Twenty One Pilots’ ‘Trench’ Is a Colorful Work of Era Displacement
Columbus, Ohio’s Twenty One Pilots made a name for themselves with their signature brand of rock, that draws heavily from a much neglected late ‘90s / early aughts sensibility, but recasts it with plenty genre overlaps and production signifiers to make it strikingly contemporary. They have excavated a sound ripe for retrofitting, and done it to great success. Their latest record, “Trench,” is an interesting take on old and new sounds that will leave some salivating and others fuming.
“Jumpsuit” starts things off with an “alternative rock” sound that hearkens to the ‘90s, except with contemporary touches like vocal stutters, sliced up to precision. Vocalist Tyler Joseph sings with his lips curled up in the type of coy delivery that Gwen Stefani made her signature. Then, at the end, for a segment so short as if meant to tease, it erupts into total, raging harcore — dry-lung screaming over distorted guitars — the type of fare that any scene ‘90s kid would gush over. Next, the ‘90s fixation is continued, but ventures into forms that, arguably, haven’t aged as well. The former track merely recast hardcore punk, a couple decades in the making, in a decidedly ‘90s mold. This song, on the other hand, brings back something that seemed to have blown a short fuse for a reason — Linkin Park-esque rapping. If you’re a fan, you’re in for a treat, as this continues into the next track, “Morph.” This one has more, say, character to it though, as it has an early nineties vibe that wears itself on its sleeve, indistinguishable from commercial hip-hop songs from that era, apart from the accents and production. Joseph’s lyrics about “Ones and zeros” add to the ‘90s flavor — just remember “The Matrix.” And considering that Elon Musk opined that there’s a one in a billion chance we’re not living in a simulation, the content of this song might more than balance its retro sound.
“My Blood” sounds like moderate rock with EDM production, It’s a bit like the American version of Muse, in their more recent works. It takes classic sounds, and — instead of trying to reproduce them in nostalgic glory, reimagines them in a sort of time-hopping mishmash that gives a sort of contemporary sheen to cherished sounds, which can be a bit confusing at first, but is also somewhat revolutionary in how it matches unexpected pieces together. “Chlorine” has an absolutely brilliant lyric, “Sipping on straight chlorine.” For years, everyone has been “sipping on some syrup,” or “sizzurp,” if you insist. Joseph sings it deadpan, as if it’s no thing at all, which seems just about right. Do you know exactly what’s in your water? And of course, you have the metaphorical aspect, so let your mind wander.
“Smithereens” is a pick-me-up song that manages to somehow avoid the quagmire of cheesiness by being so lighthearted in spirit, and unaffected in presentation, that it just strikes as airy and refreshing. “Neon Gravestones” has an appropriately ominous title, as it brings back the ghost of the well-ridden Linkin Park-style rock-rap once again. The chorus hits too soon, as if the songwriters were in a Wall Street room, rushing to turn out a hit in a mad rush, and failing miserably. The chorus vocals sound like a guy attempting to embrace his feminine side by putting on his most awkwardly gushy voice, and making an ass of himself. Some girl somewhere surely thinks its cute, and of course, this music is for everyone to make whatever they make of it after all — just be warned.
“The Hype” continues in this vein, and is a pretty punchy tune — in the way that pop punk songs occasionally mange — but at this point, it’s all starting to sound a bit silly. It’s certainly effective in its nostalgic value, but diluted to the point that if it’s catering to a target market that is very specific — people who lived through the’90s and paired JNCOs with Polo shirts. “Nico and the Niners” has such a promising title, much like the aforementioned “Sipping on straight chlorine” line. Joseph has a knack for stringing words together into infectious little phrases. Unfortunately, he devotes a large part of this song into over-pronouncing his “-er” sounds, in the way that artists like Will I Am have popularized over the course of the last decade. It’s an atrocity — but again, there’s surely someone out there who’s into it. The song features pitched-down DJ Screw-esque vocal accents, which are probably the hallmark of the song, as they give it some sorely needed edge.
“Cut My Lip” is a song with a title that gives it much to live up to, since one can only cross one’s fingers that the titular incident has made Joseph take a well-overdue break, and spare us for a moment. Sadly, this is not the case. The first lyrics are, “I keep on trying / Might as well,” and you’ve got to hand it to him, because this song is rather infectious. There’s a vaguely reggae element to his delivery here, and there’s some absolutely expert production that frames the song in a way that ends up giving it a special lustre. It’s very camp and playful, and a bit of fun. “Bandito” finds Joseph sounding exceptionally smooth, again recalling Muse in some of their vocal harmony theatrics. It has the striking line, “I could take the high road, but I know that I’m going low.” This line alone props up the album, because seriously — what a succinctly condensed, universally relatable, and provocative statement?
“Pet Cheetah” is a scary title, and the song lives up to your expectations. The title is amazingly accurate. Imagine that the musical instincts that the band are nurturing are their pet, which happens to be a cheetah, which will bite you, and leave a horrible memory. That’s the gist. “Legend” is a welcome relief, with Joseph sounding very natural, and singing “You were one of those plastic ones… You’re a legend in my own mind.” This is a very important, incisive message, and for all of those who might, for whatever reason, consider this particular group, Twenty One Pilots, a “plastic one,” they could be a legend in someone else’s mind — and if so, it’s very sensible. This is a band that manages to excavate styles that have been all but invisible for the last decade, save for a couple pathetic clinger-ons from previous eras. And they bring it in a blend of production and presentation that makes it very current, creating a very effective strain of nostalgic yet contemporary sound.
“Trench” is available Oct. 5 on Apple Music.