So here it is, the album that anyone with even a remote affiliation to Twenty One Pilots hasn’t been able to shut up about for months on end, and given the deranged, obsessive-to-the-point-of-frightening nature of their fanbase, you can guarantee that this won’t be the last we hear of it either. And while the Clique being like this is about as revelatory as the fact that there’s a thing in sky that gives light called the sun, the rabid dedication has always been weird, especially when Twenty One Pilots aren’t that good. Sure, Vessel and Blurryface are definitely decent at blurring genre lines for a more off-kilter take on indie-pop, but it’s unavoidable how horrendously messy they both are, but going into the lead-up for Trench, the duo seemed to be exhibiting the complete opposite problem. Early singles showed a more streamlined direction, but it was one that completely sucked the flavour out of a once-interesting sound, and besides Jumpsuit which stands head and shoulders above anything else, we’re going into this album – this ludicrously-anticipated album that’s supposed to be evidence for how Twenty One Pilots can handle being among the biggest bands on the planet – with a handful of pale, forgettable cuts that hardly spark much enthusiasm. And considering this is supposed to be a concept album, and a fairly ambitious one at that, the only options for Trench are either to somehow piece everything together in a coherent fashion, or totally crash and burn.
But – because nothing involving Twenty One Pilots can ever be straightforward – Trench is really neither of them, and while the stans will have inevitably deemed this album of the year and perhaps the decade already, anyone that can muster ever the slightest bit of objectivity will be able to see it’s not that black and white. Indeed, Trench ultimately ends up falling between middling and decent like the majority of Twenty One Pilots’ material; there’s the referential lyrical dexterity that’s always been a saving grace for offering analytical potential if nothing else, but with how hit-or-miss it all can be and crippled by its own messiness, the furore around this duo continues to fly right overhead.
At least it starts well, given that some of the execution is among the best that Twenty One Pilots have ever put their name to. For one, it definitely has moments that actually resemble a rock band, like the big, snarling guitars and returning snarls on Jumpsuit or the sinuous bassline on My Blood, but then there’s a track like Pet Cheetah which actually seems to pick up on some grime influences which hits a brand of aggression that’s totally off-piste for Twenty One Pilots but actually has mileage to it. On the other side of the coin, Trench also shows a greater breadth when it comes to softer atmosphere, something that the duo have historically struggled with, and in the delicate pianos on Neon Gravestones or the swirling acoustic guitars and strings that are almost reminiscent of an Oasis song on The Hype, it’s some fairly strong evidence that Twenty One Pilots might actually be getting close to realising a stable baseline for their sound. They’re not there yet though, and that’s why Trench is still a horrendously cluttered listen, veering off in different direction and still drawing heavily on reggae for some reason, but with tracks like the disjointed Smithereens or Bandito, they never build on anything with their foggy minimalism and couldn’t feel more like filler. And that’s really the case for Tyler Joseph himself; his more assertive rapping on Morph stands out in a way it always has, but between his put-on simper that really grates in a hurry and some incredibly awkward portions of falsetto, he’s just not a gripping presence behind the microphone. Saying that, he never really has been, but given how happy Trench is to cut all momentum for another syrupy ballad or filler track, it lacks a real hinge to hold any attention as these increasingly anonymous instrumentals continue to drag.
But as ever with Twenty One Pilots, it’s in the writing that the main talking points lie, and given the allegorical narrative designed as a representation of Joseph’s mental health, clearly it’s meant to taken even more of a focal point here. In it, he’s represented by Clancy, a character trapped within the walled city of Dema that’s overlooked by nine bishops (the mentioned Nico and the niners), and who teams up with a band of outlaws called the banditos to ultimately free the city’s citizens and escape. It’s a good starting point given the clarity of imagery; Dema is a representation of Joseph’s mind in which he’s lost in, while the bishops – serving as an almost analogous presence to the Blurryface persona – are the hang-ups and neuroses that keep him there. And while there are glimpses of what some of these other factors could be, namely the death of his grandfather on Legend, this mental prison is a result of the concept of fame, and how Joseph has reacted to it, be that in the pressure to stifle his artistic identity and freedom on Levitate or the trail of death that comes from artists giving in to their own mental strain on Neon Gravestones. And while it’s a concept that Joseph wrestles with – a level of fame and exposure that he doesn’t want but everyone else insists upon him – it’s ultimately the Clique that’s doing the most harm, and in a way, he knows it. The walls he’s building to keep them out come as early on as Jumpsuit, keeping away those who deify him when that’s not what he wants on Neon Gravestones, or who’d chastise him for writing songs about his wife on Smithereens. Overall, it’s a fascinating dichotomy to explore in the begrudging relationship between an artist, his fame and those who gave it him, and it leaves so many potentially excellent options to explore throughout an entire narrative.
Except that side of Trench is more of a fragment than anything else. What could’ve been a deep evisceration of toxic stan culture ends up as a noncommittal mirror for the Clique to project themselves and leave any criticisms buried beneath shameless attempts at pandering, portraying them as the banditos that Joseph will stick by and help no matter what. And this feels incredibly poorly realised for two reasons, the first being that it completely guts any narrative cohesion that was supposed to be here. It’s arguably the least important but it’s still worthwhile, especially when tracks like Nico And The Niners feel specifically designed to further the mythology, and ultimately become stymied by piles of uplifting, light anthems that could’ve come from virtually any indie-pop band. It’s the second reason that’s perhaps more pertinent though, and that’s because Trench sees Twenty One Pilots become a band at the mercy of their fans rather than the other way around. This is what the fans want to hear more than anything else, that Joseph will be by their side no matter what, regardless of the damage they’re ultimately doing to them, and with tracks like My Blood and Cut My Lip, that mindset stops being a simple mawkish platitude and becomes text; the fans are getting what they want because the band are forced to deliver it. And that sets a dangerous precedent going forward, especially when something like this essentially validates the bullying and gatekeeping mentality that the Clique have become notorious for, and with the references and callbacks that only the most obsessive fans will pick up from past albums or the Twenty One Pilots mythos as a whole (it seems to be the whole reason for the mention of Nicholas Bourbaki is present on Morph), it sets up the notion that this is what you get if you’re “good enough” as a fan. It mightn’t have been intentional, but that doesn’t stop it from being so noticeable, and especially after the full-stop put on such a mentality on Heathens, it’s disappointing to see how drastically Twenty One Pilots have caved and the shockwaves it has on the album as a whole.
On the whole then, there’s a very real thought that this album isn’t even worth criticising, considering it was essentially created under the duress of a committee to be exactly what they want. Even by those standards then, Trench still isn’t very good, an album trying to balance multiple different concepts and ideas while simultaneously trying to thread them together into a coherent whole, and it barely does any of that right. The standout moments can’t be ignored, sure, but that’s not really how a concept album works, and considering Twenty One Pilots essentially act as the vehicle for a message beyond their control, it’s basically a lost cause to hope that anything remotely full or fleshed-out can come from this. And it’s perhaps the fact that Twenty One Pilots’ presence on this album embodies its title and artwork almost perfectly that stings the most, lying at their lowest ebb and waiting for the vultures to come and pick them clean.
For fans of: The Neighbourhood, Awolnation, Mutemath
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Trench’ by Twenty One Pilots is out now on Fueled By Ramen.