“Trench” is Twenty One Pilot’s first album to reach number one in Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands. (Photo courtesy of Fueled by Ramen)
After a full year of near-complete silence from them, Twenty One Pilots have returned to the music industry with their fifth studio album, “Trench,” released on Oct. 5th, 2018, under Fueled by Ramen. Twenty One Pilots grew a significant underground following for six years, from the release of their debut self-titled album to the worldwide sensation “Blurryface.” They grew a fanbase based on deeply personal and relatable lyrics about mental health and suicide, masked usually under upbeat, pop-rap production and vocal delivery. However, unlike the title may suggest, “Trench” is surprisingly lacking in depth.
To fully interpret the world of “Trench,” it may be important to understand the story that they intend this album to tell. Trench is the world that this album takes place in, and at the bottom of the world is a city called Dema, which Twenty One Pilots spend the album attempting to escape. It is meant to be a concept album in this sense, illustrating not only their own need to escape this city, but also meaning to be symbolic of anyone who is between phases in their own life. This is a bold concept. However, the majority of listeners are unlikely to pick up on it because, frankly, it barely exists in the actual lyrics of the album. This lore is built deep enough into the album to allow some songs to be straight up lyrically confusing without understanding this story, such as in “Nico and the Niners,” but not explicitly told enough to make up for this shortcoming. Any and all understanding needs to come through the music videos, interviews and fan scavenger hunts across the internet for clues. It is fun for diehard fans, but extremely off-putting for those who want to just listen to music.
Attempting to tell this story also appears to have taken a toll on their music lyrically. The majority of the songs on the album are lyrically disposable, which is not inherently bad on its own, but is extremely disappointing coming from a band that became known for just that. These songs feel like they lack the passion of everything that has come before, with many of the songs in the middle of the album sounding like they could have been made by almost any mid-2010’s pop-rock bands. Their sound is still distinguishable enough for this to not come across as a full-blown identity crisis, but it was certainly disappointing to listen to the likes of “Smithereens,” “Cut My Lip,” or “Legend” and feel like they could have been sung by Maroon 5 or OneRepublic.
That being said, there are certainly some promising signs that Twenty One Pilots have not totally lost their way. “Neon Gravestones” is not only the best song on the album, but also one of the best songs of the year, matching a fantastic, engrossing beat with extremely topical and poignant lyrical content about the glorification of suicide, especially amongst celebrities. It is the most direct that Twenty One Pilots have ever written, ditching their traditional flowery metaphors for a direct statement, and it works really well in an album that is desperately lacking in such. Additionally, the fourth single, “My Blood,” feels extremely reminiscent of some of Twenty One Pilots’ past hits in the best way possible. It is catchy, well-produced, well-written and extremely addicting.
In the end, the greatest flaw of “Trench” is that it seems to have gone astray. They aimed to make a gutsy concept album with a strong story, but then lost their way down that path, which resulted in them both losing what made their music unique and anything that could have made this record interesting. Beyond a few good songs, “Trench” is dead on arrival.
Final Grade: D