Twenty One Pilots – ‘Trench’ review

A concept album about a fictional destination, the duo’s fifth album is a rich but accessible record that plays fast and loose with genre

‘Blurryface’, the fourth album from Twenty One Pilots, sent the Ohio duo stratospheric in 2015. It planted its flag in history as the first record to have each of its songs certified at least Gold – and sent frontman Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun backflipping around the world’s biggest stages. Even Sean Paul acted as a unlikely hype man for them when he raved to NME that they were (ahem) the “new Nirvana”.

Even putting aside that hyperbole, it’s fair to say that ‘Trench’ – three years in the making – has been heralded by much expectation and conjecture. Through hints that Dun dropped in an awards ceremony acceptance speech (“Tyler wishes he could be here, but he’s actually severing ties with Dema”) and violation codes hidden in websites, the millennial Linkin Park left a cryptic trail to suggest they were making a concept album about a fictional place – the aforementioned Dema.

Advancing the ‘Blurryface’ mythos, Tyler envisaged ‘Trench’ as a convoluted lore about Dema, which is ruled over by nine bishops who keep its population suppressed. This involves an insurrectionary organisation called Bandito, as well as a mysterious figure called Nico. As suggested by the album’s first brace of singles and their accompanying videos – ‘Jumpsuit’, ‘Levitate’ and ‘Nico and the Niners’ – it’s a dystopian narrative destined straight for the top of your end-of-days playlist. Albeit with er, an added wild-card track about having a pet cheetah called – what else? – Jason Statham.

As ever, they play spin the bottle with genre: rap (‘Levitate’), funky R&B (‘Morph’), emo-reaggae (‘Nico and the Niners’) and indie disco (‘My Blood’). This is buoyed by sleek, widescreen production (helped by Mutemath’s Paul Meany), though nothing matches ‘Jumpsuit’ with its Royal Blood-style, bone-shuddering bassline for aggression. Fortunately, the narrative – which fans may treat as their own Game Of Thrones – doesn’t overwhelm. The likes of ‘Chlorine’ (with its soaring Bastille-esque chorus of, “I’m running from my li-fe”), and the Brandon Flowers-like ‘The Hype’, are strong enough to exist outside of any story; the songs comes on like a Spotify algorithm’s wet-dream.

Lyrically, Tyler is most affecting when he steps beyond any concept straight-jacket. ‘Smithereens’ is a cute, playful love song on which the frontman admits that he’s no Rocky Balboa, but insists he would defend his beau in a fight: “For you, I’d get beat to smithereens”. ‘Neon Gravestones’, meanwhile, is the album’s standout: an elegiac, touching broadside against the fetishization of the ’27 Club’. That the band have spoken openly about mental health gives Tyler’s observations more emotional heft.

It’s not all 100 percent successful. ‘Legend’ suffers from sounding like Jake Shears (arguably not even Jake Shears succeeds at sounding like Jake Shears in 2018). And by the time ‘Pet Cheetah’ drops towards near the end of the album, with its boggling verse, “I’ve got a pet cheetah down in my basement / I’ve raised him and bathed him / And named him Jason Statham”, you wonder if the pair are going to tear off face masks, Scooby Doo janitor-style, to reveal they were the Flight Of The Conchords all along.

But these are minor niggles. ‘Trench’ is the sound of a band ratcheting up the ambition without ever being pulled down by an undertow of pretentiousness. It’s more low-key than ‘Blurryface’, but ultimately more rewarding.

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