I want to start my first review in quite some time by thanking those who have written me with kind words of encouragement. Sometimes just realizing there are others out there in the world who actually read what I have to say… it can really mean a lot. The internet can be a great place for information and to follow what you love, but at the same time it can be a Petri dish for negativity. Especially when you add anonymity. On a bad day, when my worries or my doubts can get the best of me, it’s hard not to let *those* voices win. And that is precisely why this *has* to be the first new album I review.
Twenty One Pilots’ second major label album Blurryface is about all of those things I’ve been dealing with. The short version of the story is, “Blurryface” is a character that singer/lyricist Tyler Joseph came up with to express those voices, the ones that get in the way and cloud your vision. Right now I can’t think of another band that completely hits the nail on the head lyrically for me like these guys do. As was the case with their last album, Vessel, every single detail was thought out meticulously here. Even the artwork. The slide out multilayer die-cut sleeve has quite a story behind it. The inner group of patterns is your truth, and all of the patterns that stitch together to create it. The scribbled out blurry and partially red slick on top, a representation of “Blurryface” distorting that, and then the vision from the front, nice, neat from the outside, concealing the messiness inside. The sound of this album overall is a bit less manic musically speaking. There’s more attention paid to atmosphere in the mixing. It also has what feels like a veil of translucent grey murkiness to it. Whether intentional or not, that layer took a couple listens to work through on a couple songs. Now I realize why it has to be a part of the story.
The albums starts with feedback and a spastic beat and whirlwind lyrics of “Heavydirtysoul”. After manic verses and a plea of a chorus, Tyler sings “death inspires me like a dog inspires a rabbit” over a wobble that sounds more Pac-man than dubstep. And that fits too. Part of the beauty of TOP is that they patch pieces together that shouldn’t work. But because this is very much a brain spill on paper and recording, it fits for them. Second is one of my favorites right now, “Stressed Out”. It starts with a happy beat that could almost be in an antidepressant commercial, with Tyler reeling off a list of things he wishes he were better at. “I wish I could find some chords in an order that is new”. This is where Blurryface is really introduced in the chorus “My name’s Blurryface, and I care what you think.” Then his pining for the days of daydreaming are interrupted with “Wake up you need to make money!”. The idea of the song is so simple, yet has never really been put across quite in this way. What would you do if you could hold onto a random smell that reminds you of a fond childhood memory, for instance? It is both one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard in a while, and at the same time such a food for thought pondering type of song.
We continue with “Ride”, showing a new reggae-inflenced vibe that comes up several times on the record. It sounds happy and bouncy, with strong heavy beats from Josh Dun, but the lyrics contemplate what it means when we say “I’d die for you” when it’s harder to promise “I’d live for you”. And as anyone suffering from anxiety can attest, a line like “I’ve been thinking too much… help me” is really powerful on a track like this. Next the beat slows down to a mechanical grind – a cool trick done by doubling the length of a beat sample, a sound I particularly like when doing mixes on my own. “Fairly Local” is definitely a nod to their hometown of Columbus. At the same time it is one of the most inward songs here. Verse one is the Blurryface side, the dark voice of doubt and fear in our heads that can really consume us. “I’m evil to the core, what I shouldn’t do I will” for instance. After a powerful chorus, the second verse is the same frame as the first, but from a positive side. “Tomorrow I’ll switch the beat, to avoid yesterday’s dance”. This song really encapsulates what I feel like on a day where I have an anxiety attack. It’s very hard to see in the moment that tomorrow is a new day. The blocks build up here. Blurryface, or that consuming dark side starts “thinking too much”. When it happens, I usually just have to call it a day and let things be until I can sleep and wake up again, hitting the reset button, and trying my best “to avoid yesterday’s dance”. I also have to wonder if “I’m fairly local, I’ve been around, I’ve seen the streets you’re walking down” also means he’s “local” as in familiar to going through what he’s seeing others who have been helped by his lyrics go through. I’m glad this song was the first track to be previewed from Blurryface because it set the tone for some new sounds to be heard, as this one is much heavier, especially on the drums, than the songs on Vessel.
Next we have what by comparison sounds like a big ray of sunshine in “Tear In My Heart”. This is the first love song Tyler has written, about his new wife. But this is Twenty One Pilots, so don’t think it’s gonna be rainbows and puppy dogs. “Sometime you gotta bleed to know, that you’re live and have a soul”. Falling in love is scary, especially when you’re an independent minded person and now have to rethink what it’s like to share your life, your space, your fears, every part of you with another person and hope they don’t run away screaming. And because of that, “she’s a butcher with a smile” is a compliment. One of the biggest smiles here is the midsection, where the song goes doo-woppy and Tyler contemplates avoiding potholes as he drives. If you live in Columbus, you *know* how bad our pothole problem can be. It’s those everyday little things and tangents that make sure this song doesn’t veer off into the land of meaningless empty promises of climbing high mountains and braving deep blue seas. Instead, he’d avoid some nasty potholes. That’s a keeper.
“Lane Boy” follows, and is quite a song of purpose. “They say you should stay in lane boy… but we go where we want to”. This one has a more rap/reggae flow where Tyler just spills everything on his mind including doubting the songs you’ve heard so far or are about to hear may sound “common”, and warning us “don’t trust a song that’s flawless”. Then the drum breakdown from Josh is really frantic and builds the song up quite a bit, to where it almost becomes jungle drums and bass. The ending mini-solo is really nice playing.
“The Judge” is where Tyler finally breaks out the ukelele for what sounds like a campfire singalong. This one is tricky to figure out because of its layers in the lyrics. Is the judge he’s talking about a random harsh critic, maybe another musician who also can’t figure their own world out? Is the judge God? Is this really just a thinly veiled religious song with its chorus’ line “I know my soul’s freezing, hell’s hot for good reason”? Is he talking about fans in general? The point seems to be though as I see it, why do we need to ask any judge “set me free”? Why do we hold their opinions in high regard? Why do we penalize ourselves emotionally because of someone else’s judgement of who we are? This contemplation brings me back to the thoughts I’ve had lately about doing a blog. Does this matter? Do I care if people don’t like what I like? Do I care what they think of my writing? Or am *I* being that judge? I certainly don’t want someone to go through inner turmoil over my opinion of their music, lyrics and overall their truth. It’s strange that I had to also make a special trip to buy light bulbs right after hearing the verse about the mental process of getting out to buy a light bulb, but now with these lyrics in mind. Luckily, my car radio has not been stolen (see Vessel) so my trip wasn’t as brain-racking.
“Doubt” snuck up on me. At first I wasn’t crazy about it because it has a rap beat that I’m not that fond of being overused in too much bad hip-hop (is this considered “trap”? Damn I’m getting out of touch). But they make this work perfectly. Again, like with “The Judge”… is this about Tyler’s spirituality? about their fans? those close to him? Maybe all of it. But nobody wants to be forgotten. It’s one of those fears we don’t talk about much. Nobody wants to just disappear. “Polarize” feels sort of like part two of “Doubt”. It has a mix of reggae and bounce happening. I love the idea of this lyric that almost got past me at first. “Help me polarize”. Not help me find a happy medium. Not help me STABLize. Help me stay with one extreme or the other rather than bouncing back and forth. Almost conceding that life has to have one extreme or the other but not a dull quiet. “Help me down those stairs”.
“We Don’t Believe What’s On TV” lightens the mod, just for a second. Frazzled ukelele punk rock! But what sounds like a rebellious anthem quickly is realized as proclaiming that we kill our own dreams. A friend of mine pointed out the line “I don’t care what’s in your hair, I just wanna know what’s on your mind” as being quite a poetic gesture of choosing knowledge over materialism. Of course singing this right after talking about “we’ll make money selling your hair” as in life worry free in I guess a hippie state. This one has grown to be one of my favorite so far. “Message Man” comes in next with a church organ, giving way to a reggae beat, which becomes “We Will Reggae You”. Nice drums on this one. Tyler hits a falsetto singing “you don’t known my heart, the way you know my face”.
“Hometown” is another highlight of the second half. Tyler has to have written this in the bleak gray Columbus winter. “Where we’re from, there’s no sun/we’re no one, our hometown’s in the dark”. Which both paints how it feels during a overlong depressing winter here and also doubling to mean that much of Columbus doesn’t realize the band is from Columbus. Obviously their biggest fans, the newly christened “Skeleton Clique” are strong both here and all over the map at this point. But if you asked someone on the street to name a band from Columbus, they’d be hard pressed to. The atmosphere built up with the falsetto parts and the drum builds and keys here becomes something truly beautiful.
“Not Today” is one of the happiest and yet darkest songs on the album. To the point that the second verse addresses the contradiction. “You are out of mind” becomes a declaration of not letting the bad Blurryface voices win every time, realizing that dark side isn’t really him, it’s a reflection of others and therefore isn’t the truth. It’s sort of a self-affirming mantra that becomes big and bright by the end, like a big happy face instead of a blurryface.
“Goner” continues and makes it a tradition now of having a delicate quiet reflective ending proclaiming “I’ve got two faces, Blurry’s the one I’m not. I need your help to take him out.” Thus continuing the theme that runs through the music, art, and even the name of the band that we all need to help each other out and raise each other up. It’s no utopia. It’s an ongoing process and and ongoing inner battle between the selfish side and the selfless side. But past the pain and the shroud of fear and worry, most people really are “good people now”. When we help each other out, we see that more clearly. When we turn inward, we wonder what went wrong, and wonder who to blame. This time the album ends on a chaotic note rather than a peaceful one. Which is fitting given this struggle is always going on.
Blurryface proves that Tyler and Josh have what it takes. In my eyes, Vessel was a masterpiece. It’s an album I will always go back to because it really struck a nerve with me. With this album, Twenty One Pilots stood up in the face of doubt and fear of what criticisms may be thrown at them and said “No. We will keep doing it our way.” There is not another group like these guys. Of course there are many groups that sound like one single element of this band. But nobody that does it *this* way. The lyrics are full of honesty. Tyler keeps what others might wad up and toss out because it sounds too emotional/soft/weird/un-rock’n’roll. And *that* is how you avoid sounding common – by doing what you do in the face of everything. By discovering, by trying, by saying “why not?” instead of saying “but what if they..?”. Thanks you two for laying it all out there so that others with the same problems/thoughts/emotions can feel less lonely in the world. More so than a glowing review, you’ve earned my loyalty and respect as a listener.
Check out the videos so far from Blurryface:
“Tear In My Heart”
and a 2012 work in progress video the band made of “Goner”