Twenty One Pilots
Fueled by Ramen · October 5, 2018
Tyler Joseph’s songwriting is as strong as ever, and Trench is backed with infectious hooks, varied production, and meaningful lyricism.
The genre-bending duo Twenty One Pilots is back for their 5th studio album, Trench. Much like the duo’s previous LP Blurryface was a concept album centered around the fictional character of the same name, Trench is loosely based around a fictional world of the same name. With concocted characters like the protagonist “Clancy” inhabiting the constructed city of “DEMA” located in Trench. While Blurryface was a more straightforward and cohesive concept album where the titular character represented frontman/songwriter Tyler Joseph’s insecurities, Trench is a bold attempt at building an entire metaphoric world. The album also tells the story of the protagonist Clancy trying to escape DEMA, likely a metaphor for combating mental illness. Unfortunately, much of the narrative isn’t actually told on the album. Instead, ToP has released various snippets of scanned images and short videos online that fans have deciphered in conjunction with the cryptic lyrical bits throughout the album. One way to interpret this is as ToP giving their fans the chance to pick apart a complex mystery for themselves. Another way to interpret this is as a somewhat underdeveloped and incohesive concept album. Either way though, Tyler Joseph’s songwriting is as strong as ever, and Trench is backed with infectious hooks, varied production, and meaningful lyricism.
The opening track ‘Jumpsuit’ is about as genre focused as you’ll find the group getting. The song is distinctly rock oriented with a gritty bassline accompanying moody vocals, topped with a classic ToP scream at the end. The transition into the next track ‘Levitate’ is one of the smoothest I’ve heard all year, and it’s the perfect way to switch gears entirely without disrupting the tone of the album. ‘Levitate’ also contains some of Tyler’s best rapping yet. Where in the past his flow has been choppy and overly robotic, here Tyler’s delivery is as smooth as butter. Coupled with tight drum loops from percussionist Josh Dun, it’s easily of my favorite cuts off the album.
Other highlights include ‘Chlorine’ with its addictive hook and corresponding themes of chemical dependency. As well as ‘Neon Gravestones,’ which gives a much needed commentary on the glorification of depressed and suicidal artists with reflective lyrics like “My opinion, our culture can treat a loss like it’s a win / And right before we turn on them / We give ’em the highest of praise / And hang their banner from the ceiling.” It’s a careful introspection on how a lot of our media (ToP’s music included) might be having adverse side effects.
Trench has its low points as well, however. Tracks like ‘The Hype’ and ‘Cut My Lip’ are straightforward and similar in their themes of not losing hope and moving forward. Both contain somewhat tedious and repetitive bridges, and at almost an hour long it seems to me that Trench could have done without some of these songs. ‘Bandito’ just about hits the listener over the head with its “loner” themes, though it also serves a world building purpose for the larger concept. ‘Smithereens’ is a cute tribute to Joseph’s wife, as he describes how he’d be willing to get into a fight for her (and most likely lose), but it’s pretty cheesy even by ToP’s standards. But the album finishes strong with ‘Leave the City’ which features a medley of light piano and drums coupled with arpeggiating synths, most of which cuts out for a beautiful stripped back bridge, only to be slowly reintroduced as Tyler’s vocals grow in emotion while adding in layered and distorted harmonies.
Trench is about what you would expect from the latest ToP outing. At times uplifting, at times depressing, always well constructed and heartfelt. Yet I don’t think the overall themes and fictional world are explored deep enough for this to truly be considered a “concept album” the same way Blurryface was. Songs that discuss Tyler’s personal life like ‘Legend’ (a heartfelt ballad dedicated to Joseph’s late grandpa) and the aforementioned ‘Smithereens’ feel out of place alongside world building tracks like ‘Nico and the Niners.’ And some cuts such as ‘Bandito’ feel like they use the implied lore of a fictional world as crutch to make up for a surface level song. But these flaws are all either minimal or speculative, and overall Trench is still an excellent addition to ToP’s discography.