Album review: Twenty One Pilots delivers dynamic sound, battles inauthenticity in ‘Scaled and Icy’
(Courtesy of Fueled by Ramen)
“Scaled and Icy”
Twenty One Pilots
Fueled By Ramen
Released May 21
May 21, 2021 1:40 p.m.
Twenty One Pilots has scaled up its production and chilled out its melodies.
While better known for its Tumblr-esque emo hits like “Stressed Out” and “Ride,” the duo’s sixth studio album “Scaled and Icy” is a significant deviation from its alternative sound. Written throughout the pandemic, Twenty One Pilots’ most recent album explores a range of narratives and emotions, such as heartfelt family conversations and humorous narratives of fleeing to Mexico, ultimately offering a more hopeful glimpse of the world. While the duo Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun remain true to the world building and metaphorical lyricism of their prior albums, the retro-inspired production of their recent album unfortunately feels inauthentic at times.
The duo opens the album with the bouncing piano chords and ukulele strums of “Good Day.” Though the melody of the song is motivating and optimistic, the gloomy lyrics behind Joseph’s jubilant voice bridge the gap between their new animated sound and the darker tone of their prior album, “Trench.”
The retro-inspired sound is perfected in “Shy Away,” the lead single from the album. The track plays to Joseph and Dun’s strengths, with the strumming guitars accentuating Dun’s drumming talents. Soft backing vocals provide a coursing melody for Joseph to characteristically shout, “Searchin’ for that feelin’/ Just like an ‘I love you.’” The synth-heavy production is reminiscent of other recently released ’80s-inspired hits, like The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” but the palpitating drumbeat and buttery melody make it still feel authentic to the band.
Featuring a guitar and synth-laden production and a steady beat, the pair continues building upon this nostalgic sound with “The Outside” and “Saturday,” both fit for the soundtrack of a buddy cop movie. Though the songs are sonically experimental for the band, they offer bits of familiarity for longtime fans: “The Outside” breaks away from its thumping beat to showcase Joseph’s swift spoken-word poetry, while “Saturday” interludes with an amusing conversation between Joseph and his wife.
However, the pair’s attempt to connect their new sound with old habits falls short at times. “Choker” showcases a softer production with a tapping drumbeat, but the melody is monotonous and doesn’t deliver the same lively energy as other songs. The mellow production is broken by a half-hearted attempt to be introspective with Joseph drawling, “When your body’s screamin’ out, trust your mind’s listenin’.” The lyrics are well-intentioned, but they are sadly out of place and feel like a poor attempt at recreating earlier songs, like “Car Radio” or “Taxi Cab.”
But not all trials to reconnect with their audience amid their new sound are total blunders. On “Formidable,” the duo introduces a new guitar twang reminiscent of Death Cab for Cutie or The Killers. Though understated, Dun’s drumming accentuates the rustic sound and amplifies the touching lyrics, “But you should know I might be cynical towards you/ But I just can’t believe that I’m for you.”
Amid the uplifting retro touches throughout the album, “No Chances” is an unexpected return to the dark lyrics and moody production of the band’s prior works. The bridge replaces Joseph’s bright vocals with a haunting chorus harmonizing, “We come for you, no chances.” Joseph’s anxiously rapped verses build upon the fictional world of “Dema” created in their prior albums, but the sonic discordance of “No Chances” disrupts the cohesive production featured throughout the rest of the album.
The band follows up “No Chances” with the concluding song, “Redecorate,” whose calm and well-paced rap is a much-needed resolution to the clashing sound of the prior song. On top of a plucking production, the vocal layering and effects applied to Joseph’s lyrics are harmonious and addictive as he touches upon the topic of suicide, “I don’t want to go like this/ At least let me clean my room.” Despite the upbeat narrative of much of the album, Joseph remains unflinchingly honest, appropriately addressing both the hope and the despair he experiences in the world.
Twenty One Pilots admittedly falls short on some songs, but its dynamic retro-inspired sound on “Scaled and Icy” is a welcome change from the dreary tone of prior albums. With only 11 songs, the duo nonetheless provides a diverse mix of buoyant melodies and impactful lyricism to immerse fans in careful world building and thoughtful lyricism.
Short for “scaled back and isolated,” “Scaled and Icy” subverts the meaning of its moniker to offer a dose of optimism for the future.