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Album Review: Twenty One Pilots’ ‘Trench’

The most anticipated alt-rock release of the year turns out to be a concept album about depression, with some YA fantasy elements and a provocative take on celebrity suicides.

Depression is everywhere in the media— and not even in a “I’m so despondent about Brett Kavanaugh” kind of way, but in discussions about the real thing that take place in TV thrillers (“Sharp Objects”), in pop (“1-800-273-8255”) and even on “SNL” (the first two episodes this year having featured gags about Pete Davidson’s meds… and Kanye’s). Now Twenty One Pilots have arrived with the most commercially anticipated alternative rock record of 2018, and it’s a concept album about the blues… the clinical kind.

The hit duo’s singer and songwriter, Tyler Joseph, wants to offer hope to his similarly afflicted fans but doesn’t want to be too hokey or on-the-nose about doing it, so he’s fashioned “Trench,” Twenty One Pilots’ fourth album, as (mostly) an allegory taking place in a fantasy dystopia. It also happens that this world-building also provides some different kinds of promotional opportunities for a young audience that’s grown up on YA sci-fi and gaming, so the roll-out for “Trench” has had less to do with magazine cover stories and more about semi-secret websites and cryptic clues about the characters and settings for the new album… even if the ultimate intent is to share some non-fantastical thoughts about fighting your way out of desolation.

With due respect to Joseph’s desire to engage his audience with something other than 14 tracks’ worth of literalness on this subject, the best tracks on “Trench” are the ones that ditch the characters and concept and just have him directly saying what he means. There’s one particularly provocative number, “Neon Gravestones,” that may be debated not just by fans but some of the mental health specialists who track pop culture’s statements on this stuff in the months to come.

Over a sad 6/8 piano riff that picks up some life as the electronic percussion picks up the pace, Joseph argues that there’s a culture of romanticizing celebrity suicides and even contends that maybe some of the artists who do the deed do it with their too-sensitive-for-this-world legacy in mind. In making this case, Joseph will surely come in for some flack for blaming suicide victims for their illness, or for imagining that the urge for eternal coolness is really a factor when stars are literally at the end of their rope… something that’s more common to the unaffected than fellow sufferers. Does he really think that a Chris Cornell or Chester Bennington had a thought to “boost up (their) reputation”? But Joseph uses his “This could be me” status to further his argument: “Promise me this: If I lose to myself, you won’t mourn a day, and you’ll move onto someone else.”

He rounds out this anti-suicide-glorifying anthem by suggesting, “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.” Joseph puts his money where his mouth is by dedicating the album’s penultimate slot to a tribute to the late grandfather who appeared on the cover of Twenty One Pilots’ “Vessel” album with “Legend.” Songwriting doesn’t get much more real-time than a verse like: “You were here when I wrote this / But the masters and mixes will take too long to finish to show you / I’m sorry I did not visit / Did not know how to take it / When your eyes did not know me.” Those lines sound poignant, but the mandolins and horns conspire to make it the cheeriest song on the record, before he ends with “Then the day that it happened / I recorded this last bit / I look forward to having a lunch with you again.”

There’s also one charming respite from the death and/or depression — “Smithereens,” a tune Joseph wrote for his wife about how he, as a relative pacifist, would get in a fight for her… and lose. Or, as he puts it, “Step up to a dude much bigger than me… I would get messed up, weigh 153.”

If you’re a fan of this kind of confessional pop, though, do be reminded that these are interludes in an album that devotes itself more to mythology and metaphors. The whole lead-up to the album was about how it would continue a storyline started on their previous blockbuster, “Blurryface,” and involve the travails of a character in an alternate universe named Clancy. If you do any reading up, you learn that our hero resides in a seemingly inescapable, walled city named Dema, which is a metaphor for being trapped in a state of melancholia. The opening track, “Jumpsuit,” refers to the fact that one of the only established means of escape is to wear a yellow jumpsuit, because the guardians of the city are specifically blind to that color. What yellow is a metaphor for, I can’t say, unless it’s the sense-anesthetizing qualities of Coldplay. Another track, “Nico and the Niners,” describes the nine “bishops” who keep the depressed citizens at bay. The names of the other eight bishops are Andre, Lisden, Keons… okay, I’m pretty sure these are not relevant in any way, but do feel free to look the rest up for yourself.

Or take my recommendation and forget about the most deeply conceptual parts of this concept album — which just seems like a lot of work — and enjoy the many parts of “Trench” that don’t require a thirst for symbolic origin stories. There are plenty of these, like “Morph” and “My Blood,” which sport falsetto R&B hooks, somewhat in the tradition of the previous album’s best track, “Heavydirtysoul.” The color-coded storytelling of “Jumpsuit” doesn’t get in the way of its thunderous pleasures; there’s a reason it was the fastest-rising alterative rock radio song this decade, and it has something to do with the fact that its lead-style bass makes it sound like one of Muse’s more metal-leaning numbers. In the midst of that heavier opener, Joseph’s singing voice sounds distinctly meek, which has always part of Twenty One Pilots’ sonic and thematic appeal: non-aggro guy fighting for his place in an aggro world.

Although the duo’s intent is life-affirmation and all that jazz, almost everything sounds more serious this time around, and as good as “Trench” often is, its mortal concerns make me a little nostalgic, already, for some of the in-your-face youth angst of “Stressed Out.” But you can’t blame a maturing guy for trading in worrying about student loans and post-collegiate career concerns for self-harm, death and other deeper distresses. Anyway, innate depression over the human condition is a nice distraction from getting depressed about politics. Compared to an hour of CNN, “Trench” is a breeze.

Twenty One Pilots
“Trench”
Fueled by Ramen Records
Producers: Tyler Joseph, Paul Meany

Album Review: Twenty One Pilots' 'Trench'

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