Twenty One Pilots Grow Up And Settle Down

Mason Castillo

Twenty One Pilots Grow Up And Settle Down

Mason Castillo

You can only cling to your big wheel for so long before adult life comes for you. For proof, look no further than the massively successful pop-rock duo Twenty One Pilots.

Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun’s biggest hit, 2015’s “Stressed Out,” was all about wishing they could go back to childhood and live a happy-go-lucky existence unburdened by the pressures of adulthood. Over a thumping reggae-tinged slow-creep, between sometimes pitched-down rap verses like “I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink/ But now I’m insecure and I care what people think,” Joseph sang of his desire to be sung to sleep by his mother, and of instead being greeted with the jarring demand, “Wake up, you need to make money!” In the video, he and Dun — the drummer and Silent Bob of this partnership — sipped Capri Suns, hung out at their parents’ homes, and cruised the streets of their native Columbus on oversized tricycles. Pining for the carefree innocence of youth was not invented by Twenty One Pilots’ generation, but the overtness with which they longed for those days in the face of factors like student loan debt — and the groundswell of popularity that took “Stressed Out” all the way to #2 a year after its release — made them natural avatars for millennial anxiety. It also made them an easy target for anyone seeking to rant about kids these days and their avocado toast or whatever — never mind that these millennial poster boys’ quirky hybrid sound owed as much to eclectic Gen-Xers like Beck, Sublime, and the Beastie Boys. Half a decade later, they’ve started cribbing from the boomers too.

We’ve all grown up a lot since the mid-2010s, Twenty One Pilots included. Most notably, last year, just before COVID shut the world down, Joseph and his wife Jenna welcomed a baby girl. So perhaps it’s not that surprising that his band’s new album sometimes goes full dad-rock. The first song on Scaled And Icy — short for “scaled back and isolated,” a nod to the album’s genesis in Joseph’s basement studio during quarantine — is “Good Day,” a jaunty piano-rocker in the vein of Paul McCartney and ELO. Another keyboard groove on “Mulberry Street” evokes Elton John’s “Benny And The Jets.” With “Never Take It” they have somehow crossbred “Sympathy For The Devil” with the New Radicals’ “Get What You Give.” The unique sonic DNA that made Twenty One Pilots one of the most popular and influential rock groups of the 2010s is still discernible: a kitchen-sink quality that yielded songs like early fan favorite “Ode To Sleep,” which Frankenstein’d together bits of Queen-via-My Chemical Romance arena rock, big-tent EDM, and nerdcore rap. But over time — as evidenced by “Stressed Out” and subsequent hits “Ride” and “Heathens,” which made Twenty One Pilots the first band since the Beatles to land two songs in the Hot 100’s top five — they’ve been figuring out how to boil down all those influences into something more streamlined.

They kept up this refinement process on 2018’s Trench, often leaning into the harder, hipper sides of their sound: heavy bass-powered rock on “Jumpsuit,” blown-out futuristic rap on “Levitate,” soulfully fizzy ’80s pop on “My Blood.” With Scaled And Icy, Joseph often swings back in the other direction, letting himself be unashamedly corny the way parents often do. (I speak from experience.) This extends to the downright chipper attitude he brings to the new songs. If the Twenty One Pilots fan base once functioned as a sort of secular youth group for troubled kids, on Scaled And Icy, the grownup jumps out. Not that the album is all sunshine and roses; the aforementioned “Good Day” is about the denial he imagines would set in if his family died, while closing track “Redecorate” was inspired by a friend whose son actually did pass away. Pessimism courses through “Choker”; “No Chances” calls back to the dark, complicated mythology of Trench; and “Saturday” is all about the disorientation of life during lockdown. Yet Joseph intentionally pushed back against the doom-and-gloom vibe that defined the pandemic, so most of those songs sound happier than Twenty One Pilots have ever sounded.

“Bounce Man” is practically a pub sing-along, with the guy who once pined for his mother’s embrace on record now referencing his “old lady” and telling a friend on the run to come by the house for one more song like the old days. “Formidable” frames the friendship between Joseph and Dun — a brotherhood that has always been central to the band — as an epic love story. An interaction with Joseph’s actual brother inspired lead single “Shy Away,” one of the finest songs this band has ever released, which could easily be mistaken for the ebullient synth rock of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. These songs are all proof that a straightforward and settled-down Twenty One Pilots can be good. On the other hand, there is “Saturday,” the band’s first collaboration with Adele/Pink/Kelly Clarkson producer Greg Kurstin, which is bad. “Saturday” may be rooted in pandemic disorientation, but everything about the song is extremely hokey, including what appears to be a phone call in which Joseph tells his wife that he wants to watch Friends with her. It’s the closest this band has come to sounding like LMFAO.

It’s worth noting that while Twenty One Pilots were moving toward the middle, the middle was moving toward Twenty One Pilots. They played a part in altering the sound of modern rock radio. Artists from the Chainsmokers to AJR have ripped off their sound at times. They may or may not have directly influenced the currently prevailing cocktail of hip-hop and pop-punk, but they certainly presaged it. But if Joseph once seemed to have pied-piper-like sway where youth culture was concerned, lately his fan base has not been so unanimously worshipful. Last year he was at the center of a social media dustup when a segment of his fans urged him to post “Black Lives Matter” and he glibly refused, arguing that he wanted to use his bandwidth to combat suicide and depression instead. (He eventually tweeted “Black Lives Matter” in March, just before his band announced their new album.) In less substantial matters, “Saturday” has been cause for revolt among some longtime fans, who’ve been decrying the song on TikTok. Several have even described it as “department store music,” framing it as a betrayal from a band they grew up loving.

