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The Best-Worst Album to Quarantine to: Blurryface by Twenty One Pilots

Twenty One Pilots’ Blurryface is the audio equivalent of a depression nap. 

This is not to say that it’s a bad album, because it’s not. Twenty One Pilots was my Spotify Artist of the Decade solely because of this album. It just so happens that Blurryface is an album lacking positivity — it adds gloom to an already bleak reality. 

Twenty One Pilots, made up of Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun, dropped their self-titled debut album in 2009, but really came into public knowledge after 2012’s Vessel. Blurryface broke away from the band’s other music by providing a darker tone. It was a huge commercial success, sat on the Billboard Top-200 for four years straight, and was the first — and only — record to have 100 million Spotify listeners on every song on the album. 

The album experimented with genre, reaching into reggae with tones of Christianity that were not present in their previous work. However, the execution — which borders on messy experimentation often in comparison to genre-bending — is rather successful in comparison to the complete and utter burning trash heaps that could have been created. However, in the time of crisis that we are in right now, Blurryface instills all the anxiety one needs to feel truly miserable in self-isolation. 

Twenty One Pilots created an album that it is hard not to empathize with. The anxiety Joseph feels bounces out with every word — Blurryface portrays emotion and feelings of anxiety and self-doubt that few albums charter into, and does it effectively. However, it is the raw emotion of Blurryface that makes it one of the worst albums to quarantine to.

1. “Heavydirtysoul”

This album opener is a banger — literally. Joseph introduces the anxiety that plagues Blurryface with a rapid rhythmscape that accompanies Joseph’s rap, acting as his pacing thoughts and the noise of the outside world. It is a good bridge from the Vessel era, and immediately transitions the listener to the panicked world of Blurryface

The song is a good representation of the album to come, instilling the themes of anxiety and feeling the need to conform through playing with different sounds. “Heavydirtysoul” jumps from scratches and drones to a two-step drum beat and Joseph’s meteoric rap. It plays with the more personal aspects, calling out for salvation, but has a stadium anthem chorus that yearns the same thing: “can you save my heavy dirty soul from me?”

2. “Stressed Out” 

“Stressed Out” introduces listeners to the titular character, a manifestation of Joseph’s anxieties about fame, life, and growing up. “Stressed Out” not only kills all the whimsy — all of it! — but also kills all optimism of adult life — every fear from childhood has just been exacerbated, but now you also have to worry about making money!

Throughout the chorus, a melancholy piano line plays a dark almost-lullaby that laments the end of childhood. This truly cements Blurryface as a dark album, concerned with fear and a grim reality. “I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink / But now I’m insecure and I care what people think,” Joseph sings. 

3. “Ride” 

This is the first song that really breaks away from the pack, utilizing an upbeat reggae. However, this is once again another song with rather bleak lyrics reflecting on life and death. “Yeah, I think about the end just way too much / But it’s fun to fantasize,” Joseph sings. However, Dun’s drumming drives this song with a consistent one-two beat throughout the massive buildup “Ride” provides. It’s easily one of the strongest songs on Blurryface, but revolves around crisis that just hits too close to home. 

4. “Fairly Local”

“Fairly Local” declares the establishment of Twenty One Pilots as a respected musical act — they’ve become “fairly local” to the music industry. The high use of synths and the switch between base and drum create a song that is grounded and yet feels oddly empty. 

While “Fairly Local” does not have smash-hit radio quality. “I truly do have a chance / Tomorrow I’ll switch the beat / To avoid yesterday’s dance,” he sings. It’s a reflection on following the norm and attempting to break free of his own vision, but vision appears just as hollow as the alternative. 

5. “Tear in My Heart” 

The lead single is a warped positivity that the rest of the album lacks. The strong chorus of passion wrapped up in a reflection of fear of love in “she’s a butcher with a smile, cut me farther than I’ve ever been,” make it one of the only redeemable quarantine bops of this album.

Unlike songs like “Ride” that require the build-up to climax, “Tear in My Heart” is constructed around the falling action. The high-energy blaze dies down to simple piano chords to wrap up the all-encompassing love. 

6. “Lane Boy” 

“Lane Boy” confronts the band’s struggle with the music industry. A blend of both the band’s iconic schizophrenic pop and reggae, it reflects on the band’s struggle to mold its own path against the pressures of the industry: “They say stay in your lane boy / but we go where we want to.” 

However this bop transitions to a fast-paced bass-heavy banger, distorting the instrument and ramping up Joseph’s sing-rap to double time. The song morphs into a different sound completely but calls back to “Ride” when it re-asks the quite-disconcerting question “Who would you live and die for on that list?”

7. “The Judge” 

This is easily the strongest track on the album, utilizing a softer ukulele and breaking away from the aggression of the previous six songs. It is the most effective genre blend of the singer-songwriter style with techno aspects and voice modulation. 

“I know my soul’s freezing / hell’s hot for good reason,” Joseph sings. He reflects on his past actions and begs to be free from the scorn of society, but also from himself. He can only return to feeling like himself once he is set free. 

It builds up into a much larger production, speeding up the song and adding more instruments as Joseph begs “set me free” in his falsetto. It is a poppy number with darker lyrics to accompany. 

8. “Doubt”

“Doubt” begins the second half of the album and is a quick diversion away from the ukulele-strumming hijinks of “The Judge.” Instead “Doubt” turns to, well, doubt. It reiterates the exact same fears as previous songs, listing them out, “Scared of my own image / Scared of my own immaturity / Scared of my own ceiling / Scared I’ll die of uncertainty / Fear might be the death of me / Fear leads to anxiety.”

