Twenty One Pilots have walked on a tightrope for many years: Their sound is distinct, with Tyler Joseph’s recognizable rap flow and singing voice fusing perfectly to Josh Dun’s kinetic percussion, yet they draw from so many influences that it is hard to peg them down to one genre.
Their music strikes a chord with fans of Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco, two immensely popular acts that preceded Twenty One Pilots’ angsty pop punk roots, a genre that saw its zeitgeist pass years ago. And still, TOP’s previous record Blurryface became the only album in history to have every track reach Gold certification by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in 2018, years after pop punk had reached its peak.
On Oct. 5 — just over seven months since Blurryface’s momentous achievement — Twenty One Pilots released Trench, preceded by four singles and accompanying music videos. Their sound has toned down compared to previous efforts, but it helps the duo sound more concise and focused than ever, resulting in a fun, honest and ambitious record.
Blurryface featured Joseph’s titular alter-ego as a representation of his insecurities. Trench levels up as an entire concept album focused around Blurryface and his fellow bishops in the fictional city of Dema in addition to protagonist Clancy’s relationship to the city. Hard to follow? A bit, but the story of Trench is more evident when complemented by the relevant music videos.
What works about Trench solely as an album, though, is the biographical relatability of Joseph’s lyrics. The larger themes across the record are familiar territory: Joseph sings and raps about mental health, suicide and self-esteem in addition to a couple of outliers concerning Joseph’s relationships with his wife and late grandfather.
“Levitate” is a brisk track with a rapping Joseph proclaiming, “And though I feed on things that fell/ You can learn to levitate with just a little help/ Learn to levitate with just a little help,” one of the best-delivered lines on the album. The track altogether references his portrayal as a vulture, religious faith and his own self-esteem. Many other songs such as “Morph” and “Bandito” also maneuver multiple topics — the balancing act that these tracks hold gives the album depth and makes it rewarding for multiple listens. Outside of lyrics, though, “Levitate” is an exceptional track that exemplifies the best the album has to offer in its production. Dun’s drums are relentless against wave-like synths, yet the track still maintains its minimalist approach to balance Joseph’s rapping.
The entire album, especially in tracks “Levitate” and “Pet Cheetah,” has a more consistent sense of quiet intensity, which had been seen in glimpses like with Blurryface's “The Judge.” While previous Twenty One Pilots tracks weren’t all sensory overload, they did weigh down previous albums’ listenability in their sheer energy, which was untamed to a fault.
For Trench, Twenty One Pilots was joined by Paul Meany, frontman for fellow alternative act Mutemath, and the influences from Mutemath are evident. In late 2016, the two bands reimagined five tracks from Blurryface with a warmer and less bombastic approach. This approach has transferred to Trench to great effect. The tracks are warmer with a bass pulse guiding the action rather than Dun’s hi-hat and snare, and Joseph’s vocal performance is calmer without losing the intensity that makes Twenty One Pilots so enticing.
Overall, Trench sounds like a step backward for Twenty One Pilots: It’s less loud, less explosive and doesn’t have as many musical climaxes and moments like in popular tracks “Car Radio” and “Heavydirtysoul,” but that’s what makes Trench a more focused and consistent album. The duo has still crafted some great hits as well, such as “Jumpsuit” and “Chlorine,” showing that their new direction has not sacrificed catchy and memorable singles to create a full-formed project with lots of replay value.
Final Grade: B
Carl "CJ" Zabat is the Daily Cardinal's music columnist. To read more of his work, click here.