But it’s not like Twenty One Pilots are about to lose their following. “Shy Away” had an unusually strong debut at alternative radio and quickly shot to #1, where it has remained for more than a month. Last year’s quarantine single “Level Of Concern” was their biggest hit since their 2016 breakthrough, peaking at #23 on the Hot 100. A few clunkers aside, Scaled And Icy maintains the knack for poppy off-kilter rock music that made the band stars in the first place. If they’ve exited their disruptive interloper phase and settled down into musical adulthood, it’s likely a good chunk of their fan base is growing up right along with them. Soon they’ll all be clinging to their children’s youth rather than wishing they could go back to their own.

David Peters

CHART WATCH

J. Cole scores his sixth #1 album on the Billboard 200 this week with The Off-Season. Cole’s latest tallied 282,000 equivalent album units and 37,000 in sales. The vast majority of his units, 243,000, derive from 325.05 million on-demand track streams. It’s the second biggest week any album has recorded this year so far, narrowly beaten out by Taylor Swift’s re-recorded Fearless, which posted 291,000 units in its first week.

Nicki Minaj’s free 2009 mixtape Beam Me Up Scotty, which was commercially released for the first time this month, debuts at #2 with 80,000 units and 11,000 in sales. After Moneybagg Yo, Morgan Wallen, and Dua Lipa comes a #6 debut for the Black Keys. Their Mississippi blues tribute Delta Kream accrued 35,000 units and 30,000 in sales to become their fifth top-10 album. Following Justin Bieber and DJ Khaled, Alan Jackson’s Where Have You Gone debuts at #9 with 32,000 units and 27,000 in sales — his 15th release to reach the top 10. Pop Smoke closes out the top 10 on this week’s chart.

Cole also debuts four songs in the top 10 of the Hot 100, though not #1. That belongs to Olivia Rodrigo, whose “good 4 u” starts out on top, becoming her second #1 hit after “drivers license” and third top 10 including “deja vu.” According to Billboard, that makes her album Sour — which impacts the chart next week — the first debut LP to have two songs debut at #1 on the Hot 100. It’s also the first debut album to spin off two #1 hits since The Heist by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. “good 4 u” is the 53rd song to enter the chart at #1.

J. Cole’s “my.life” with 21 Savage and Morray becomes his highest-charting hit. Meanwhile “amari” enters at #5, “pride.is.the.devil” with Lil Baby at #7, and “95.south” at #8. This pushes Cole’s career total to 10 top-10 hits, and it makes Cole the fourth artist to debut four songs in the top 10 simultaneously, following Drake, Lil Wayne, and Juice WRLD. Combined with “good 4 u,” it also marks the first time five songs have ever debuted in the top 10 in the same week.

POP FIVE

BTS – “Butter”
It’s smooth like butter but I dunno, this fizzy and synthetic track sounds more like candy to me. I mean this as a compliment; BTS have a serious Song Of The Summer contender on their hands.

Lil Nas X – “Sun Goes Down”
It may be weird to say about someone with two #1 singles already but LNX feels super underrated as a hook writer. This and “Holiday” and “Panini” are effortlessly catchy.

Marshmello & Jonas Brothers – “Leave Before You Love Me”
The blandness jumped out!

Anne-Marie & Niall Horan – “Our Song”
This is crisp and catchy and sounds like it could be a mid-level hit, but personally I wish they’d just covered the Taylor Swift “Our Song” instead.

Galantis, David Guetta, & Little Mix – “Heartbreak Anthem”
This combination of artists and song title demands a certain level of drama. Both the song and video deliver on that expectation. I’d be OK with the EDM trend of a decade ago surging back if they could maintain this standard of quality.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Demi Lovato announced, “I am proud to let you know that I identify as non-binary & will officially be changing my pronouns to they/them moving forward.” [Twitter]
  • Lovato, Lil Nas X and Troye Sivan will play iHeartMedia and P&G’s virtual Can’t Cancel Pride event. [Variety]
  • Here’s a clip from the new Hulu comedy Only Murders In The Building starring Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, and Martin Short. [Twitter]
  • A fan and fellow horse rider spotted Billie Eilish at a competition. [Instagram]
  • Lots of other fans will be able to spot Eilish at her newly announced Happier Than Ever World Tour. [Billie Eilish]
  • Morgan Wallen gave a surprise performance at Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk Rock N’ Roll Steakhouse, his first show since being caught on camera using a racial slur. [Tennesseean]
  • Wallen also won three Billboard Music Awards on Sunday night despite being banned from appearing at the event. [USA Today]
  • Here’s the trailer for the second season of Lil Dicky’s FXX series Dave. [YouTube]
  • Kacey Musgraves is the face of Moschino’s new Sesame Street collection. [Elle]
  • Dua Lipa stars in a new Truly Hard Seltzer commercial. [YouTube]
  • Logic’s memoir This Bright Future is out 9/7. [HNHH]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

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