By Olufunke Ogunmefun, June 8, 2021—
The new Twenty One Pilots album Scaled And Icy was released on May 21 and provided an epic conclusion to what had been six weeks of undiluted excitement and anticipation for the band’s worldwide fandom.
A play on the lyrics “scaled back and isolated,” the duo’s sixth studio album was announced back in early April, along with a “live stream experience” — a worldwide virtual concert that would bring Twenty One Pilots fans together for the first time in over a year. This announcement, as well as the cryptic clues and hints that are by now characteristic of the genre-bending band, sent fans into a collective frenzy as the hype built up. The album was released hours before the live virtual concert was streamed via the band’s website, so fans were able to get a feel for the sounds that accompanied this new era before watching the performances. Below is a review of all 11 tracks on Scaled And Icy.
- “Good Day”
The album opens with a funky instrumental chock-full of vibrant piano and synth chords that are reminiscent of 60s pop music, layered with a few seconds of ambient bird chirps. It is immediately very upbeat and optimistic and does a spectacular job of masking the meaning behind it. In an interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe, Lead Singer Tyler Joseph says the song “is about getting to a place where […] if I were to lose everything, if I lost my wife and my kid, how would I in the first week react to that.” His tendency to be overly positive in reaction to a terrible event fuels this song, producing the infectious optimism that it is laced with. This is best demonstrated in the lyrics “Low-key, I’m alright / Would you say you depend on the weather / My sunshine is a buzz and a light, I’ll be singing out / I know it’s hard to believe me/ It’s a good day.”
“Good Day” is an opening unlike any that we have heard on previous albums such as 2018’s Trench, 2015’s wildly-successful Blurryface and 2013’s Vessel. It abandons the ominous rumble that can be heard on previous album openers like “Jumpsuit” and “Ode to Sleep” in favour of a warmer and more welcoming tone. Overall, as Joseph explains in the interview, the aim with this opening track was to convey the idea of wanting to “walk out on stage, turn the lights on and smile,” and I think Twenty One Pilots is able to do just that from the start of “Good Day” to the very end.
Following the poppy opening track with a fairly marked contrast is “Choker,” the second single released from the album on April 29. The track begins with a fast-paced drum beat, a feature that fans have come to know and love from drummer Josh Dun. As the song begins, Joseph lets us into an internal struggle that he has with himself and his relationships with others, evident in “I know it’s over / I was born a choker / Nobody’s coming for me,” which also comes with an air of despair. As the song progresses, we hear a more determined sentiment with both the production and vocals in “I see no volunteers to co-sign on my fears / I’ll sign on the line / Alone / I’m gonna change my circumstance / I know I need to move right now.”
The airy piano notes are dialled back for a few seconds, letting Joseph’s vocals shine before giving way to a grand chorus and rap verse to close out the song. “Choker” is both an emotionally raw and courageous message to the listener about the struggle that many have with anxiety and doubt. These struggles are far from unique, and the risk of attempting to take ownership of one’s life in spite of it might be well worth it, because “the day goes on / the sun moves behind you / You get taller, bolder, stronger and the rear-view only blinds you.”
- “Shy Away”
“Shy Away” was the first song that Twenty One Pilots released off Scaled And Icy and, perhaps more importantly, was the first Twenty One Pilots song of 2021. Prior to the song’s release, fans had last heard “Christmas Saves The Year” in December, which was a quarantine-inspired holiday single in a similar vein as the alt-rock bop “Level Of Concern” that the band released earlier in the year. “Shy Away” was the energetic alt-rock anthem that introduced listeners to the Scaled and Icy era and was both familiar and excitingly fresh to long-time fans. It starts off with an enthusiastic synth-pop tone with Dun going heavy on the drums, and launches into a wonderfully rich chorus full of fun and yet a sense of urgency — “Don’t you shy away / Manifest a ceiling when you shy away / Searching for that feeling just like an ‘I Love You’ / That isn’t words / Like a song he wrote that’s never heard.”
The song is peppered with several aspects of the Twenty One Pilots catalogue — from the poppy synthesizer choices and the heavy, energetic drum beats to Joseph’s beautiful falsetto and the more recent addition of the electric guitar, which Joseph taught himself to play over the past year. It was a refreshing beginning to a new era of music for Twenty One Pilots fans and serves as a way to keep the ebb and flow of the album consistent, coming off of the previous song which is a little more sombre, both sonically and lyrically. While the song is very fun to listen and dance along to, its message is powerful — “Shed your modesty / Don’t circle the track / Just break the cycle in half / and leave your skin on the floor.”
On how the song came about, Joseph told Apple Music, “My brother said, ‘Hey, I just want you to show me, from the beginning, how you start a record. How do you start writing a song?’ So I had him over at the studio […] Most of my songs are very inward, but this is one of the few that I feel like the message is outward, coming from me. The only thing harder than figuring out what your purpose and identity is, is watching someone that you love trying to figure out theirs.”
