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Album Review: Twenty One Pilots return to form with “Trench”

Josh Dun and Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots accept the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance award at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Feb. 12, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

On Oct. 5, Twenty One Pilots released “Trench,” its fifth studio album and fourth under the Fueled By Ramen record label. This is the first album the Columbus-born duo has released in three years.

The album sets the backdrop to a fantasy world, DEMA, that lead singer and songwriter Tyler Joseph created. Each song adds to the picture of a dystopian society and provides commentary on Joseph’s struggle with mental illness and faith, which was previously lost in the group’s fourth album “Blurryface.”

As a longtime follower of Twenty One Pilots, I’ve heard their sound change from their first album to now. While I believe the band’s attempt to appeal to wider audiences has caused a subsequent loss of artistic integrity, I appreciated the genre-straddling techniques and candid lyrics that underscore this album.

The album opens with the previously released single, “Jumpsuit.” While the lyrics are repetitive and lack deeper meaning, I appreciate the heavy autotune and synthesizer, which is reminiscent of the band’s earlier music.

The album continues with laid-back raps by Joseph, missing both his signature urgency and breathlessness, and Josh Dun’s creative drumming. It isn’t until the fourth track, “My Blood,” that the guitar riffs and hip-hop beats provide more emotion. Joseph’s voice is tinged with desperation — as if he is pleading, a juxtaposition against the grooving bassline and rock beat to which I found myself dancing.

The duo’s musicality shines through in “Chlorine” and “Smithereens,” which both have catchy and pretty melodies that go along with the verses. The real gem of the album’s first half, however, is “Neon Gravestones.” This is the first song on the album and opens with a simple, haunting piano line. It’s also the first song in which Joseph talks openly about mental illness.

In the track, he criticizes society’s romanticization of suicide by saying: “I’m not disrespecting what was left behind / Just pleading that it does not get glorified.”

In an interview with Alternative Press, Joseph explains, “The idea of self-harm, depression, suicide … I’d like to believe that there are multiple ways to approach it and talk about it.”

The duo wanted to send the message that you can (and must) choose to live.

The second half of the album starts with “The Hype,” a synthesized song with a classic pop structure. The chorus stuck in my head, and while it was a stark change of pace from “Neon Gravestones,” I liked its upbeat vibe.

The tail end of the album is overall more lyrical than the beginning. The indie-pop tune “Cut My Lip,” for example, concealed darker messages under a beautiful melody. Similarly, “Bandito,” the longest track on the album, builds from soft, intense verses to a loud ‘90s-esque synthesized chorus.

The dystopian part of DEMA is evident in “Pet Cheetah,” which has heavy and intentional autotune that, while catchy, could not make up for the lackluster lyrics.

“Legend,” the 13th track, starts with a classic synthesizer melody and light drums. Joseph’s voice is moderately bluesy, and serves as a throwback to earlier songs such as “The Run and Go” and “Migraine.” The ukulele, which was a key instrument in their older music, makes a comeback underneath the synthesizer. This song was a pleasant reminder that Joseph and Dun have not strayed too far from their roots.

Twenty One Pilots ends the album with “Leave the City,” the most stripped-down song on the album. The simple piano is complemented by Dun’s drumming, which is the first time on the album he is adequately featured. Within the narrative of “Trench,” Joseph reckons that he will have to leave DEMA one day. Outside of the narrative, it is Joseph’s realization that in order to fight against his mental illnesses, he must leave some things behind.

The album is a refreshing step back toward Twenty One Pilots’ earlier days. While some tracks were clearly written with the intent to appeal to a wider fan base, I felt a revival of the band’s former intentions. The more I listen, the more I understand the album’s message. I wish, however, that Dun’s drumming was more prominent throughout the album.

 

Rating: 4/5

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