I guess it's a good thing there aren't too many new albums out this week, as my rather pathetic posting schedule is a reflection of my ability to CRAZY OVERTHINK music more than anything else. And I can only overthink so many albums at a time, you know?
First and foremost, for those of you that haven't heard of Twenty One Pilots, let me give you ye olde scoope. Hailing from Ohio, they are a two-man show, with Josh Dun on drums and Tyler Joseph on the other stuff (do they sound just a weense like the last new band I listened to yet, or in other words The Last Royals? because I warn you now: I will be drawing direct comparisons between the two, in the spirit of my true overthinking glory). Their website calls their music a "distinctive fusion of piano-driven schizoid pop and lyrical uplift", which is completely accurate, although it doesn't include the fact that Joseph switches between a more-nasally-than-Eminem rapping style and pretty damn catchy singing on virtually every track. Like The Last Royals, they also engage in philosophical musings rather than biographical information in the "bio" section of their website, although UNLIKE The Last Royals, they present an argument comparing happiness to joy, and promote the idea that "we all have to push through unhappiness to find joy". And, while I don't necessarily agree with their arbitrary reassignment of the meanings of these two words (happiness and joy), that's just nitpicking since I definitely agree with their POINT, which seems to be that personal fulfillment is within each person's grasp. This is also quite different from the thrust of the philosophy I found on The Last Royals' page, which seems to suggest that humans are at the mercy of their fate, rather than in control of their emotions, if not their external environment. Did I mention that I may have overthought this album?
Philosophical concerns aside (for now, they'll come back, I promise), let's talk about the music. As if to hammer home their "schizoid" label, the band begins first track "Ode To Sleep" with an industrially-tinged electronic interlude, then cuts to Joseph's clever rapping. At 1:10, they abruptly switch to singing and a much poppier tune, which next segues into a drawn-out, ramped-up, drum-churning bit that would be the chorus of any other song, except in this track it serves as a bridge to more rapping. I will admit that the track confused me on my first listen - so much going on! so many different styles! - but then I found an interview on Under The Gun Review where Tyler explains that they like to open with this track during live shows, in part to "smack [people] in the face with something", and it all made sense. I'm not certain if this song is the most "schizoid" on the album or not, but it certainly sets the scene, letting the listener know that the album is texturally varied and aurally unpredictable. And it does it well enough that none of the other transitions on the record seem odd or out-of-place compared to the first track, and in fact leave the listener with an amazingly cohesive picture by the end. But I'm getting ahead of myself...
Although I could talk about each track on this record individually, let's hit the highlights instead. As a baseline, every song on this album has introspective lyrics which manage to avoid pretension, as well as piano, drums, electronic elements, and Joseph's singular voice (which, I will admit, took me a little getting used to before I was completely sold). They all also have fairly drastic tempo changes, and often juxtapose hard elements with soft, fast with slow, pretty with less-pretty, etc. Of course, they all have differences as well. "Migraine" goes the echoing-Auto-tuned route, and was the first song on the record where I was able to nail the only other band they really remind me of - another badass duo, this time out of England, called Mattafix - and a depressive and absurdly-catchy chorus ("Am I the only one I know/Waging my wars behind my face and above my throat"). "Car Radio" is a somber tune, compared to the others, with an almost '80s-style soft-pop piano beat and my hands-down favorite lyrics, which capture the introspective agony forced by driving without a radio ("I have these thoughts so often/I ought/To replace that slot/With what I once bought/Cause somebody stole/My car radio/And now I just sit in silence"). And then we have a number of more emo-tinged tunes, like "Semi-Automatic", which has a serious electropop beat, accented, of course, by the occasional piano flourish and a frenzied near-screaming segment in the middle ("I'm semi-automatic/My prayer is schizophrenic/But I'll live on, yeah I'll live on"). I'm going to stop there because I don't want to bore the shit out of you by rehashing every track on the record, but I would like to take the opportunity to point out that every single song on this album is damn good nevertheless, whether I mentioned it or not.
So now it's time to get back to the philosophy. My inarticulated emotional response to the new album by The Last Royals was a disappointment that their engagement with the subjects of their songs was so hands-off. They pride themselves in painting tragic city-life vignettes with poppy beats, but I never felt as if they put their own emotional vulnerability on the line. Twenty One Pilots does pretty much the opposite, facing their own neuroses in each of their songs in a way I can only compare to the Cat Power album I listened to last fall, except both better-articulated and totally musically different. And that makes their stuff inherently more powerful - not only is it different, interesting, and engaging, but it's also IMPORTANT. It is, dare I say it, art. And if you're looking for some extra icing on that cake, it's also available to stream free on their website.
Oh, and FINALLY - if you need me to spell it out more explicitly - this album is really fucking good.