Twenty One Pilots: The Master Storytellers of Today’s Alternative Scene

The alternative duo Twenty One Pilots officially heralded a new era, announcing their forthcoming album, Scaled and Icy. The band already gave a glimpse of what’s to come, and the buoyant, colorful aesthetic is such a departure from their Trench days. And while I’ve always placed their 2018 hit on a pedestal, I am beyond thrilled for what’s in store with Scaled and Icy. The Ohio-based musicians, comprised of Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun, already started strong with the official video of their single “Shy Away” racking up over 6 million views on YouTube over the first few days. Better yet, the duo not only revealed the May 21st release of their sixth studio album, but they also announced a livestream concert to take place that same day. I can hardly contain myself — not only am I looking forward to experiencing new music, but I’m also eager to explore the “story” behind it all. Twenty One Pilots is known to carry out narratives through their music, and from the sound of “Shy Away,” it can be predicted that Scaled and Icy characterizes a “renaissance” after the darker Trench. It’s only a theory, but considering the state of affairs, I’m speculating progression as the basis for their new record. In the meantime, let’s contemplate Twenty One Pilots’ storytelling and the power of its delivery.

drum set with LED lights Photo by Israel Palacio from Unsplash

Trench contains all the necessary elements to make it not just unforgettable, but, dare I say it, a masterpiece. I could go on and on about the immaculate tracklist. However, I attribute its excellent storytelling to be instrumental, too. “Nico and the Niners,” “Jumpsuit,” and “Levitate” are the series of music videos that comprise the narrative arc. Collectively, they illustrate a dystopian setting where bishops rule the city of “Dema” and where rebels roam its parameters of “Trench.” Many believe the city represents the restraints of mental illness, with the protagonist, Clancy, attempting an escape to join the rebellion. In an interview with Music Feeds, Joseph explained that the journey signifies the limbo one feels when venturing into the unknown, with the sentiments reflecting the duo’s own experiences. The rest of the tracks contain hints that further explore the story, but many of it is up for interpretation. And that’s the hallmark of Twenty One Pilots — they leave it up to fans to ponder and assign their own meanings. All the same, Twenty One Pilots composed an outstanding album, in conjunction with a story that contextualizes its heavy themes.

Just as the worldbuilding shined in Trench, the characterization came through in the duo’s sophomore album. Blurryface revolves around the titular character, who is essentially our insecurities incarnated. There’s an elusiveness to him, for his many facets represent the emotional instabilities of self-doubt. In the past, Joseph famously performed the character by covering his neck and hands in black paint. He once revealed that the effect not only let him slip into character, but that it also represented the suffocation that comes with apprehension. The character’s voice remains consistent throughout the album, with "Stressed Out" and "Ride” elaborating on his internal conflict. Twenty One Pilots basically personified universal struggles, and for that reason, fans can identify with some aspect of Blurryface’s portrayal. But his story doesn’t stop here. Joseph confirmed to Music Feeds that the character reappears in Trench, particularly as one of the nine bishops. I like to think it’s the one pursuing Clancy in the “Jumpsuit” music video.

Twenty One Pilots is also seemingly fond of symbolism. They’ve employed many symbols over the years (seriously, I’d be here all day if I told you all of them) with their thought-provoking nature dating back to the Vessel era. One example can be presented in the “Guns for Hands” music video, where the duo dons ski masks — an early feature of Twenty One Pilots’ brand. Apparently, the idea was to close any distance with the audience by projecting a sense of anonymity. Vessel, a label debut, was largely experimental, so its songs contained varied, personal meanings. Underneath it all, however, was the objective to communicate — to assist people through trying times. That being said, Twenty One Pilots take storytelling to the stage. They elevated the concert experience in service of a communal atmosphere. After all, the album’s title means to pass something forward, which establishes their overarching goal to resonate with people. And so far, their endeavors have yielded results. Twenty One Pilots have amassed fans all over the world, and it's due to the innovative, infectious music, but also for the feelings they send.  

I’m amazed by the diligence with which Joseph and Dun craft their art. It’s so incredible how they think beyond the sound, as well as it being thoughtful in the way it’s made in earnest. I appreciate how they channel their artistic sensitivity to create a safe space for people. Like many, I’m invested in their work, and it’s for the sense of recognition their music renders. And while Scaled and Icy seems to be a bubbly venture, I’d say that after a hard year, its release couldn’t be more timely.