The Grammy-winning Ohio duo that took the world by storm with the emo-ish synth-pop juggernaut, “Stressed Out,” in 2015 is back. TWENTY ONE PILOTS released their sixth full-length album on May 21st, 2021, through Fueled by Ramen and Elektra Records. After the surprise sensation, the duo released a concept album in 2018, titled “Trench,” which appeared as though the duo was not really sure what to do with the newfound, immersive level of fame. So I probably wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what to expect this time. Whatever I thought, it certainly wasn’t an album full of cheerful piano-pop channeling the feel-good hits of the summers past, from artists such as WEEZER, the ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA, or even Elton John. Fortunately, the songs aren’t all about silver linings, although the wry wit might go unnoticed if you don’t really pay attention to the lyrics. The album title is an ironic wordplay on the catch phrase, “scaled back and isolated,” referring to the pandemic. Everything may be ruined for all we know, but TWENTY ONE PILOTS would rather say it with an ironic grin.
The album kicks off with a piano stomp that resonates with the thick air of the so-called ”yacht rock” of the 1970s and 1980s. The opening track, “Good Day,” could easily have been written in 1977 either by the ELO-frontman, Jeff Lynne, or the ultimate rocketman of piano-pop, Sir Elton John. It is kind of the name of the game on the album as whole – to mix such vintage vibes with the duo’s signature, modern synth-pop – and why not? It works.
“Choking on the circumstance, self-sabotage is a sweet romance,” goes a line of lyrics in the track ”Choker.” Taken out of context, it is something I could easily imagine as though having come out from the mouth of Brian Molko of PLACEBO circa 1998. Yes, it has all the elements of the confessions and memoirs of a justified drug addict but… TWENTY ONE PILOTS deliver the lyrics in the context of an upbeat synth-pop anthem that somehow echoes the Saturday morning kiddie TV theme songs. In some weird and perverted fashion, it sounds perfect.
While it is true that TWENTY ONE PILOTS made it big with a somewhat emo-ish and angst-ridden style, it has never been as dark and gloomy as, say, THE CURE. Hence, the sense of irony gets rather thick when you notice the subtle influence of the oddball 1992 hit written by Robert Smith & Co, “Friday I’m In Love,” on the new TWENTY ONE PILOTS track, ”Formidable.” Upon first hearing the song, I’m sure that the fans of THE CURE probably were waiting for some morose twist to come – in vain. Here, those drawn to this Ohio duo by their blockbuster 2015 emo hit might be disappointed to find out that on this new album the teenage angst has been replaced with a more prominently upbeat and optimistic outlook. However, the duo’s trademark mix-and-match approach to music is still intact. At the thickest, the yacht rock vibes reach almost STEELY DAN magnitudes on the track, “Mulberry Street,” and “Never Take It” plunges even into the territory of THE ROLLING STONES. Of course, this genre-hopping is conducted firmly in the synth-pop framework.
In conclusion, for such a pandemic-influenced outing, this new selection of eleven synth-pop bangers is overwhelmingly infested with positive vibes. On occasion, the overwhelming feel-good mood is layered with subtle layers of melancholy, most prominently on the last two tracks, “No Chances” and “Redecorate.” In all honesty, I have to admit to having written this duo off as yet another slightly annoying emo-pop outfit, as much as I do like some of their older songs such as the magnificent single, “Ride,” off their 2015 hit album “Blurryface.” This new outing, however, forces me to readjust my view, as this surprise change in the duo’s tone of voice works magnificently well. I still cannot stand listening to “Stressed Out,” but as luck would have it, I won’t be needing to – I can put on the new album, “Scaled and Icy,” and enjoy it to the fullest.
Written by Jani Lehtinen
- Good Day
- Shy Away
- The Outside
- Never Take It
- Mulberry Street
- Bounce Man
- No Chances
Fueled By Ramen/Elektra