Twenty One Pilots – ‘Scaled and Icy’

By Yasmin Brown

If there’s anything we’ve learnt about Twenty One Pilots over the past few years, it’s to never take anything they do at face value. What seems like one thing will usually be something else entirely and it’s this that makes Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun such a perpetually interesting duo.

While ‘Scaled and Icy’ by its very nature is a direct follow up to ‘Trench’ – the album’s title is an anagram of ‘Clancy is dead’, taking us back to the narrative that fuels the 2018 album – sonically, it is reminiscent of 2013’s ‘Vessel’ and as such, ties the band’s last four albums together in a way you simply couldn’t have predicted. Whereas ‘Blurryface’ conceptually links into ‘Trench’, it’s the cheerful beats and more serious themes that bring ‘Scaled and Icy’ full circle back to the band’s first Fueled By Ramen release. 

On first listen, and taking into account the vibrancy of the album’s cover art and supporting promo pieces, you might think this record is full of light and laughter, but as with ‘Vessel’, once you delve into the lyrics, you’ll find the darker undertones that have always existed in Twenty One Pilots’ music. 

The first hint of this is the album’s opening track, ‘Good Day’, a track led by cheerful piano reminiscent of ‘Vessel’s’ ‘Run and Go’ and is seemingly set to remind you to embrace and enjoy each ‘good day’ as they come. In reality it’s a song that stemmed from a thought Joseph had about losing his wife, Jenna, and daughter, Rosie, and the denial you would experience when mourning that loss. While his family has certainly played a part in forging a brighter outlook on life, the more sombre themes that first presented themselves in Joseph’s music before Twenty One Pilots even existed still linger, they’re just a little harder to find.

Once you tap into the subtle messaging in ‘Good Day’, however, the rest of the record is a little easier to unpack, with second single ‘Choker’ perhaps having the strongest tie back to the band’s roots in ‘Regional at Best’ and ‘Vessel’, particularly given its hopeful ending that will take you back to older songs such as ‘Truce’ and ‘Guns For Hands’. It’s a tentative positivity that seeps straight into the album’s lead single, ‘Shy Away’, where you’ll find yourself encouraged to do things that scare you and break through your own ceiling in the name of progress – whatever that may look like to you. 

If you’ve been missing the band’s signature synths and Joseph’s much loved rapping up until this point, ‘The Outside’ has got your back, further continuing the narrative of forging your own path and breaking the mould – a message hidden in the depths of the catchiest track on the record and one that promises to bring the album to life once live shows finally resume. First place for inciting the most vivid live show-related daydream, however, is ‘Saturday’, a track that will have you leaping up at the first available opportunity while also addressing what has been a painful reality for most during the pandemic, where days roll into one and taking care of yourself sometimes becomes secondary to just getting by.

Among the spritely pop-rock, there are a small number of songs that feel out of place on the record, the first being the politically charged ‘Never Take It’ that kicks off in a minor key as Joseph defiantly warns us about the role the media play in spreading lies, advising us to take everything with a pinch of salt. Sonically, it brightens up as the song progresses until eventually presenting us with the strongest bridge on the record and acting as the perfect mid-point for this album.

The hint of darkness we find here doesn’t last long, as we’re met with ‘Mulberry Street’ which, if the Reddit threads and Spotify plays are to be believed, is already proving itself to be a fan favourite. While Joseph has explained that this catchy number was borne out of a memory of feeling lost on his first trip to New York, you can also take it to be a reminder that you can find happiness and comfort wherever you are, even if you need to fake it for a little while before you find the real sunshine.

It seems intentional that this should then lead into the Beach Boys / The Cure inspired ‘Formidable’ – a song that could be attributed to Joseph’s friendship with Dun, or his relationship with his wife and daughter, or even Twenty One Pilots’ fanbase, The Skeleton Clique. It’s a love song – a song about absolute devotion – even if that sometimes presents itself in a cold and distanced manner. The longevity of this kind of real love is questioned in ‘Bounce Man’, as the suitably bouncy track addresses friendships that have a shelf life but also the fact that the end of a friendship doesn’t have to mean anger. It’s just a bittersweet fact of life.

Along with ‘Never Take It’, the final tracks are two more that seem somewhat out of place on ‘Scaled and Icy’, their macabre nature prompting theories that perhaps this record is just half of one complete story, the remainder of which is still to come. Both ‘No Chances’ and ‘Redecorate’ could sit comfortably on either ‘Blurryface’ or ‘Trench’, with the former sounding most connected to the intricate storyline that ties those two albums together. The song’s chorus is made up of gang chanting which we can safely assume is coming from the nine bishops depicted in the ‘Trench’ narrative, providing a direct link to Dema and the danger we were warned of in the 2018 release. While less explicit (i.e no chanting bishops), the heart wrenching ‘Redecorate’ – a song that will best resonate with older fans – feels tied to the band’s earlier releases, too. It’s another ‘stay alive’ message presented through a story about the logistics of suicide while still being soft in its approach. 

It’s also here in the last few moments of the album that you learn of the duality of the album’s title, hidden subtly in the lyric, “Scaled back and isolated”, and suddenly Trash the dragon doesn’t seem quite so random after all as isn’t that exactly what life has been this past year? Scaled back and isolated? 

While this record remains a far cry from the frankly ostracising nature of ‘Trench’ (Joseph himself has admitted this was intentional after the unexpected roaring success of 2015’s ‘Blurryface’), there are still elements of ‘Scaled and Icy’ that are meant just for those die hard fans – the ones that will delve beneath the surface of the bubblegum pop-rock that ‘Scaled and Icy’ presents itself as. 

Some people will only ever enjoy ‘Scaled and Icy’ for its vivacious energy and catchy choruses, but for fans that choose to embrace it for all of its hidden quirks and meanings, this is an album that will only continue to offer more with every listen. Twenty One Pilots could easily have regurgitated their last two albums, but where would be the fun in that? Unexpected, smart, and subtly ambitious, ‘Scaled and Icy’ really is everything we needed to lift us out of the darkness and we couldn’t love it more if we tried.

YASMIN BROWN

 

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