Tuesday, May 19, 2015

album review: 'blurryface' by twenty-one pilots

I get the feeling a lot of people missed the point of my twenty-one pilots review.

Now granted, that review dropped in 2013 back when I was still getting my sea legs, and I'll freely admit that many of those early reviews were not the best things I've ever written. But still, considering how positive I was on their major label debut Vessel, the backlash I got did take me off-guard - but the more I think about it, the more I'm not entirely surprised.

Because let's be honest here: twenty-one pilots is a weird, awkward sort of group, straddling the lines between electronica, indie pop rock, emo, and even rap, and their major label debut showed more of the stress marks of that fusion than the synthesis. But as much as I thought that Tyler Joseph could use a little more seasoning and they really were crying out for a bass guitar, I saw enough potential in the songwriting and melodic composition to give the band a lot of praise. And hell, I get why a band like this develops a cult following even if their mainstream debut didn't take off with the same force - they're too unique of a group not to! That said, going back to Vessel, I do feel I overrated it a bit as it's very much a product of its time and the overall awkwardness of the release can toe the line between charming and kind of grating.

On the other hand, I've been anticipating their follow-up record Blurryface a fair bit, mostly because the lead-off singles have actually been pretty damn strong, really showing Tyler Joseph getting a lot stronger as a singer and with some welcome improvements in the songwriting. In other words, it looked like the genre fusion was coming together a lot more, so I definitely made sure to dig into it - what did we get?

Well, I can say this: Blurryface by twenty-one pilots might just be one of my favourite albums thus far this year. Man, I thought I overrated their previous record, and the more I hold up Vessel in comparison, I see major improvements from every angle. Maybe it's the greater budget or creative freedom or just the maturing of Tyler Joseph as a songwriter and performer, but twenty-one pilots put together a much more intriguing, focused, cohesive record while still maintaining a vibrantly unique sound that's still a little all over the place, but works a lot better for it. And yeah, on some level this album is still a little awkward and up-its-own-ass, but the self-referential nature works in the best way possible in a way that reminds me a lot of the self-titled record from Icon For Hire from 2013 - and if you remember how much I loved that album, that's saying something.

So okay, how the hell did twenty-one pilots pull this off? Well, let's start in the area where I think the greatest improvements have taken place: Tyler Joseph himself. My biggest issue with that previous album was that his awkward, self-effacing nature came across a little lacking in polish, showing real discomfort in the spotlight even despite his talent. Now given the subject matter, some of that was bound to stick around, but Joseph is so much more assured, controlled, and his voice has just matured naturally - he sounds way more comfortable in anthemic, theatrical tracks, and he's got the personality to pull it off. Of particular note is his falsetto, which has a clarity and energy that doesn't sound willowy or thin, and then you have his rapping, which is faster, sharper, and flows signficantly better with the instrumentation. If I'm going to find flaws here, it'd probably be with his attempts to dip into his lower range on songs like 'Hometown' - it's pretty good, but you can tell it's not his natural wheelhouse and I get the feeling that depth might come more with age. And of course there's the pitch-shifting - to my surprise, it wasn't terrible, but it did detract from songs like 'Message Man' and 'Stressed Out' more than I was hoping.

But to be honest, it wasn't much of a detraction, because now we need to talk about instrumentation and production, and where twenty-one pilots made their biggest improvements yet. My biggest issues with Vessel in this area where that it could occasionally feel top-heavy without stronger mid-range grooves and the synth tones very much of its time and a little chintzy and unable to back up the theatrical pretensions - and Blurryface fixes both easily. The immediate comparison for me is Fall Out Boy's Folie Ex Deus or maybe Pretty. Odd. by Panic! At The Disco, both albums that cranked the bombast up to eleven and featured a much greater breadth of instrumental ambition, but neither quite tackled the genre-bending that twenty-one pilots tackles here, leaping from icy hip-hop and modern synthpop to bright bombastic piano-driven pop rock and even reggae! And while there's a part of me that does wish the few electric guitar tones that show up aren't as compressed, or the bass guitar had a little more rollicking groove, the melodic compositions and flow are so prominent, vibrant and energetic that they make an album that's nearly an hour feel shorter, even with all of the change-ups that flow shockingly well. And there's really so many great moments in which to choose from: the more progressive drumming and warped shrieking tones of 'Heavydirtysoul' that bleeds into the pianos, the frigid symphonic crunch of 'Fairly Local', the oscillating wind that whirls around 'The Judge' before breaking into a bouncy ukelele groove, which later returns on the bass-heavy 'We Don't Believe What's On TV' that features a great horn accent on the chorus, or even the reverb-touched mid-80s synthpop of 'Hometown' that features some very welcome guitar! And I'll admit, flashbacks of MAGIC! made me very wary of the reggae elements, but twenty-one pilots are smart enough to give the bass some real presence and add plenty of oily organs and buzzing synthesizers to fill out the mix like on 'Ride', the skittering rollick of 'Lane Boy' or the eerie 'Polarize' that I could swear interpolates a melody from Reqiuem For A Dream. Even the more 'conventional' songs on this album kick ass instrumentally - 'Tear In My Heart' is a pretty standard piano-driven pop song, but that synth crescendo has a ton of presence, a crescendo later echoed on the gentle organ segments that drive the big band horns that splits 'Not Today' into the killer outro song that'll inevitably end concerts. Hell, even the songs that sound the most commercial, like the autotune-saturated melancholy of 'Doubt' that sounds pulled straight from 2010, or the sharply staccato, Imagine Dragons-inspired 'Message Man' still have enough groove and melody to stick with you.

