2015’s ‘Blurryface’ was a surprise sensation that elevated Twenty One Pilots from underground cult duo to global emo megastars. ‘Stressed Out’ became the first rock song to surpass one billion streams on Spotify, with ‘Ride’ and standalone single ‘Heathens’ (recorded for The Suicide Squad soundtrack) soon following and they even picked up a Grammy along the way.
Unsure what to do with this newfound level of fame where people knew the songs, but not the band, Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun released 2018 follow-up ‘Trench’, a tightly wound concept album. Across its 14 cinematic tracks, it told the story of main character Clancy and a group named the Banditos, as they tried to break free from the fictional land of DEMA and the nine bishops who controlled it. Deliberately obtuse, the ambitious narrative was Twenty One Pilots’ way of reassuring their diehard fanbase that they were still their band.
By contrast, new album ‘Scaled and Icy’ is the soundtrack to a summer party where absolutely everyone is welcome – as long as they’re in the mood for a dance.
Writing during lockdown, Joseph quickly discovered that a global pandemic isn’t the place for emotional evisceration, and couldn’t get in the headspace to continue the tale that was told across ‘Blurryface’ and ‘Trench’. Instead of lofty stories, he escaped into writing great songs and, while recording at home, drummer Josh Dunn had all the time in the world to experiment. The result is a record that’s more playful than anything the band have ever done before.
Posi-pop opener ‘Good Day’ makes Electric Light Orchestra’s ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ sound a bit reserved, while the upbeat bop of ‘Saturday’ is as joyful as they come. And anyone who thinks the pair have sold-out by making big, shiny anthems needs to revisit the jaunty keys of 2013’s ‘Vessel’.
Despite the glitz, ‘Scaled and Icy’ is still emotionally raw. The opening clutch of songs reflects the loneliness of a year spent sitting inside, but also explore the strength to be found in that isolation. The frantic ‘Choker’ starts off oh-so-emo, with Joseph lamenting that “self-sabotage is a sweet romance”, before exploding into a sense of ownership: “Like a little splinter buried in your skin / Someone else can carve it out but when you’ve got the pin / It hurts a little less.” Elsewhere, the urgent ‘Shy Away’ sees Joseph warning that you “manifest a ceiling when you shy away”, before urging the listener to step out of their comfort zone.
While their other albums have offered understanding through shared experiences, ‘Scaled and Icy’ offers direct encouragement. It sees the band stepping up to the platform they’ve always been tentative to take – see ‘Never Take It’, a political track about misinformation in the media and the division it’s creating. “They’re trying hard to weaponise you and I,” Joseph sings over stadium rock riffs as Twenty One Pilots channel U2’s ‘Achtung Baby’.
Despite the band making a name for themselves with songs about anxiety, depression, fear and loneliness, ‘Scaled and Icy’ is an overwhelmingly positive album. Joseph and Dun don’t hide from that contradiction, either. As the former sings on ‘Good Day’: “Today’s a good day – never know when the next one will show.” In other words: those moments should be celebrated while they can be. The pair know the gloom is expected, but as Joseph sings on the piano-led ‘Mulberry Street’: “Keep your bliss – we just want to feel it all”. Like My Chemical Romance’s divisive ‘Danger Days…’, ‘Scaled & Icy’ is an expectation-crushing statement of ambition as the band prove they’re bigger than one emotion.
The acoustic ‘Formidable’ takes influence from ‘Friday I’m In Love’ by The Cure and is just as head-over-heels, while ‘Saturday’, co-produced by Greg Kurstin (who’s worked with Adele, Kendrick Lamar, Foo Fighters and more), is a loving ode to the support of others. It features a conversation between Joseph and his wife Jenna, as she tells him, “if you’re inspired, you should just go for it”, rather than leaving the studio to watch Friends with her.
It’s not all upbeat, though, and the band have never been ones to sugarcoat things. The ominous hip-hop of ‘No Chances’ feels like ‘Blurryface’-era Pilots gatecrashing our escapism, while the closing sees them ‘Redecorate’ wrestles with the past and what’s to come next, those earlier moments of doubt resurfacing in a big way.
If ‘Blurryface’ was the band fighting to be heard and ‘Trench’ saw them trying to maintain control, ‘Scaled and Icy’ sees the pair mostly at peace and following their gut. Despite the swaggering optimism and huge pop bangers, ‘Scaled and Icy’ is still very much in the Twenty One Pilots universe. Sure, there is some inevitable fan service – the title, after all, is an anagram of ‘Clancy is dead’ – but this album sees one of the most fearless bands of their generation continue to take risks.
Release date: May 21
Record label: Fueled By Ramen