Music Reviews
Scaled and Icy

twenty one pilots Scaled and Icy

(Fueled by Ramen) Rating - 4/10

It's always enjoyable to put the pieces into a puzzle that continues to grow and unfold. A great example of a project that inspires wild theorizing is twenty one pilots, the massively successful duo whose mishmash of pop, rock, hip-hop, and reggae is riddled with so much hidden lore that it makes even the most fervent fan theory of the cult 2000 film Donnie Darko seem tame by comparison. Now, you're free to get swept away by whatever message songwriter Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun are trying to convey in their otherwise innocuous music. Trying to decode cryptic URLs, cleverly thrown in scavenger hunts in their music videos, and connect the dots-type numerology is all in good fun.

Despite their thoughtful approach to album concepts, I won't get into any specifics since it's essentially a clever marketing tactic to mythologize two dudes who make music in Ohio. But credit where it's due: their 2018 album Trench tackled themes like depression, the changing nature of celebrity, and mental health with sincerity and focus. It was a fine body of work that made even the testiest music snob pay attention. For once, the duo was attracting attention for their songwriting merits—who had previously evoked as much cocky ambivalence as they did joyful escapism with their radio-friendly pop.

Again, you can fall into the trap of reading too much about a recurring character they dreamt up called Clancy from reading the title of their sixth album Scaled and Icy (invert those words, and they also mean “Clancy is Dead.”) Spooky stuff. But really, Twenty One Pilots must've killed Clancy for the simple reason of wanting to give themselves a break. Short and crisp, the 11 songs on here serve up simple, pastel-colored pop hooks that will not distract you into succumbing to some brain-twisting narrative even once.

Though their delivery has scaled back, twenty one pilots continue to mix their usual pop sheen with more mature insight. The album begins with the plinking piano ballad Good Day, on which Joseph turns an ELO-like composition into a joyful show tune—even if behind the merry composure, he imagines what his life would be without his wife and daughter. It takes guts for Joseph, who recently become a father, to envision such a horrendous fate. Meanwhile, he faces his anxieties head-on Choker and Saturday—whether his insecurities stop him dead on his tracks or hopes his wife sticks by him. Even so, Joseph's readiness to resort to empty, universal platitudes on each lessen their impact.

Musically, Joseph and Dun work in a more pared-down approach—presumably due to working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, that doesn't stop Joseph from trying to attempt Coldplay levels of ambition on the Fix You-like Choker, while on Saturday and Shy Away, they turn to bouncy teen-pop and a bargain bin copy of Phoenix with a slick synth-pop sheen, respectively. On the awkward Mulberry Street, Joseph gets into MC mode as he rouses you to “keep your bliss/there's nothing wrong with this” over a strutting piano line that recalls Hall & Oates' Private Eyes. Their erratic, haphazard approach to try out many sounds and see which one sticks is expected, but hadn't they already worked on streamlining their genre-blurring excursions with more finesse as they did on Trench?

Given how much effort twenty one pilots give into their presentation, it's genuinely surprising how uninteresting Scaled and Icy sounds on the surface. True, the duo's specialty is to write pop songs with mass appeal takes precedent at all costs. But given the duo's little flashes of creativity—from the Britpop verses of Formidable to the visceral groove of The Outside—they're capable of making even the trickiest arrangements go down easy. But behind the sunny disposition, Joseph's intent to go from heart-tugging ballads to vacuous ear candy makes this whole experience sound a little tone-deaf by design. And really, no amount of myth-busting will uncover some profound truth when the music itself sounds so limiting and faceless.