But now we come to the lyrics and themes, and the overarching question of how the hell twenty-one pilots could ever reconcile smashing all these genres together. And yet they did it in a way that not only added thematic cohesion, but actually played to Tyler Joseph's emotive strengths: because Blurryface is a record about itself, or at least the underlying insecurities that would come with making a bigger, grander follow-up. Now this isn't a new concept - hell, in 2013 both Fall Out Boy and the previously mentioned Icon For Hire made albums diving into their own creation and the relationship they have with the audience. But twenty-one pilots finds a middle ground between them, with the social commentary played with a defter touch and a far less antagonistic relationship with the audience than Fall Out Boy had on Save Rock And Roll. Instead, Joseph takes the insecurities that comes with having to make a follow-up and grounds his entire album in that creative arc, turning rockstar bombast inside out to dig into what's beneath it.

Now if that sounds a little up-its-own-ass, you wouldn't be that wrong - even within self-referential themes in writing on the fringes of emo, there's a limit to this sort of thing, one that Max Bemis ran headlong into with Hebrews last year. At some point, it gets hard to make this brand of indecision and paralysis compelling, even as Tyler Joseph tries to pair away that part of his nature into clearer lines and cleave away 'blurryface'. Thankfully, he's got a few tricks in his arsenal that adds a ton to the framing, the first always placing this arc with respect to the audience. Either through songs like 'The Judge' where the titular character is plainly the listener, or actively breaking the fourth wall, he knows the audience is the real judge of his success and even on the most commercial tracks, pleads not to be forgotten, an apt metaphor for how often that happens in music. And while the music industry is always an easy antagonist on albums like this, and they take their fair share of shots on 'Fairly Local', 'Stressed Out', 'Lane Boy', 'Message Man', and 'We Don't Believe What's On TV', twenty-one pilots are aware the real issues come back to themselves. For as much as it's implied the industry wants to define a lane, Joseph has been given the freedom to cross producers and genres with impunity, and that the real villain here is his insecurity. And the key thing is that Joseph knows this all along, and while he's tempted to retreat back into the womb of past inspirations, represented by his hometown, he knows that as the album reaches its final tracks, he needs to step towards the rest of the world and his plea to be simply known by you has real weight to it. And to give him a lot of credit, he's at least mature enough to know that even though it's uncertain and bound to give him challenges, Joseph's going to take that step, leaving the rest in your hands, the raw emotional honesty of his proposal giving it real punch.

So yeah, in the end, Blurryface by twenty-one pilots might appear to be a genre-blurring oddball mess, but beneath it is an incredibly strong and thematically rich core that shows a band improving across the board, and the fact they wrote great, anthemic songs along the way is even better. Now granted, it's not the sort of album they can ever repeat - the thematic arc is very much self-contained - but for a sophomore release, it fills the role amazingly well. I'm thinking a light 9/10 from me and a huge recommendation - folks, if you were put off by the odd quirks of Vessel, Blurryface brings them into a much tighter, potent package and it easily stands a shot as one of my favourite albums of the year. Definitely make time to check this out, it really is something special - nothing blurry about that.


  1. Oh yeah! This is a cool album, but their latest hit Heathens steep too. I really wanted to go to concert Twenty One Pilots and booked tickets here https://ticketcrab.com/twenty-one-pilots-tickets . Cuz, this is a very atmospheric event!