense of depth to Trench, giving it the customary feel of a Twenty One Pilots album. These are the slower songs in the album, and they include lyrical and instrumental content that is less catchy and more haunting. “Neon Gravestones,” which is likely the most weighty song on the album in terms of content, is an emotional reflection on society’s attitude towards celebrity suicide and its glorification. This song features words of wisdom on the importance of life. Joseph sings, “Find your grandparents or someone of age, pay some respects for the path that they paved. / To life, they were dedicated. Now that should be celebrated.”
Meanwhile, “Bandito” and “Leave the City” both elaborate on the concept of the album itself by continuing the story. “Bandito,” confronts the concept of one’s identity in the midst of feeling ultimately trapped by his circumstances, as Joseph sings, “In city, I feel my spirit is contained. Like neon inside the glass, they form my brain.”
And finally, “Leave The City,” the final song on the album, highlights the departure from the tyrannical Dema. The lyrics seem to directly refer to the Twenty One Pilots fan base, inspiring the audiences that the band will soon play before in live concerts, that they are not alone: “In Trench I’m not alone, / These faces facing me, they know, they know, what I mean.”
Some listeners, however, might find themselves critical of songs like “Pet Cheetah” or “Cut my Lip,” both of which are highly repetitive. Though instrumentally pleasing with lyrics that carry a strong, deeper meaning if you think about them intently enough, (such as the reflection on the frustrations of writer’s block found in Pet Cheetah,) these songs are lacking in the substance that is typically found in Tyler and Josh’s work. Each of them are broken up by a short and wordy rap-esc section, but these don’t hide the fact that the bridge and chorus to “Cut my Lip” are essentially the only elements to the song while the phrase “Pet Cheetah, cheetah” is repeated twelve times at the end of “Pet Cheetah.” Even in “Jumpsuit,” the phrase “Jumpsuit, Jumpsuit, cover me” could be perceived as highly overused.
But the lack of extensive material within the songs does seem to serve a purpose, because where lyrics are lacking, instrumental fills in. The instrumentals in each song are detailed, as well as more than satisfying to any listener who’s searching for an album to transport them to a different setting. The instrumentals are heavy, occasionally moody, and occasionally lively. Trench is a concept album, and the sizeable utilization of these instrumentals really does set the scene for the storyline by creating the mood to accompany it.
“My Blood,” “Smithereens,” and “Legend” complete the album by tying in themes about family and romantic relationships.
“My Blood” is a sweet anthem about the importance of standing by and protecting those closest to you. Joseph sings, “When everyone you thought you knew deserts your fight, / I’ll go with you. You’re facing’ down a dark hall, / I’ll grab my light and go with you.”
“Smithereens” contains similar themes, themes pertaining to love, affection and devotion. In this song, Joseph sings about a romantic partner’s willingness to compromise their safety and comfort in order to protect the person they love: “For you, I’d go step to a dude much bigger than me. / For you, I know I would get messed up, weigh 153. / For you I would get beat to smithereens.”
“Legend” marks the first time that Tyler Joseph has spoken up about his late grandfather, Robert Joseph, and he sings about how he considers his grandfather to be a legend in his eyes: “You were one of those classic ones, traveling around this sun, / you were one of those classic ones.” The result is an extremely heartfelt track that brings a sense of familial warmth to Trench alongside the song’s theme of love, admiration, sadness, and loss. Joseph concludes this emotional track by singing that he “looks forward to having lunch with him again.”
As the soundtrack to a fictional story littered with symbolic meaning, Trench stands out as an emblem of the musical depth, complexity, and symbolism that Twenty One Pilots is known for. As a music album, it’s balanced and concise with a good assortment of instrumentally heavy songs mixed in with a few more lyrically substantial tracks and completed by some songs about human relationships that are both touching and warm. This album is a pleasant surprise, with its varying themes and styles deviating from Twenty One Pilots’ typical standards but still holding true to the charisma that outfits them as a band.
Welcome to Trench.
Alison Standish is a music critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl