2018-10_LT-TOPReview

My Culture

Welcome to “Trench” — an Album Review

Hold onto your hats, folks, because Twenty One Pilots is back. After the massive success of their 2015 album Blurryface, TOP just dropped Trench on October 5th, a diverse album that follows the story of an imaginary city, the oppressive Dema, perhaps a metaphor for insecurity, doubt, or the music industry and modern culture.

The album tells the story of the “Banditos,” a group of yellow-clad, embattled rebels who unite to escape the confines of Dema and make it to relative safety in Trench, a middle-ground between Dema’s gloom and the promise of future peace. This complex and impactful narrative falls on the heels of a year-long hiatus in which the duo (Ohio natives Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun) avoided public appearances, spent time with family, and stayed off social media.

Trench packs a powerful punch, through its symbolism and its ever-changing sound. All the while, it relays a refreshing message hard to find in modern secular media, free from profanity and full of insightful and honest reflections on some of the joys and trials of everyday life. Here are some of the highlights:

Clique

TOP has never been shy about their admiration for their fans (“the Clique”). The duo is also supported by a close group of family and friends. As a result, a sense of community jumps out of the speakers in Trench.

In “Smithereens,” Joseph, the lyrical mastermind behind TOP, serenades his wife with a playful message, noting how he’d go up against any man who stepped towards her (and subsequently get beaten to smithereens).

In “My Blood,” a soon-to-be pop hit, Joseph sings to his family (literal or figurative), reminding them of the closeness of their bond.

“When you’re facing down a dark hall.
I’ll grab my light, and go with you…
Stay with me, my blood,
You don’t need to run.”

His love for his family is further explored in “Legend,” a deceptively happy-sounding track about his late grandfather. Joseph praises his Pop Pop and apologizes for not visiting. “I wish she knew you,” he sings (perhaps referring to his baby nieces). “I look forward to having a lunch with you again.” The melody will leave you humming along, but the words will bring you to tears.

In the subdued ultimate track, “Leave This City,” he re-enters the mythical Dema narrative and sings to the fans, who stand before him in the crowd.

“In Trench, I’m not alone.
These faces facing me,
they know what I mean.”

He continues that message of solidarity in “Bandito.” “It helps to hear these words bounce off of you,” commenting on the shared nature of the creative music-making process.

Ultimately, these words remind us that, although much of Joseph’s struggles in Dema are personal, his trials and successes are deeply interwoven with his community. The support Joseph needs in leaving the city of “Dema” is a metaphor for the support he needs in life to make it through his struggles and doubts.

Mental Health

TOP has spoken out before about mental health and insecurities; however, their message is often masked behind clever lyrics and metaphors or characterizations like “Blurryface.” Very rarely does Joseph just come out and say it.

But “Neon Gravestones” is the closest he’s ever come to doing so. He lays everything out there, boldly and authentically. This song sent shivers down my spine the first time I heard it, and it’s arguably the most raw song they’ve released.

Joseph describes “neon gravestones” that call for his name, representing the glorification of suicide, especially among celebrities.

“I could go out with a bang. They would know my name. They would host and post a celebration,” he thinks. But he quickly dismisses the thought, forcefully and definitively. Our culture, he says, is communicating that “an earlier grave is an optional way.” After a brief pause, Joseph responds with one word: “No.” And he means it.

“My opinion will not be lenient…words are loud, but now I’m talking action.” He admits that our culture has opened dialogue about suicide and mental illness, “beating a stigma that no longer scares us,” but he points out that the way we talk about it is flawed. We can sometimes celebrate one’s life to the extent that we glorify their death, This “treat[ing] a loss like it’s a win” can lead others to the temptation of suicide, which Joseph notably and firmly calls “a mistake.”

In the most heartbreaking bridge, he shows that he’s speaking from a place of first-hand experience, not just preaching from a pedestal.

“Promise me this. If I lose to myself,
You won’t mourn a day,
And you’ll move onto someone else.”

Wow.

This proposition is crazy. But it shows how serious he is about his words. If a celebrity loses the fight with their mental illness, it’s still, through and through, a mistake and a horrible thing. We must not forget that in our desire to celebrate one’s life.

