At some point you just have to acknowledge true artists and musical geniuses for what they are. Twenty One Pilots have always been ones to break the mold of blurring genre lines by tinkering with emo, pop-punk, rap, and synth-based rock to make a sound that is ultimately unique to them. Their MTV Unplugged performance is another example of what Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun are capable of creating on the fly, as they invited the audience to participate in the creation of these songs. To quote Joseph on his closing line from the show, “We are Twenty One Pilots, and so are you.” By incorporating audience participation into the final recordings from the show, this statement has never been more accurate.
The band started off their set by explaining how they would create basic loops of sounds, tracks, and beats in order to re-imagine these songs for this performance. They were very much plugged in, as they acknowledged, and yet they did the MTV Unplugged legacy justice by showcasing their musical talents over the set of six songs (with some occasional mash-ups of songs together) that ended way too soon. Twenty One Pilots then launched into a new version of “Stressed Out,” that featured some nice vocal harmonies between Joseph and Dun, and found Josh Dun really stepping out of his comfort zone to contribute in this capacity. It really made this recording shine, and sounds incredible in the audio playback.
”Tear In My Heart” starts off with the familiar, yet slowed down piano interlude before launching into a frenetic beat organized by the two musicians to bring the tempo up to its intended pace. The keystrokes on the keyboard from Tyler Joseph are purposeful, poised, and powerful as his vocals shine over the vibrant synths.
The true gem of the set comes in the form of “House of Gold/Lane Boy” where Tyler Joseph records the audience in individual sequences for help in building out the loop. He starts with a kick drum vocal take, then moves to other parts of the drums before taking a swooning “ahh” from the crowd for the intro. It’s pretty cool to watch how Twenty One Pilots were able to build these parts in real-time and it never comes across as clumsy or unauthentic. In fact, by inviting the crowd into their world, the band have created an even stronger connection to their fans by making them feel like they are in the band.
The back half of the set opens with a slowed down version of “Shy Away” that has a very 80’s new wave feel to it over brooding synths and breathy vocals from Joseph. The intricate changes in the mix to the song were very well-received by the audience, and provided a moment for the crowd to reflect on the beauty unfolding before them. “Ride/Nico and the Niners” follows the reflective song by bringing back the upbeat tempo that Twenty One Pilots have cut their teeth to more often than not. The vocal loops in the bridge are especially powerful as it provides a template for the Joseph to rap over so majestically.
Closing out the crowd-pleasing set with “Car Radio/Heathens” was a nice way of paying homage to their past material at the cusp of their popularity, and then moving to the soundtrack song at their arguable height of their fame, showcases the band’s awareness of their career path. Their ability to pull off the mash-up was no small feat, even if they made it look effortless. I can only imagine how many test runs the band may have gone through on this set in order to make it sound as close as it does on the final product here. MTV Unplugged sets are usually incredibly nerve-wracking for the band due to the pressure of living up to the series’ legacy, but Twenty One Pilots have not only lived up to high mark, but instead surpassed the limitless possibilities of where they and future artists can use this platform to showcase their unique talents that make them who they are.