On their 2015 breakthrough, Blurryface, Twenty One Pilots were the ultimate post-Spotify rock band, flickering wildly through ideas and genre: Tyler Joseph’s vein-spilling emo rap, Josh Dun’s funky-hard Travis Barker drums, tweaks of electronic music and reggae, twee ukulele indie, the grandeur of a Broadway musical and existential lyrics with a metatextual flair. Think a modern Sublime doing Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.
Most of those elements are still here on fifth album Trench, but they’ve coalesced into a smarter, more mature whole. Maybe TOP have grown as songwriters and arrangers, maybe some thanks to co-writer and co-producer Paul Meany (leader of psych-rocktronica band Mutemath), maybe it’s the healthy coating of dubby, post-industrial reverb clouding up the record – but instead of emotive kids turning the radio dials, Trench has more of a cohesive sound and feel.
There’s a convoluted Coheed & Cambria-esque storyline and some cryptic lore that Reddit posters are decoding, but the important thing is that the music is still about anxiety, depression and insecurities. It’s hard not to imagine that a lot of this record – their first since Blurryface went triple platinum – is about a different type of “Stressed Out”: the weight of fame. Opener “Jumpsuit” has the fuzzy blues swing of Black Keys and a sparkling Nine Inch Nails coda, where Joseph sings ” I crumble underneath the weight/Pressures of a new place roll my way.” “The Hype” – which the lyrics say he doesn’t believe, by the way – is an alt-rock chant-along with a ukulele bridge. The lyrics to “Pet Cheetah” feels like a writer’s block anthem where Joseph raps “I’m showing my faces in just enough places/I’m done with tip-toeing/I’ll stay in my room/My house is the one where the vultures are perched on the roof.” Even the love song, “Smithereens,” second-guesses itself: “For you, I’d go write a slick song just to show you the world. … For you, I know they think it’s messed up to sell out for your girl.”
“Neon Gravestones,” ultimately, is the most intense look at fame, a song about how the media glorifies famous people after they die. Moody and reflective – think a Logic-style rap over Gary Jules’ “Mad World” cover – Joseph offers an alternative: “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.”