Twenty One Pilots has always been a creative band. Their albums always featured dynamic styles– moving between pop, reggae, rap, and other genres. Their lyrics have always been full of wordplay and interesting little intricacies.
That creativity was part of what made me like and dislike them. I came into the music world with progressive rock and what prog rock taught me was that creativity alone wasn’t enough to make great music. All creativity and no execution makes for disjointed songs, full of influences and ideas that run hard against each other and aren’t fun to listen to. Creativity needs to be honed.
Twenty One Pilots just released the album that shows they know how to hone their creativity. “Trench” hones the diverse, interesting styles the band likes to jump between, the earnest issues their lyrics discuss, and their frenetic energy into something that sounds and feels cohesive in mood, theme, and style. The result is the great album I’ve always wanted to hear Twenty One Pilots make.
“Trench” takes place in a walled city called Dema ruled by a council of evil bishops who make people use a religion they invented. It follows a group of rebels seeking to break the hold of the bishops and get out of the city.
The band goes all in on the concept. They took inspiration from Zoroastrianism, borrowing the symbol of the vulture and a Tower of Silence from the now struggling faith. These symbols of death, decay, and carrion fit well within the album since the concept and the lyrics are focused on death, suicide, and mental health. Dema could even be read as a metaphor for mental health issues, how limiting they can be, and how people escape them (often through art).
All of it comes across as pretty well-wrought, though it can be hard to tell which songs are about Dema and which ones aren’t. Even the unclear setting isn’t too bad because a lot of the songs about our world stay on concept. “Neon Gravestones” clearly discusses recent suicides but it doesn’t end up a diversion from the album’s main idea as much as a way to tie it to the real world. It’s one of the most laudable songs on the album, attacking the valorization of suicide by creative people. The band states clearly that suicide is not a valid way out, making the metaphor of mental health issues equals a walled city, all the more stark and real.
“Trench” doesn’t just nail the concept, the songs on it are better than most I’ve heard from the band. “Blurryface” had some very enjoyable tracks, but they could sound schizophrenic because the band hadn’t tied all the ideas they had together well enough. Transitions didn’t always feel strong, songs didn’t feel tonally consistent, and songs themselves could be hit or miss based off what part of the track was playing.
Most songs on “Trench” don’t have that problem, sounding strong alone and like they belong. “Trench” is probably as diverse as “Blurryface” but it stays consistent with its musical motifs. Backward vocals, vocal distortion, low bass, and similar mixing keep tracks sounding like they belong together.
“Morph” is a very pretty, groovy song that sounds adjacent to R&B and hip-hop. “Jumpsuit” is hard stadium rock, with loud, heavily distorted riffs, emotional screams, and memorable lyrics (“I’ll be right there / but you’ll have to grab me by the throat and lift me there”). “Nico And The Niners” keeps a simple pop beat but uses classical-sounding guitar chords and piano notes to make a great driving rhythm with high and low pitched sounds. “Levitate” hits harder and faster than any other song, sounding like a pure rap song with its modern rap mixing — heavy on the low-pitched bass and the snappy drum rhythms. All these songs are a blast to listen and fit perfectly into the album.
“Trench” wasn’t quite perfect, though. The ending didn’t hit me as hard as the start. “Pet Cheetah” had cool ideas but I felt the contrast between goofy and serious lyrics was jarring. It was the song that most reminded me of the problems they’ve had putting unique but contrasting ideas together. “Bandito” and “Leave The City” had very nice emotion and felt like good closers to the album and “Legend” is solid, poppy fun. Alone, these songs all sound solid but together they step on each other’s toes. “Legend” and “Pet Cheetah” feel a bit irreverent next to “Bandito” and “Leave The City,” which drip with sincerity and emotion.
Still, this album is what I’ve always wanted to hear from Twenty One Pilots. I’ve always loved their creativity and the ideas they had but I felt like their albums and songs sounded scattered and disjointed from the tough work of bringing all the ideas together. It’s not an easy thing to bring varied ideas together and I appreciated that they at least tried. This time, I feel they’ve succeeded. To my ears, it’s like they’ve honed their messy, wild creativity into something sharp, cohesive, and meaningful.