On the sixth studio album from Twenty One Pilots, the band literally could have gone in any direction that they pleased. Their run of ultra-successful records started with Vessel, exploded with Blurryface, and maintained high interest in Trench. On the latest album, Scaled and Icy, the band conquers complex themes like anxiety and self-doubt while still maintaining an optimistic outlook that things can and will get better. The material found on this album is largely upbeat, even when the weight of the lyrics allow the listener to reconsider everything that they just heard. In many ways, Scaled and Icy is the album that best represents the sound that their label Fueled By Ramen so successful over the past two decades. This album features elements of label alums like fun., Paramore, Fall Out Boy, and the modern glow of the recently signed Meet Me @ the Altar. By packaging so much raw emotion into this album that consistently delivers more than it misses, Twenty One Pilots have made yet another massive record perfect for summer and finding the light at the end of the tunnel out of this pandemic.
The album lifts off on the right foot with the bouncy and piano-laced “Good Day.” The song can immediately put even the biggest curmudgeon in a better mood with its lush musical landscape, upbeat nature, and the subtle sounds of birds chirping, and other signs of better days ahead. The ending of the track features some horns and is eerily reminiscent of the sound fun. went for on their Aim & Ignite album. The lyrical material by frontman Tyler Joseph hits serious issues when he sings on the second verse, “Lost my job, my wife and child /Homie just sued me / Shoot my life in shoot-em-up style / Her favorite movies.” Even when the mood of the lyrics can cast a cloud of doubt over the material, the backing instrumental elements remain consistently uplifting.
The second single released, “Choker,” follows the great opening track with less optimism. Drummer Josh Dun sets the frenetic beat early on in the single, yet Joseph never quite matches the pace as he sings on the opening verse, “I don’t bother anyone / Nervous when I stand / Chokin’ on the circumstance / Only smokin’ secondhand / Cut us open, spread us out / Dry us in the sand / Lay the fibers side by side / And you’ll begin to understand.” The stark contrast between the drum pace and Joseph’s vocal delivery helps enhance the importance of the lyrics for telling their key message of self-doubt. The rapped verse at the end of the track makes sense in this instance, but I actually enjoyed more of the straight forward sung parts of the album rather than the rapping. For a band that made such a name for themselves with their ability to write rap songs over rock elements, they are actually pretty damn good at writing straight forward pop songs too.
”Shy Away” sounded to me like a modern take on Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” with the TOP version relying more on synths and other modern elements to keep the interest high in their band with this lead single. Joseph’s words of, “When you get home / You barely recognize the pictures / They put in a frame / ‘Cause you shed your modesty /Don’t circle the track / Take what you have / And leave your skin on the floor,” are a clever way of describing the inevitable part of growing up and becoming our “true” selves, and sometimes it’s difficult to recognize who we were during the care-free days of being a child.
The songs that rely more on the familiar pattern of pop verses and choruses with a rapped bridge come to light on songs like “The Outside” where Joseph gains further confidence in his cadence and vocal delivery. The song in the middle of the sequencing, “Saturday” keeps the album on the right foot with some great guitar work and upbeat elements. Having recently listened to Foster the People, this song really reminded me of some of the riffs used on the Torches record and TOP have similar success in telling their story through this song. The disco-esque guitar riffs are in the wheelhouse of Daft Punk and the band take full advantage of the groove outlined here.
”Never Take It” closes out the front half of the album with some pulsating synths and keyboards to allow for the band to maintain the same type of bounce that worked on the aforementioned songs. The repeated bridge of, “The summer I watched the tube / I saw enough / Taught myself to play guitar / Tearing it up / And my advice on those two things / That I picked up / You better educate yourself / But never too much,” brings home the important point of taking matters into your own hands if you’re not living the life you sought out for yourself. “Mulberry Street” rocks in a similar fashion, but never really explodes off in the way I was expecting it to.
The real gem on the back half is the song “Formidable” that Joseph sings about finding a relationship that he’s grateful for. When he sings, “Fast-forward thirteen years now / Don’t know what it was but somehow we played it out in reverse / I’m afraid of you now more than I was at first / And I know you just left but can I take you everywhere we’ve ever been? / I wanna see it all, no surprises,” it brings into focus how fragile relationships are in general. It almost sounds as if he’s afraid to fall in completely into this relationship for fear of getting hurt; an instantly relatable concept.
As good as the album is, there are two songs not really up to par in the quality department. “Bounce Man” sounds like a casual B-side rather than being sandwiched in the back end of the sequencing. “No Chances” follows the strange track with some darker tones and brooding chants, and it’s as close as Twenty One Pilots gets to the material found on Trench. The chorus saves the track from falling off the edge, as Joseph sings cautiously, “We got people on the way / We want you home in one piece now / (Run away, run away) / We get bodies every day / We want you home in one piece now,” and speaks to fragility of life.
Album closer “Redecorate” was inspired by Joseph’s friend whose son passed away suddenly, and the parents were left with the tragedy of deciding whether to leave his room the same way, or pack up everything that came from that life lived. On the first verse Joseph explains, “Takin’ inventory of his life / Seein’ snapshots chronologically in line / Something told him he should look around and tidy up / He collected many things but never quite enough / Tried lookin’ at it from a new perspective / Flat on his back but he still heard the directive / Orders from that corner where that shadow always lived / Never asked permission, he just hopes that they forgive.” The heavy tones of the lyrical material is a strange way to close out an album filled with so much hope and uplifting bounce to it.
In many ways, this album seems to be a classic example of different forces pulling against each other and waiting to see which side comes through at the end. The complexity of the material only speaks to the chemistry between Joseph and Dun, and it’s amazing to think that they were rarely in the same room together during this recording process. Scaled and Icy is also an anagram for “Clancy is Dead,” a character they bring into focus through this album’s exploration. In some recent interviews, the band explained the album artwork as a play on the title of being “scaled back and isolated” and thus the blue/icy dragon seemed the most appropriate choice. With so many artists being forced to collaborate virtually due to this past year, this is one instance that showcases just how in-tune these two musicians are with each other.