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Twenty One Pilots: Still Blurry After All These Years

It’s been about a decade since Twenty One Pilots came oozing out of Columbus, Ohio, with their resolutely Midwestern, amicably dystopian 2015 hit “Stressed Out,” an emo-rap-industrial-pop slab of sing-songy melancholy that touched enough of a nerve to catapult the previously unknown duo into Adele/Beyoncé echelons of chart success. Twenty One Pilots’ post-genre sound was well-timed for the full blossoming of the streaming era. Blurryface (the album that contained “Stressed Out”) went from reggae-lite to ukulele twerpiness to pop-punk to piano-pop to EDM. Adding some value amidst all the playlist-brained vertigo, they also threw in a proggy meta-narrative tailor-made to keep true believers locked in, come what may for the band’s commercial future.

Subsequent Pilots albums have tried to channel rapper-singer-songwriter Tyler Joseph and funky, brawny drummer Josh Dun’s varied sonic tendencies into a more coherent vision. 2017’s Trench was darker and rougher and sort of about the wages of fame; 2021’s Scaled & Icy swerved into an unalloyed pop brightness that sometimes suggested Rivers Cuomo doing Billy Joel. Their seventh album, Clancy, arrives on the ninth anniversary of Blurryface and purports to complete the coming-of-age story that began with that breakout LP. Its hermetic self-referentiality will reward fans: “I am Clancy, prodigal son/ Done running, come up with Josh Dun,” Joseph raps speedily over his partner’s fleet drum part on “Overcompensate,” which brings to mind Nineties big-beat rocktronica.

The music also suggests the summing-up of a long journey, the same willful eclecticism now piloted by more mature studio artistes (along with their go-to co-writer/co-producer Paul Meany, of the band Mutemath). They zip from the Blink-y pump of “Next Semester,” in which a botched suicide attempt becomes a moment of self-discovery, to the anthemic emo-rap of “Backslide,” to the Killers-size neo-new Wave of “Midwest Indigo,” to the trippy buoyancy of “Lavish.” Yet the cumulative result never feels as jarring or scattered as such a jumble might suggest.    

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When Twenty One Pilots broke through with “Stressed Out,” they had their finger on the experience of young people trying to locate an authentic self in an era of micro-managed medications and mental wellness jargon. Here they often seem to be updating that dislocated feeling through a middle-aged lens. “I requested counsel with the counselor/And he canceled twice,” Joseph sings on “Midwest Indigo,” where dealing with winter is deployed as a metaphor for suffering through a frozen relationship. The synth-rock highlight “Navigating” laments the passing of a grandmother as an example of “feeling the reality that everybody leaves.”

The most on-the-nose of these songs is “Oldies Station,” which brings to mind Ben Folds doing Eighties synth-pop, as Joseph sings about having “nothing in the tank in a season of lessons learned in giving up.” The solution? “Push on through,” he sings, adding that if you do you might get to enjoy stuff like hearing a song you like while waiting at a red light and/or attending your daughter’s first dance recital. That push-through approach to emotional clarity may not work for everyone, but the song’s kinda-corny, undeniably sweet tone gives it a valedictory feel nonetheless — something to keep a certain strain of dude hanging in there during his next Ohio winter of the soul.

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