- “The Outside”
The fourth track on Scaled And Icy, “The Outside” is a funky, synth and bass guitar-infused song, full of Joseph’s characteristic charismatic delivery and lyricism that is seen especially on Trench tracks such as “Levitate”, “My Blood” and “Morph.” The track is perfect for summer playlists as the lyrics and the playful, relaxed production indicate — “I’m on the outside in the summer heat / You can pay the cover charge, I’m in the street / Little did they know that they can’t touch me / I’m vibing, vibing.”
While the lyrics can sometimes come across as lacking the depth that Twenty One Pilots fans have come to love and expect, Joseph’s effortless vocals and the very creative production decisions heard all over the track make “The Outside” a song perfect for emerging out of the bleakness of the past year into what will hopefully be a relatively normal and refreshing summer.
“Saturday” was the third and final single released before the album — and it is easy to see why — it’s a pop song that is perfect for parties and radio play, especially in the summer. “Saturday” is a thankfully positive reflection of the tumultuous year that people the world over have experienced due to the pandemic and an opportunity to approach the future with some cheer and lightheartedness. The joy seeping through this song is absolutely infectious — for those who are not bothered by the amount of character it lacks in comparison to other songs on the album and to past Twenty One Pilots songs.
All in all, it is pretty much faultless as a pop song, especially in the current social climate. I would also be remiss to add that it features a snippet of a phone call between Joseph and his wife Jenna early on in the creation process of the album — a beautiful production decision that puts the icing on the cake.
- “Never Take It”
The sixth track on Scaled And Icy is a subtle nod to the lore surrounding the band’s music, but is completely able to stand on its own as a solid track with a strong message. In the song, Joseph sings about information being “just a currency and nothing more,” warning listeners to “Keep the truth in quotations / Cause they keep lying through their fake teeth” and vocalizes thoughts on the power to control narratives, evident in the lyrics “Why cure disease of confusion / When you’re the treatment facility / How can we seek restitution / When they keep lying through their fake teeth.”
In Trench, the concept album that is the band’s most recent body of work, Twenty One Pilots take us into a world they have created called “Dema,” where common demons such as anxiety, doubt and depression are personified as “Bishops.” Those held captive by these vices are coaxed toward giving in to the struggle and ultimately toward giving up on life altogether. It is a world and idea that the band has used to further promote their overarching philosophy of life being beautiful and worth living, regardless of how painfully difficult and real the struggles with mental health might be — and it is the hidden meaning behind the lyrics of “Never Take It.”
The chorus describes how the Bishops, and essentially the struggles we face in life, are “trying hard to weaponize you and I” and “asking for a second try” from those who are not facing them for the first time and promises that “we’ll never take it.” The inspiring and very clever songwriting, brilliant use of electric guitar and the communal vibe of the song easily make it one of my favourites on the album.
- “Mulberry Street”
With “Mulberry Street,” we are transported back into the sunny, gleeful world that we started off in on “Good Day” by the jolly piano chords that we hear as the song begins. Joseph’s voice appears eagerly with a call to “keep your bliss, there’s nothing wrong with this.” It’s evident from the start that the song is directed in defiance at the aforementioned “Bishops,” the vices and faceless demons faced by all of us that try to weigh us down. It is also a fearless message to the fans that they are not alone in their struggles, but part of a larger community of people just like them who are just trying to get through life — “Keep your pills, save your breath / and don’t ever forget / Get out of our way / We’re moving sideways / Welcome to Mulberry Street.”
“Mulberry Street” is an actual street in New York City. While it isn’t immediately clear why this little New York street plays such a significant role, it could be a reference to the Dr. Seuss book And to think I saw It on Mulberry Street. It is a story that follows a boy named Marco, who imagines a parade of people and vehicles along Mulberry Street on his walk home from school. Joseph sings in the bridge, “When times aren’t the best / and I’m on the edge / I’ll listen for a song in the distance / Mulberry Street, so good to see you.” It’s as if the listener is transported to an idealized world where support is always available — in the form of a parade of people that are there to help you along your journey down Mulberry Street.
The mention of pills and “synthetic highs” that “everyone finds someone to prescribe” to them appears to be a subtle jab at prescription drugs for mental illnesses — and recreational drugs like alcohol or even social media — that many people have come to depend on to numb the pains of life. “Mulberry Street” is a song that has all the makings of the classic Twenty One Pilots creativity — a deeply meaningful message that is likely to require several listens to fully unravel, nestled within an undeniably positive sound.
The blast of nostalgia that “Formidable” immediately presents to me, especially as someone born in the early 2000s, is astounding. It’s familiar but I couldn’t tell you exactly what it sounds like. The influence of 90s alternative music is nonetheless undeniable and the lyrics of the first verse are an attention-grabber — “You are formidable to me / ‘Cause you seem to know it, where you wanna go / Yeah yeah yeah, I’ll follow you.”
