The rollout for Scaled And Icy has felt very non-traditional for Twenty One Pilots, and that might be cause for concern for them. They’ve become known for having one of the most rapacious and hostile stan armies of anyone not from South Korea, who’d usually delight in poring over any insignificant morsel of information to predict a new era, but no such phenomenon has occurred this time. Rather, Scaled And Icy has felt comparatively low-key; it was preceded by the standalone single Level Of Concern, but beyond the initial burst, even that didn’t seem to foster the same excitement as usual. Maybe it’s a case of Twenty One Pilots just no longer being the same draw they once were, with an indie-pop sound that has fallen out of fashion lately, and despite the attempts to placate their fanbase’s desires basically to the letter on Trench, it hasn’t panned out with the same longevity as Vessel or Blurryface before it. And as previously mentioned, the dedication that this duo has instilled has become infamous, and that doesn’t just fade away with relative inactivity, not when that’s followed in the wake of a perceived ‘selling out’ and the calling out of their own fans’ behaviour on Heathens to subsequently become one of their biggest tracks to date. It gives off the impression that Twenty One Pilots simply aren’t that important anymore, and when that’s before a note of music has even been played, that’s some dicey territory to be in indeed.
But Scaled And Icy does a bit of an odd thing with that thought process, in that it takes those drastically lowered expectations and leans into them to its advantage. For the first time in years they’re free of the lore that’s bogged down and cramped their albums, reverting back to an approach that’s most reminiscent of Vessel above all else. Of course, it means that Scaled And Icy is definitely a lighter listen, without the intrigue that buoyed both the success and failure of Blurryface and Trench respectively, but it’s also nice to believe that Twenty One Pilots are actually enjoying making music rather than bending themselves out of obligation. It’s a lot fresher and leaner due to not having to overextend by design, and even when that curtails some of the pulling power that Twenty One Pilots have within modern music, that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
Moreover, it has the distinction of being the Twenty One Pilots album where the lyrical content is arguably the least important factor. Again though, that’s to its benefit, given that the duo seem to be in a much clearer headspace than on past releases, where the notion of cutting through the walls of noise to find pockets of calm to enjoy is surprisingly workable for them. There’s definitely still the flickers of Tyler Joseph’s own neuroses and reflexive self-views in Choker and Redecorate, but when the very first line uttered on the album is “I can feel my saturation leaving me slowly”, it puts into perspective how much a sense of light and levity actually plays here, especially when placed next to past releases. Odes to cutting loose and taking things as they come on Saturday and Mulberry Street respectively might seem almost unreasonably simply for this duo in particular, but they have their place, particularly when Twenty One Pilots’ brand of levity still weaves in songs about persevering and putting yourself out there on Shy Away, jabs at political spin designed solely to divide on Never Take It, and even helping a friend who’s on the run to Mexico on Bounce Man. Admittedly it does miss some of their denser, narrative flavour, to where if the accusation of this being a pure ‘sellout’ album was made, it would be hard to refute. This is far from the tightest or most cerebral music that Twenty One Pilots have ever made, and as such it’s a fair bit more ephemeral in the long run when there simply isn’t that much being said comparatively. But then again, it’s hard to fault what’s here too much; on the merits of being as relatively low-key as it is, Scaled And Icy really says everything it needs to, in the sense that, for the a lighter, simpler album, Twenty One Pilots still feel equipped to deliver that with some amount of flair.
Even so, it’s easy to see where some of the concern can stem from. Especially in their current incarnation, Twenty One Pilots are not a light or simple band, and in what can so clearly be imagined as a pivot back to polished but colourless indie-pop that’s far below their pay grade at this stage, picturing this to average out as a backslide isn’t out of the question. There’s definitely some merit to that too, but on the whole, the impression that Scaled And Icy gives is that Twenty One Pilots are better at adapting to their musical surroundings than they might appear. It definitely speaks volumes when the weakest tracks here are No Chances and Redecorate, both slapped onto the end and feeling like Blurryface or Trench castoffs, because they really aren’t a good representation of what Twenty One Pilots do well on this album as a whole. For one, it’s always good to hear them bring in more guitar, where it’ll form a driving, nervy melody for Shy Away, a pleasantly scuzzy indie-rock solo on Never Take It, and a surprising slide into dreamy, Cure-adjacent jangling on Formidable. But even past all of that, Scaled And Icy just has some great melodic chops altogether, where the bass-driven strut of The Outside and the shameless dip into neon alt-pop on Saturday feel like real high moments in Twenty One Pilots’ dalliances with pure pop. There’s definitely still a classicism and organic quality that’ll crop up alongside the slickness and polish too, where Good Day feels like a definite homage to Electric Light Orchestra in its dancing pianos and drums, and where the spry little skips and Pixar woodwinds of Bounce Man tap into a very old-school brand of twee for an anchor. There’s not a lot of weight to songs like these, given that this is a Twenty One Pilots album and finding a production job that doesn’t sound shallow and stiff has been a regular issue for them, but at least Scaled And Icy can run with it in a way that’s parallel to modern pop instead of actively clashing with it.
Of course, it’s more than likely that a notion like that will raise a few hackles when it comes to the authenticity that Twenty One Pilots have always strived to bring. But as a rebuttal, it’s worth remembering that Twenty One Pilots have always been a pop band, despite the circles they might float in, and embracing that as wholeheartedly as they do here doesn’t make them any lesser for it. Sure, there’s definitely a throwaway element to this album that many will argue has never been something they’ve employed previously, but for a neat little palette-cleanser after a dour and disappointing offering with Trench, Scaled And Icy fills its quota rather efficiently. In terms of pure pop melodies it’s some of Twenty One Pilots’ best work, and even with a lack of real insight that doesn’t feel crowbarred in, it’s still a perfectly listenable and enjoyable album for what it is. It’s probably better than Trench if anything, seeing as it’s very much a path defined by the band themselves, where doing something they want to do certainly pays off far more than it doesn’t. Even if the feeling of a side venture is hard to shake off – and even when so much of the myth-making will inevitably come back next time – Scaled And Icy is the sort of album that Twenty One Pilots needed to deliver, if only to get them back on track, and with this, they’ve pretty much nailed it.
For fans of: Panic! At The Disco, fun., AJR
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Scaled And Icy’ by Twenty One Pilots is out now on Fueled By Ramen.