Twenty One Pilots
Twenty One Pilots
By Ben Hobbs
Twenty One Pilots’ recent rise to fame is a testament to the fact that, though I am a bored 17-year-old and squarely in the target demographic, I will probably never understand pop music. In an era dominated by pseudo-folk, pseudo-country, and pseudo-gospel music, a new group comes along with absolutely none of the above influences and captures the hearts of young listeners everywhere. Who would have thought that a white kid who raps emo lyrics and a hot drummer with a drum machine could be so successful in the midst of a sea of imitation-traditionalism? Some of their beats and chord structures are so simple that they make you feel like YOU, the musically untalented reader of this article, could come up with them. If I could summarize their sound (as exemplified by their two most successful and recent albums: “Vessel” and “Blurryface”) I would call it “softcore-dubstep-indie-hip-hop.” Sound appealing? No? Well what if I told you that the lyrics discussed such original topics as nostalgia for the stress-free days of youth, healthy relationships with mothers, and car radios? Still not impressed? Well you should be. Because those actually ARE some pretty creative topics, and Tyler Joseph’s writing conveys the emotions behind those topics in a raw and sometimes surprisingly relatable way. One song that really did this for me was “Stressed out” off of their newest album “Blurryface”:
Sometimes a certain smell will take me back to when I was young
How come I’m never able to identify where it’s coming from?
I’d make a candle out of it if I ever found it
Try to sell it, never sell out of it, I’d probably only sell one
And I thought I was the only one whose nose evoked strong emotions! Tyler has formed a bridge between he and I through this verse, and now I feel obligated to listen to the rest of his music to find more links between us, because who doesn’t like having a connection to a famous musician?
I think that THAT is where you find the strong appeal of this band to my generation (though it could also be their excellent use of dynamics through tempo and key changes, or the incredibly effective methods with which they market themselves). They make you realize that a suicidal, depressed, stressed out, and insecure young person can and has become a success in the music industry. Twenty One Pilots uses the power of relating with their audience to great effect. As I said before, many of their songs are deceptively simple, and they almost make you feel as if you could write something as good or better. They make you feel like YOU could be a star, and they certainly make you want to try.
After wading through the sea of sparse imitation hip-hop that is their most recent albums, and mulling over my chances at starting my own hugely successful indie pop duo, I started wondering how TOP did it. Whenever I’m looking at current popular bands that I would not normally listen to because a certain attractive female in my life has recommended them, I usually find my favorite songs by them on their debut album.
I like debut albums because they represent the band’s true sound, one that is unaffected by popular opinion and/or label pressure. So I rooted through the back room of my local record shop until I found this little gem (just kidding, I scrolled to the bottom of their Spotify page). “Twenty One Pilots” did not disappoint me. The self-titled album has received little to no critical acclaim and was independently produced by Tyler Joseph, Nick Thomas, and Chris Salih (no, you are not supposed to know who those last two are). I didn’t expect to like this album. My preferred type of music has electric guitars, insane bass-lines, and singers who sound like they’ve at least hit puberty; but this album took my musical tastes to places they had never been (and honestly, probably will never go again).
Generally speaking, I think album art might be my least favorite part about music. I’m never sure if it’s supposed shocking, artistic, symbolic, or even relevant to the subject matter in the album. I’m no art critic, so I’ve got nothing to say about this weird image. Let’s listen to the music…
If you are already a Twenty One Pilots fan but you have not listened to this record, be warned: Joshua Dun is not on it. This is mostly the brainchild of Tyler Joseph, and lacks Dun’s “sick as frick” drumming style that helped make their latest two albums so successful. The beats that we hear on Twenty One Pilots are solid and well written (“Fall Away,” “The Pantaloon,” “Implicit Demand for Proof”), they just don’t play as central of a role as they do in newer songs.