He challenges his listeners not to buy into the lie, not to act out of rage or revenge or feelings of isolation. As he sings out in the track “Leave This City,” it takes time to leave the “city” of our insecurities and doubts. Until we reach that freedom from our shackles, we must keep fighting.

Let’s Choose Above

Joseph and Dun, both Christians, have often interwoven messages of faith and doubt into their lyrics. Previous songs like “Trees,” “Save,” “Drown,” “Addict with a Pen,” and others illustrate this. However, these messages avoid stereotypical, idealized portrayals of God and fearlessly grapple with doubt and questioning. In “Clear,” a song from TOP’s 2011 album, Joseph debates whether it’s better for him to openly sing his faith or to “cleverly mask his words.” He even compares himself to Peter in “Ode to Sleep” from the album Vessel, citing all the times he’s denied Jesus despite calling himself a Christian.

In Trench, specifically, we witness a raw moment in Joseph’s faith journey — a crisis. “I still want to call myself a Christian — because I am a Christian,” Joseph relays in an interview with Alt Press. “I don’t know how to talk to people about it yet. And if I can’t talk to other people about it yet or if I don’t know exactly why I should talk to other people about it, does it really mean anything to me, then?”

Joseph fears he’s lacking in his faith. “If I don’t truly have the answer, shouldn’t I just be talking about that?” And talk, he does.

We see the product of this doubt and uncertainty in his music. Though it’s impossible to fully understand the lyrical genius of Tyler Joseph, there are many hints to his faith buried in his words. For example, the energetic “Chlorine” calls out at the moving final verses, asking for a cleansing from his current interior state:

“I’m so sorry I forgot you.
Let me catch you up to speed.
I’ve been tested like a weathered flag
That’s by the sea.
Can you build my house with pieces?
I’m just a chemical.”

Could this be a cry for God to build the foundation of his house, akin to the terminology we hear in Matthew 7: 24-27 or Psalm 127:1? The lyrics and sound are reminiscent of TOP’s earliest works — their self-titled album and Joseph’s independent album, both written in the bottom of his parent’s basement. Though their sound has evolved, it’s refreshing to hear their roots–musically and lyrically — still shine through.

And, just like back then, Joseph doesn’t shy away from authentically questioning his faith. And, quite honestly, I think his transparency is a good thing. Because, whether or not we like to admit it, we’ve all been there. We all have times when we don’t have the answers, when we feel like we aren’t bearing the name of “Christian” as we should.

Yet, even amid his self-declared doubt, we see faith shine through. In eccentric but catchy “Morph,” perhaps Joseph’s most complicated lyrical piece on the album, he ponders death and the three approaches to realizing his impending demise: above, under, or around. Going above death is “blind belief,” he says — hinting at belief in the afterlife — while “under is sword to sleeve” and around is “a scientific miracle.” There’s no way to avoid death, he notes, “so let’s pick above and see.” Let’s choose to believe in something higher, even if it feels blind.

Trench poses more questions than it answers, but that’s because its author is only human. Just like us, Joseph struggles with his faith. The inspiring part, however, is that he uses his music to grapple with his questions, not run from them. And, despite the gloomy history he’s had in Dema, he still holds onto the hope of brighter days, as evident in his interview.

“When I make it out of Trench and I get to where I’m going… I wonder then if I’ll be more bold in my faith and what our purpose is being here.”

I pray for that boldness in Joseph, but until that time, I’m thankful he and Dun are not afraid to admit that doubt is real and faith is hard. Their struggles can make us feel like we’re not alone in doubting, But like Joseph’s search, we can’t stop there. We must keep moving, out of Dema, past Trench and to the place where we finally find our peace, where we finally find the answers.

That place has a name and a face. Jesus. And thankfully, He takes us as we are — doubts and all.

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About the Author

Faith Noah

I’m a college student at Vanderbilt University studying neuroscience. I’m from the great state of Texas, and my hobbies include rapping along to Twenty One Pilots, jamming out on guitar, and watching NCIS marathons. However, at the end of the day, you’ll find me either engaging in sugar-induced fits of hyperactivity or having a deep stimulating theological discussions. One extreme or the other. Fun fact: my whole name (together) is in the Bible. Hebrews 11:7. No big deal.