It’s a rare and strange occurrence when a band or artist who has never consistently appealed manages to produce a work that suddenly feels leagues ahead of their past efforts. This is especially perplexing when the album in question isn’t really anything that stylistically different from the rest of their oeuvre. Such were the circumstances around the release of Trench, mainstream indie pop outfit Twenty One Pilots’ third and best record, which took the group’s familiar hand with writing catchy pop hooks and eclectic musical influences and upgraded it at least twofold. Compared to their more popular past work, the songs on Trench had muscle, maturity, theme, structure and atmosphere that told of huge bounds of growth since their previous record, the adolescent faux-reggae pop rap project Blurryface. With its sci-fi dystopian concept, Trench was deeper, longer, heavier and dug further into the roots of the genres Twenty One Pilots were borrowing from. Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun began moving with a newfound sense of pathos and gravitas, producing one of the best albums of 2018. Even the weakest tracks on it were as well composed and performed as the very best moments of Blurryface.
Sadly though, Trench was not the commercial success that Blurryface was, selling only one time Platinum and not four as its predecessor did. This perhaps didn’t bode particularly well for Twenty One Pilots in the future, they were sounding better than ever but their audience was diminishing. Would the quality of Trench prove an anomaly as the group regressed to try and regain their crossover appeal? Would they reinvent themselves in search of a new audience and try and hit on the next big trend? Or would they recognise that they were onto something and double down on their more mature sound, confident that their efforts would be rewarded in the long run?
Hints about the answers to these questions began to arrive when the duo released their non-album pandemic-themed single “Level of Concern” in mid-2020. It was somewhat more in line with their older material, but sounding more poppy than ever, with a bouncy danceable energy and anxious themes that echoed those of “Stressed Out”, their biggest single to date. It was a very enjoyable single though and didn’t feel too burdened by expectations: it was short, timely and not attached to any album cycle. The first official teasers for their next album, Scaled and Icy, came in April 2021, in the form of the lead single “Shy Away” and its follow up “Choker”—both also upbeat and glamorous dance-pop tunes with glossy, anthemic choruses. They weren’t terrible songs—“Shy Away” in particular is a great little synth-pop tune—but both registered as a considerable turn away from the narrative established by Trench. “Choker” also features an unusually poor rap verse from Tyler with very obviously punched in vocals.
The only song on Scaled and Icy that could possibly have slipped relatively unnoticed into the tracklist of Trench is its penultimate track “No Chances”. It’s far and away the darkest song on the album, with a cavernous Viking chant chorus and moody synth heavy beat and lyrics portraying its protagonist coiled and primed to defend himself like the dragon on the album’s cover. This atmosphere is punctuated by the pre-chorus that delivers a more soothing and reassuring vibe, stripped away once the “we come for you” chant strikes up. The whole delivers a cinematic and grandiose portrait of a society attempting to coax the song’s paranoid protagonist back into the fold, possibly to his demise or assimilation into the whole. The song’s narrative resolves on the album’s closer “Redecorate”, with the singer seemingly contemplating suicide, and indecisive over how to leave their possessions for those who will be affected by his departure. These closing tracks are among Twenty One Pilots best songs ever and make a fantastic conclusion to an otherwise generally disappointing album.
The other seven tracks on Scaled and Icy walk the same path as “Shy Away”: seven helpings of new wave power pop, all presented with the same soft, glitzy pastels as the cover art and often devoting more of their short running times to the choruses than the brief verses. The often-pessimistic attitude of Twenty One Pilots, which has often come across as adolescent or naïve—expressing the existential angst of twenty something males in beanies who play Dungeons & Dragons—is still present, but has mostly been set aside. For example, the opening track here “Good Day” is a springy pop tune about enjoying the good days before the bad ones come around. “Choker” is a song about enjoying being in a place where no one has any designs upon you and the world is leaving you to your own devices, and many other tracks here express the same feeling of blissful freedom from obligation and expectation. Even the media cynicism of “Never Take It” is articulated through an untethered, above it all, attitude of freedom from the machine. Tyler is still composing songs about losing things, but this time embracing more of a ‘nothing left to lose’ attitude.
Perhaps the most successful track in this vein comes in the song “Mulberry Street”, thematically coalescing many of the album’s themes of a rejection of status and mainstream society’s pressures. Sadly though, “Choker” isn’t the only display of sub-par rapping from Tyler we get, with a poor bridge on “The Outside”. In general Tyler’s rapping seems to have taken a sharp downward turn; it’s neither as good nor as prominently placed as it has been in the past, while his singing is on point throughout. The forthcoming single “Saturday” is an unapologetically funky weekend party song that’s perhaps the purest expression of the band’s new wave dance pop direction and one that feels perhaps most disposable and indecisive, along with the forgettably unformidable “Formidable”.
The track “Bounce Man” seems almost to be responding to the rejection of utility and responsibility themes on the rest of the record, characterising a similar floating outlaw figure, tolerated and supported by his well-meaning friends for his good humour while potentially harbouring darker secrets carried with him.
These more upbeat songs are almost successfully accommodated into the narrative established on previous records by the closing tracks, songs which present what came before almost as a dream from which the protagonist has awoken into the same threatening world as before. It’s unfortunate that this isn’t quite convincing as a continuation of the narrative and world-building of Trench. Many songs here really couldn’t ever have been reconciled with the established aesthetics of Twenty One Pilots, instead demanding a full recontextualization as simple pop songs. Clearly a brighter and more non-threatening feel was just the message Tyler and Josh felt most drawn to and their more unique mannerisms fell by the wayside. With each project the duo seems to move further and further from their idiosyncrasies and reinvent themselves. On Trench that resulted in something vibrant, potent and diverse, while on Scaled and Icy what we get is something more along the lines of typical summery indie pop formulae refracted though Tyler’s songwriting style.
The album’s title is a play on scaled-back and isolated, neither of which does Scaled and Icy particularly feel, other than in the sense that its ambitions are scaled back and it’s isolated from the rest of their discography. With its short run time of only thirty-seven minutes and eleven tracks, it’s far and away Twenty One Pilots briefest project and certainly feels inconsequential by most measures, sacrificing much of what made the band unique with quite a few of what feel like underdeveloped songs. That said, there’s still pleasure to be had at many points with some moments approaching the quality of past career highs, and surpassing Blurryface at least. If one approaches it with the same unburdened attitude as it often expresses, one might find oneself charmed.