The album starts off with “Implicit Demand for Proof.” This song definitely sets the tone musically for the rest of the album (and, in a way, for the rest of their albums) by starting off with a warm piano part that slowly melts away to reveal a cold synthesizer underneath it. Get ready to hear many more pianos and synthesizers scattered throughout their entire catalog. After the haunting yet somehow comforting intro, all the synth goes away leaving just Tyler and his piano. It’s really just a simple waltz progression but the passion in his voice and the well-placed double bass give it richness and depth. I personally am not a fan of the particular singing style that Tyler employs here (where “while” becomes “whoile” and “your” becomes “yowarr”), but you can really tell that he is feeling every single line that he is singing, and that is redemption enough for me.
The dynamics of this song are really what take it from being a passable indie ballad to a well-written classic. It makes your head nod with powerful and well-placed synthetic instrumentals and makes your soul flutter with hauntingly beautiful verses and refrains. There is no wasted space here: every instrument and line is needed and they all work together to create a very good song.
Unfortunately, the album does not get any better. “Implicit Demand for Proof” is the best song, and none of the others can top it; but many of them will imitate it. “Air Catcher” sounds kind of like “Implicit Demand” but tries to be a rock song. It doesn’t work. The drums are thin and weak and are barely felt behind the tinny guitar and out-of-time piano. Listen to it, it’s bad. I think that “Air Catcher” is the worst song on the album as far as production value is concerned. “Fall Away” is basically a chopped up version of “Implicit demand.” It has the same instruments, tone of voice, and drum machine but is slightly faster. If “Implicit Demand for Proof” is a whole note then “Fall Away” is four quarter notes?
Anyway, “Fall Away” is the first Twenty One Pilots song to feature reggae-style off beat rhythms. This makes it the grandfather of one of their most popular songs, “Ride.” It’s a pretty average song on the whole, but it can’t rival any of their newer songs that are done in the same style. “The Pantaloon” also has off beat rhythms, but is just really annoying. Like, I never get past the first few chords without skipping it. It is definitely a low point of the album. In fact, while we’re at it, “March to the Sea,” “Trapdoor” “A Car, A Torch, A Death,” “Addict with a Pen,” and “Isle of Flightless Birds” are all low points on the album as well. I couldn’t find much musical creativity in any of these songs. They can all be dismissed as pointless wailings; full of recycled chord progressions, redundant lyrical themes, and mispronounced words (“eye” should not sound like “oi”). These songs would actually be better if only one of them existed, or if they were all somehow combined to make one song. They all accomplish the same thing, and make each other obsolete.
These songs all have phenomenal lyrics, however. In fact, it feels like Tyler bleeds his heart out onto the page in every song on the album, including the five failures mentioned above. There is a treasure trove of original imagery; and even when he uses clichéd imagery he makes it his own and wails the cliché right out of it. Infuriatingly, I can’t find any bad lyrics on this album. Even more infuriatingly, I can’t help but feel some sort of emotion whenever I listen to the songs, even the crappiest ones. But it is very possible for a song to suck hard and still make you cry, so that alone can’t redeem the worst of this album.
However, I reaaaaallly liiike the rest of them. “Johnny Boy” is just catchy and tells a cool story. “Taxi Cab” and “Before You Start Your Day” have very few synthesizers and are just really good. “Friend Please” is quite strong and sure to tug on your heartstrings. When I sit down and absorb the beauty that is “Friend Please,” I can’t believe it’s on the same album as freakin “Air Catcher.” If someone stumbled across this album before Tyler met Josh and before they were on the radio, these songs would give them a taste of the magic that makes their newer songs so popular. They play with dynamics very well, they are catchy yet well written, and they have an air of simplicity about them lyrically and musically that makes them relatable.
While this album does bear the Twenty One Pilots name, it is really quite distinct from Twenty One Pilots as they are known today. Without Josh Dunn, it lacks some of the qualities that make them unique in today’s music scene, but Tyler Joseph’s exceptional lyrics and songwriting abilities still shine through. The potential is there, it just isn’t fully realized yet. I see this album represented as just a collection of gooey, incoherent drops of multicolored genius slowly leaking out of Tyler’s brain and settling in a tiny little world that is not ready to receive it just yet.