Over the past year, no band has been turned on faster than twenty one pilots. One day, they were lauded as near-gods and the next they were written off as hacks. In a world where callout culture is affecting careers left and right, this isn’t so surprising. That is, until you realize neither Tyler Joseph nor Josh Dunn have actually done anything “problematic.” In fact, for one of the biggest bands on the planet, they keep to themselves an awful lot. So why has everyone turned on them?
If you ask me, it’s a mix of overexposure and cringe culture. Their biggest hits are, arguably, their weakest songs. But they were everywhere in 2016 and 2017. Both Tyler and Josh often talk and Tweet like emo and scene kids perpetually stuck in the mid-2000s. So it’s not entirely surprising that people want to distance themselves from that or find them odd. However, most of the “cringe” surrounding twenty one pilots is their fanbase. The Clique, as they are known, is perhaps one of the most rabid fanbases out there. But these aren’t the excitable tweens who propelled One Direction to stardom or the overprotective fans of BTS. These are the New Emo kids. And emo and scene culture, as those of us who experienced its first go-around, is a special brand of wacky and wild.
And that’s not to say that The Clique is doing anything inherently wrong or shameful. As long as they’re not hurting anyone, they can express themselves any way they want. But fandoms have a way of influencing how people view the band or artist themselves. Though not entirely fair, the music made and the persona portrayed by a band or artist does influence the culture and attitude around them. And twenty one pilots has never been shy about their message or how they want to share it.
So, how does all of this affect their latest release, Trench? If you ask me (and if you’re reading this review, you have), Trench is largely a response to all of this. It’s not exclusively a response to the tide’s turning, but it’s there nonetheless.
Trench, more than its predecessor Blurryface, is a concept album. No, it’s a rock opera. The story takes place in a walled city called Dema. This city is run by a group of bishops, known as Nico and the Niners. Clancy, portrayed by Tyler, is desperate to escape the city. To do so, he joins a group of rebels, known as the Banditos. Clancy almost escapes, but is captured once again by the bishops. Eventually, he figures out that the only way out of the city is to go up… or down.
If you’ve followed twenty one pilots for long enough, you know that their main subject of focus is Tyler’s recurring struggle with depression. Therefore, the metaphor in this story is not complicated. Dema is Tyler’s depression; the bishops are his inner demons; the Banditos are his hopes and reasons to live; going “up” is recovery; going down is death. Most songs on the album, additionally, can be perfectly understood without any knowledge of the story. The only two songs that truly rely on it are “Jumpsuit” and “Nico and the Niners.” As such, this album is pretty much everything you’d expect from a twenty one pilots album.
However, Trench is also many things you don’t expect. “Jumpsuit” is a rock anthem, perfect for a stadium performance. “My Blood” channels artists like Chromeo and Foster the People, while “The Hype” calls back to icons like Blink-182. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t original. I don’t think Tyler can touch anything without putting his own spin on it. And as he’s writing from personal experience, this is inevitable.
Of course, as I said, the songs aren’t just about Tyler’s struggles with depression (tough several are, including “Morph” and “Chlorine”). He also takes time to honor those he loves (his wife on “Smithereens” and his late grandfather on “Legend”). On “Neon Gravestone,” Tyler tackles the subject of celebrity suicides. His thesis is both that depression can affect anyone and that the way we talk about public figures who have committed suicide can be damaging. In a way, our culture has a nasty habit of almost glorifying these tragedies. As Tyler says, “The rise in awareness/ Is beating a stigma that no longer scares us,” but that “Some could be tempted/ To use this mistake as a form of aggression/ A form of succession/ A form of a weapon.” He argues that we should value long lives lived instead, saying, “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.” His take is nuanced, and one I personally agree with. I’m glad he took the time to discuss this, especially as someone who has struggled with suicidal ideation. This album, more than just being about personal experience, is a mixed back of tributes and opinions. And each has a powerful impact on the listener.
Tyler also reflects on the band’s non-stop two years of touring and sudden rise to superstardom. “The Hype” deals most explicitly with that. However, it’s “Leave This City” that deals most with the turncoats. Tyler addresses them by deliberately not addressing them. Instead, he says of he and Josh’s fans, “In trench I’m not alone/ These faces facing me/ They know/ They know/ What I mean.” While some have written his lyrics off as cringy or cashing in on mental health awareness, Tyler knows that there are still people out there who get what he’s been saying all along. And, ultimately, it’s his relationship with them that matters and not those who left.
While I don’t consider myself part of The Clique, I do consider myself a fan. And, as a fan and a lover of music, I have to say that I really like this album. I don’t know how I’d rank it in relation to their entire discography, but I do think it’s better than Blurryface. In fact, Trench includes a couple songs that have me rethinking my entire top five. “My Blood” is absolutely fantastic and “Banditos” is the dark anthem I didn’t know I needed. If you’ve written off twenty one pilots, I recommend you give them one last try and listen to Trench. Maybe you still won’t be a fan, but maybe, just maybe, a lyric will strike you just right and you’ll find yourself right down there in the trenches with us.