‘Scaled and Icy’: Twenty One Pilots Sublimate Pandemic Anxieties Into Upbeat Tunes

Columbus, Ohio duo Twenty One Pilots made history with their 2015 breakthrough “Blurryface,” the first album on which every song exceeded 100 million streams on Spotify. The band’s sound, boldly eclectic and unabashedly commercial, was a winning formula. Catapulted to stardom, singer-songwriter Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun followed up with a work of unprecedented ambition, 2018’s “Trench.” The highly conceptual album told the story of a protagonist named Clancy and a group known as the Banditos, who break free from a fantastical land. Fans were quick to unscramble the title of TOP’s latest offering, “Scaled and Icy,” revealing it to be an anagram of “Clancy Is dead.” While this has little bearing on the content of the new album, it can be interpreted as signifying a departure from elaborate conceits, as the record finds the band taking a more straightforward turn and letting the songs speak for themselves. The latest material is as ambitious as ever, but takes a new playful tone. A play on “scaled back and isolated,” “Scaled and Icy” was written and recorded during the pandemic, and the music overcompensates for the confinement of the experience with a fresh, celebratory zeal.    

“Good Day” is an upbeat start, although a bittersweet one. On the rather outlandishly jaunty opener, Joseph insists, “It’s a good day” in a falsetto that calls for him to qualify, “I know it’s hard to believe me.” Born out of pandemic living, this is mood elevation by means of faking it until you make it — and it works. By the end of the song’s three minutes and change, TOP have successfully reminded us how well they can string together a catchy tune. “Choker” continues in this vein, a loser’s anthem of sorts, with a sweeping refrain of “I know it’s over / I was born a choker,” and an insistent percussive shuffle. Joseph raps a verse, as he has been known to do occasionally. Like most of the album’s forays into hip-hop, this one is short and sweet, concentrated and full of colorful amusements with delightfully ADD production. Single “Shy Away” is a streamlined pop triumph that starts catchy and grows steadily catchier. For a band with so much gloss and sheen, TOP are generally careful to keep their music substantive, as they do here with some rather intricate guitar work. Joseph encourages you to chase your dreams in a spirited singalong, along with backing vocals of “Don’t you shy away,” screamed with a ferocity that adds an element of humor. 

The music takes a funkier turn on “The Outside,” a playful romp.that builds to pauses and explodes into full-fledged festivity, replete with ambient party chatter and goofy wah-wah guitars. The rap section here is masterfully executed, jam-packed with a thick sludge of meaty low range and mutating electronic sounds. It gets more celebratory yet on “Saturday,” an effective single that continues the funk. Recognizable melodic snippets are clipped from the contemporary pop lexicon and flashed quickly enough to avoid any charges of plagiarism, but long enough to make for an infectious onslaught. The song is deceptively frivolous, sounding on the surface like just an ode to Saturdays and celebration, but on closer look assuming existential dimensions. Inspired by the disorientation of the pandemic, when everything was shut down and days blended into one another, the track is an entreaty to family, to stick together until Saturday and beyond. By the point of “Never Take It,” the band have clearly fixated on a party aesthetic. The song rings a bit like a reprise of “Shy Away” in its empowering sentiment, but with political overtones about media misrepresentation. Joseph and Dun express this in unabashed feel-good music with concerted singalongs, hooting choruses, rocking riffs, and jokey falsetto. 

Joseph’s voice shines without screaming for attention on “Mulberry Street,” which has the feel of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s effortlessly reimagined for 2021. The song runs a whimsical course, full of cartoonish surprises and unpredictable detours, while continuing the theme of keeping your head up and moving along, to a steady beat. “Formidable” is another instant pop success with nods to the ‘80s in its musical stylings. Bright, buoyant, and full of hummable melodies, it features a “yeah, yeah, yeah” chorus and smart stops and starts in all the right places. Camp frivolity resurfaces on “Bounce,” with doo wop backing vocal snippets and plenty of varied silliness. The band moves swiftly from one tried and tested pop stratagem to the next in a way that can easily sound desperate if they didn’t pull it off with such an economy of gesture.

“No Chances” can be a bit hard to take, with a taunting singalong refrain modeled after sport stadium theatrics. Joseph sought to recreate the atmosphere of a heated stadium, but the result is so silly-sounding that what could otherwise make for an engaging song takes a farcical form. On the bright side, there are plenty of interesting sonic turns, as the beat veers at one point into almost trap territory. This segues neatly into the most committed hip-hop excursion yet in the final track, “Redecorate.” Joseph rap-sings for most of the song, and at fleeting moments sounds slightly like Eminem. The chorus arrives prematurely and comes across as a bit forced. It doesn’t help that the refrain of “I don’t want to go like this / At least let me clean my room” has the comical ring of Jordan Peterson fanfare. Yet, this is another case of deceptive simplicity, as the song was inspired by a couple’s decision to lovingly preserve the decor of their deceased son’s room as he left it. 

Overall, “Scaled and Icy” can seem less focused than previous Twenty One Pilots albums. The vast majority of the record is upbeat, festive fare that leans heavily on levity. A couple express pop excursions are interspersed, and the final two relatively weightier tracks are slapped on at the end. That said, nothing feels strangely out of place, and there is a certain freedom in the seemingly uncontrived sequencing of songs on display. Having earned their dues as savvy songsmiths with “Blurryface” and cemented their status as serious artists with “Trench,” Twenty One Pilots seem to have grown confident enough to eschew structural and thematic pretensions, relying simply on the strength of their songs. And the songs are all bangers, save for a couple minor lapses. Moreover, there is a theme to the album, albeit an understated one. “Scaled and Icy” is about dancing your way out of tough times, sublimating your anxieties into upbeat tunes. 

Scaled and Icy” releases May 21 on Apple Music.