Headphones On: Trench
Twenty One Pilots’ latest album explores the dark night of the soul
Without warning and to a flurry of excitement, Twenty One Pilots released their fifth studio album, Trench, this October 3rd.
Composed of drummer Josh Dun and vocalist/pianist Tyler Joseph, Twenty One Pilots is well-known duo to their smash-hit 2016 album, Blurryface, which sold over 1.5 million copies and launched the band into stardom with hits such as “Stressed Out” and “Ride.”
Although Trench includes more pop and synth sounds than seen on previous albums, such as the bass-heavy “My Blood” and anthemic “The Hype,” the band’s backbone of a unique blend of hip hop/R&B, pop rock, and ukulele solos, combined with existential lyrics, still remains. The album is built around the image of a walled city, which is a metaphorical device that could be subject to a variety of interpretations: succumbing to despair or hopelessness, struggling with mental illness, or even facing a dark night of the soul, which the protagonist of the album is attempting to escape.
Many of the songs on the album deal with the themes of fighting despair and coming to terms with suffering. The gritty “Chlorine” plays with the potential double meaning of the chemical: chlorine as both a toxin and antiseptic cleanser.
The band’s songs have the capacity to help cleanse those who are suffering, but are also seen by some as justifying self-destructive behaviors. This theme is taken up in the reflective and haunting “Neon Gravestones” which delivers a remarkably direct condemnation of the media glorification of celebrity suicides (“Promise me this / If I lose to myself / You won’t mourn a day / And you’ll move onto someone else,” sings Joseph, “losing” referring to his own potential suicide).
Throughout the album, the band is strikingly self-aware of their impact and the consequences of their rise to fame, both for good and evil. “The lead is terrible in flavor / But now you double as a paper maker” sings Joseph in “Chlorine,” in reference to his fictional tormentor on the album, ‘Nico,’ who represents his insecurities but also serves a “paper maker,” or the inspiration for his lucrative songs.
Interestingly, the band chose to release their album without warning on a Wednesday, in defiance of maximizing their Billboard ratings, pointing to their emphasis on how the band’s music is not for riches or fame, but for their fans.
The album closes with the somber “Leave the City.” “The song is definitely about losing faith, which I’ve been working through on this record,” said Joseph in an interview with Alternative Press. “The process I’ve been on [for] this record is the closest I’ve been to entertaining a world where there isn’t a God…I still believe in God. I still want to call myself a Christian—because I am a Christian.”
This ambivalence towards faith is revealed in various parts of the album. In “Morph;” Joseph meditates on three possible responses to his own mortality as he raps, “For “above” is blind belief and “under” is sword to sleeve / And “around” is scientific miracle, let’s pick “above” and see / For if and when we go above, the question still remains / Are we still in love and is it possible we feel the same?”
“Above” could be interpreted as choosing faith, but this appears to run the risk of “blind belief.” “Under” could be interpreted as despair, and “around” as evading mortality by attempting to achieve immortality via scientific means, which would require a “miracle.” Joseph appears to make a plea for his listener to go with faith, (“let’s pick ‘above’ and see”), but still allows for how faith involves doubts (“the question still remains”). Additionally, the penultimate track, “Legend,” an upbeat tribute to Joseph’s late grandfather, closes with the line “I look forward to having lunch with you again,” indicating hope in reuniting with his grandfather in eternal life.
Songs on previous albums, such as “Doubt” and “Holding on to You,” were written as prayers, directly addressed to God. Although Trench contains no explicit references to God, the album could be interpreted as being about the dark night of the soul, both literally, as Joseph wrote the album in response to his own crisis of faith, and metaphorically, as the protagonist of the album attempts to physically escape the city.
Even amid his doubts, Joseph still holds on to hope: “In time, I will leave the city / For now, I will stay alive” Rather than succumbing to despair, Joseph intends to “stay alive,” and continue seeking out hope, to keep fighting darkness, for even if he is unsure of the nature of his destination, he still believes that there is one, beyond the darkness and suffering of his life.
“Staying alive” is also a reference to the closing track, Truce, from the band’s third album, Vessel, which centered on the theme of fighting one’s inner demons while clinging to faith. “The sun will rise and we will try again,” sang Joseph on Truce; in “Nico and the Niners,” “East is up,” a suggestion that the only way to escape the “city” is to head east: towards the rising sun, an image which, throughout the band’s discography, has been associated with faith. (“We’re driving toward the morning sun / Where all your blood is washed away and all you did will be undone,” sings a ambiguous Christ-figure to the protagonist in the song “Taxi Cab,” from the band’s titular album.)
Twenty One Pilots’ music is unparalleled in contemporary society for having the popularity that it does while simultaneously wrestling with the deepest questions about existence and faith. With this new release, their fight to pursue meaning and battle against depression and hopelessness continues
Teresa Kaza is a senior studying Biology and Philosophy. She totally liked Twenty One Pilots before they were cool. If you would like to contest this, or would like to sell her a copy of Regional at Best, contact her at email@example.com.