The piercing synths layered with piano with a strong auto-tuned sing-rap make it something you would vibe with at a club, but alone at home it just feels off. At the end of “Doubt” you just feel bad for Joseph, because his feelings are relatable for people with anxiety, but at the end of the day his pleads to not be forgotten are placed in a song that is ironically forgettable. 

9. “Polarize” 

“Polarize” is the true confrontation of Tyler Joseph and Blurryface and the former’s struggle to separate himself from the feelings that formed the latter. What should be the climax of the album just drones on and is another forgettable track reiterating the same points. “Polarize” is more of the same, a piano and synth combination paired with heavy drumming and a strong baseline to manifest a large buildup. 

His acknowledgment of Blurryface and a yearning to “be a better adversary to the evil I had done” is overshadowed by a song that keeps you asking for more, not because it was fulfilling, but because “Polarize” needs more in order to be considered a bop like the first half of the album. 

10. “We Don’t Believe What’s On TV” 

“We Don’t Believe What’s On TV” is a song that breaks away from many of the central themes of Blurryface, making it an overly-optimistic standout. While it discusses the possibility of Joseph’s music career not panning out, it speaks of that reality in a positive manner: “I used to say ‘I want to die before I’m old’ but because of you I might think twice.” He has been taught to care, but he has a renewed sense of purpose due to the support of his loved ones. 

11. “Message Man”

“Message Man” is monotonous, weakly written, and overall depressing. The reggae beat merged with the steady synths creates an easy listen and a good beat. It’s an easy listen, by far the most mellow track on the album, but lyrics like “Death inspires me like a dog inspires a rabbit” and the constant suicidal imagery play into the song’s overall message of “don’t judge a book by its cover” — or, in this case, its sound. The last 30 seconds of the song in addition completely shift direction and make it an easy skip while listening. 

12. “Hometown” 

However after “Message Man” comes the weakest song on the album, “Hometown.” Its underlying poppy dance beat mixed with the relaxed and echoed lyrics create a messy song that sounds like your local SoundCloud rapper’s latest album. 

The most openly Christian of all the songs on Blurryface fails to invigorate its listener and goes from repetitive to a drag by the second verse. It speaks about Joseph’s struggle as a believer and how to be good, but the lack of passion — or any emotion at all — lets his message fall flat. 

13. “Not Today”

The second verse of “Not Today” begins with, “This one’s a contradiction because of how happy it sounds, but the lyrics are so down / it’s okay though / it represents — wait, better yet, it is — who I feel I am right now.” This is a perfect summary of not only the song, but Blurryface as a whole. It’s a catchy song with hand-clapping and an upbeat tempo whose lyrics seep with fear and anxiety. The whole question of Blurryface is: how does one triumph over self-doubt and darkness? “Not Today” does not answer that question, but instead gives an example of it playing out, as the song acts as a conversation between Joseph and Blurryface. 

14. “Goner”

The final track is a full confrontation of Blurryface, the fears and anxieties that hold Tyler Joseph down. This is the closest we get to Joseph throughout the whole album, stripped down to just his vocals and piano for the majority of the song. His anxiety and depression have taken over him, and as a result he sings, “Blurryface is the one, I’m not.”

This signals the shift in “Goner,” as Joseph begins fighting back and does his iconic scream, “don’t let me be gone.” The clang of piano and drums concludes the album. He has won his battle, but in doing so, the sound had to have been completely changed. 

“Goner” is a beautiful ending and a shakeup from the remainder of the album; however, the lack of consistency takes the listener out and is a confusing switch. Within four minutes, the world has completely changed for Tyler Joseph — instead of song after song rummaging through repetitive feelings, the story within “Goner” should have been the whole journey. 

The problem with Blurryface is that it attempts so much, rapidly switching between genre and styles, that the listener is never able to truly listen. Instead, the constant gimmicks hold them back from truly understanding the messages of the songs

And what is Blurryface? Is it a pop album? Rap? Christian rock? Dubstep? Reggae? In reality, it is all of the above, and also none of them. Joseph sings, raps, and screams as if they are one in the same. Twenty One Pilots has never been a band to define itself, but Blurryface brings that to new levels. 

While Blurryface attempts to break boundaries, the lack of consistency prevents it from reaching the heights of Vessel. It is nowhere near a bad album, but Twenty One Pilots appears to have gotten lost while trying to find a new sound. 

What made Twenty One Pilots so distinct in their early days was an ability to mesh different music archetypes together. They would sing-rap, but also had a singer-songwriter vibe, falling into the pop category while also having an edgier flare. On this album, all these personas — and even more — come to fruition, but it is not the smooth blend of previous records. Instead of being groundbreaking, Blurryface stagnates, choppily repeating the exact same narrative fourteen times, just with different beats.

In “Lane Boy,” Joseph sings, “Honest, there’s a few songs on this record that feel common / I’m in constant confrontation with what I want and what is poppin'”. And when it comes down to it, that is the main problem in Blurryface — it tries so hard to fit into so many boxes that it lacks authenticity. Blurryface is an album about conforming, self-doubt, and the pressures of fame. Just like Joseph himself, the album has an identity problem and as a result it lost what “feel[s] common.” 

In the age of coronavirus, listening to Blurryface details anxieties that most dare not retreat into. It’s an album built around Joseph’s narrative, one of the most empathizable to date. However, it is an album that should not be listened to in darkened rooms or when you feel as though the world is coming to the end, because although he defeats his evils at the end, one cannot help but fall into the stream of emotions Joseph sings about. 

Elizabeth Karpen

Columbia Barnard '22

Lizzie Karpen is a junior at Barnard College, the most fuego of women’s colleges, studying Political Science and English with a concentration in Film. To argue with her very unpopular opinions, send her a message at esk2168@barnard.edu or @lizziekarpen on Instagram and Twitter.