Ohio musical duo Twenty One Pilots is no stranger to speculation. In fact, lead vocalist Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun encourage it. They released their sixth studio album, “Scaled and Icy,” on May 21 after a cryptic social media campaign designed to fuel conversations regarding the album’s content. The band’s fanbase, who refer to themselves as the Skeleton Clique, was more than happy to oblige.
“Blurryface” and “Trench”
Twenty One Pilots’ past three projects have been concept albums. The band’s lore began with the personification of “Blurryface”: a dark blend of genres that worked with their usual themes of mental health, doubt and religion. The titular character was introduced as the embodiment of Joseph’s insecurities.
Joseph explained to MTV News: “It’s a guy that kind of represents all the things that I as an individual — but also everyone around me — am insecure about. When I think about insecurities and my insecurities are getting the best of me, the things that I think of are kind of a feeling of suffocation and then also the things that I create with my hands … Very dramatic, I know, but it helps me get into that character.”
Getting into character for Joseph included donning blank paint on his hands and neck throughout the “Blurryface” era. He did it during live performances and in music videos, like the video for “Stressed Out,” where he sings the lyric, “My name’s Blurryface and I care what you think.”
The lore only deepened on the ensuing album titled “Trench,” which added a host of new characters and storylines. Dmaorg.info, a now-defunct website, was promoted to reveal information about the upcoming record. The website included a series of cryptic messages and letters from the protagonist named Clancy, including one which said, “You are in violation. They mustn’t know you were here.”
“Trench” created an entire post-apocalyptic world. This included Dema, a city named after the Zoroastrian Tower of Silence, solidifying the project’s religious preoccupations. The city is ruled by nine bishops, one of which is the Blurryface character from the previous album. Blurryface’s real name is revealed to be Nicolas Bourbaki, also known as Nico, in reference to the pseudonym given to a collective of French mathematicians. A group of rebels called Banditos seek to liberate Clancy and the people of Dema from Nico and his bishops.
“Blurryface” and “Trench” are journeys. They represent Joseph and his characters’ paths from one place or state to another, whether it be leaving the fictional city of Dema or becoming disenfranchised with religion and struggling with mental health.
“Scaled and Icy”: The Story Continues
The promotional campaign for “Scaled and Icy” was a surprise for many fans. The band’s social media accounts were decked out in pastels and cartoon imagery, and the lead single “Shy Away” seemed upbeat in comparison to previous tracks. Naturally, people began theorizing.
In their 2020 song “Christmas Saves the Year,” the phrase “SAI is propaganda” is visible. As soon as the album name was announced, it became clear to fans that Twenty One Pilots was trying to tell them “Scaled and Icy” would be propaganda. In order to promote Dema’s “Violism” religion, the band is being forced to produce music that is positive and commercially appealing.
Fans have also discovered that “Scaled and Icy” is an anagram for “Clancy is dead.” If Clancy was the foil to Blurryface and an ally to Joseph, then it appears that Joseph has finally been defeated by Nico. This is seemingly confirmed by Joseph wearing blue, whereas yellow was the color worn by Dema rebels, and the fact that the Twenty One Pilots logo is nowhere to be found on the album’s imagery.
“Scaled and Icy” strays from the band’s usual sound. In keeping with the propaganda storyline, the songs might fit better in a summer pool party playlist than the Twenty One Pilots discography. The opener “Good Day” might deal with serious topics like grief, but it embraces Elton John-like piano riffs in a sort of forced positivity, maintaining, “I know it’s hard to believe me, it’s a good day.”
A later track, “Saturday,” tells the story of trying to stay strong during the COVID-19 pandemic, while “Formidable” is a letter of affection from Joseph to his bandmate. Though the album maintains heart, its production is startling when compared to the heavy sounds of “Blurryface” and “Trench.”
The final two tracks are the most tonally consistent with past records, as they seem to represent Joseph breaking free of Dema’s control and allowing himself to rap. On “No Chances,” he is being pursued by the bishops, as evidenced by their deep-voiced call of “We come for you, no chances.” On “Redecorate,” Joseph grapples with grief, identity and morality as he discusses what will be left behind when he dies.
Reputation and Reception
“Scaled and Icy” earned a 70 on Metacritic, which is decidedly lower than the scores of 81 and 80 for “Trench” and “Blurryface,” respectively. It debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 with 75,000 equivalent album units. The album is performing well but is nowhere near the level of its predecessors.
The responses to the album are mixed. Many fans feel disenchanted with the band’s departure from the sounds and themes that established them. As Financial Times reviewer Ludovic Hunter-Tilney noted, the discordant mixture of “propaganda” and Joseph’s true sound comes off more as indecisive rather than as an intriguing puzzle.
It’s also worth noting that the band recently suffered some backlash. In September 2020, Joseph responded to fans urging him to use his platform to promote awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement with a now-deleted tweet in which he donned platform shoes and joked, “You guys keep asking me to use my platforms. Feels good to dust these bad boys off.”
After the post was quickly deemed insensitive for making light of a serious situation, Joseph apologized by tweeting out mental health resources and explained that, “My tweet wasn’t suppose[d] to be about human rights so in case you are wondering where I stand: Black Lives Matter.”
He also explained in a Twitch livestream that he believes actions speak louder than words, and he is proud of the work he has done with charities such as a sports nonprofit he established to help inner-city kids in Ohio at the beginning of his career. Though Joseph has never publicly spoken about this before, he mentioned it now as evidence of the sincerity of his apology.
Whether fans decide to accept that apology or not, it goes without saying that “Scaled and Icy” came at a time of turmoil for the band and the results are disappointing. It’s likely that many listeners won’t hold out for the final two songs if they came expecting the signature Twenty One Pilots sound. Complex lore and storylines can only carry them so far, and they are certainly not an excuse for uninteresting music. If Twenty One Pilots wants to regain the attention of many of their fans, they’re going to have to find a way to defeat Dema for good, or at least bring Clancy back from the dead, because this transition period simply isn’t working.