It’s evident that this song is more heartfelt and personal than some of the previous tracks. However, what isn’t as clear is who it’s addressed to — Joseph could be singing to his bandmate and best friend, Dun, to his wife Jenna, or to the Clique — the Twenty One Pilots fanbase. Lyrics such as “You should know / I might be cynical towards you / But I just can’t believe that I’m for you / Yeah yeah yeah, I can die with you,” and “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” describe a relationship that is undoubtedly very special to the singer, with the latter supporting the theory that this is a song written to the fans.
Regardless of who the intended recipient is, the steady drum beats on the track, in harmony with the soft vocals of the chorus and the track’s tasteful guitar riffs, work well to create this song’s particularly unique sound.
- “Bounce Man”
Scaled And Icy’s ninth track is probably the most sonically playful of them all — and the one that sinks most perfectly into the illusionary world of glee and wonder that the band has led us through thus far in the album. The track begins with backing vocals on the chorus — “You should bounce, bounce, bounce man / Come to the house man / I’ll let my old lady know / You’ll be in and out, out, out man / Float you a couple bands / Then you head to Mexico” — and immediately the songwriting propels us into the story that is being crafted.
“Bounce Man” tells us about a possible friend of Joseph, or simply someone that he knows relatively well, who is in some sort of — potentially legal — trouble and has to leave the country and start a new life. Before this person leaves, possibly forever, Joseph wants them to swing by the house for one last hurrah — “Before you bounce, bounce, bounce man / Come to the house man / We’ll sing one more song / So long.”
Couple this with Joseph singing “running away don’t make you wrong” in the choruses and it’s clear that “Bounce Man” is likely to be somewhat of a letter to an old friend who will always have a special place in his heart, dressed in adorably juvenile colours.
- “No Chances”
“No Chances” is practically on opposite poles of the previous track. The dark, ominous synthesizer beats that start off the song and the gang vocals provided by Joseph’s brother and some of his friends — Bishops, anyone? — give this track a villainous, yet exciting, feel.
The first verse greets us with a rap style similar to what we heard on “The Outside,” but with a more eerie level of confidence, especially coming after the backing vocals — “We come for you, / No chances.” Joseph raps about having “Feet planted on grip tape / With my shoulders squared, and my back straight / Got a good base and a loose tongue / Notorious in the octagon,” right before the gang vocals come back in, reassuring him that his adversaries are on the way and he has no chances of a successful escape.
The song provides perspective shifts throughout, switching between his perspective and that of his enemies. The production of the song as a whole is a standout on the album because it is able to grab the listener’s attention and hold onto it with a tight grip up until the very end.
The very last track on Scaled And Icy begins with cryptic, distorted words heard in the first five seconds — “There was a wonderful structure to the city that put my cares to rest.” This is very reminiscent of Trench, the last Twenty One Pilots album — a similar intro can be heard on that album’s fifth track, “Chlorine.” The words heard in the “Redecorate” intro, however, have a bit more history to them.
They are from a letter from a recurring character named “Clancy” that is part of the fictional world created by the band, which was made available on the internet from a since-removed website called demaorg.info that housed several clues surrounding the lore of the Trench album. From the very beginning, it is easy to tell that Scaled And Icy ends on a significantly different note than that on which it began.
Joseph told Apple Music, “I had a friend of mine whose son passed away and they would keep his room the same way that he had left it. I remember thinking how crazy powerful a story that is and how it makes me wonder, ‘What will people do with my stuff?’ It can actually bring you back down to earth, make sure that you don’t make any horrible decisions.”
The song tells the story of making a difficult decision but wanting to first rearrange one’s bedroom to ease the emotional burden on those left behind and uses it to pull listeners in for a dark but necessary message, a habitual undertaking for Twenty One Pilots. The chorus is heart-wrenching and raw, baring the emotions of the characters in this solemn story — “I don’t want to go like this / At least let me clean my room / I don’t want to leave like this / ‘Cause the last thing I want to do is / Make my people make decisions, wondering what to do / oh, should they keep it on display / Or redecorate?”
The decision to close out the album with this song is a bold yet unsurprising one for Twenty One Pilots. The lyrics are very heavy, and less subtly masked than other tracks on the album, but fans of the duo are well acquainted with their willingness to talk about the very real issues that people face in the darkest parts of their minds. While Scaled And Icy is the child of a burst of creativity and joy from a scaled-back and isolated year in quarantine, the band has never been one to shy away from difficult topics. Taking the opportunity to connect with fans fearlessly and on a deeper level is one of their most endearing qualities.
Overall, Scaled And Icy is an enigma of an album for one of the world’s most established bands. Conflicting, surprising and thoroughly entertaining, the duo’s sixth studio album is a refreshingly bold comeback to a world that has long been eagerly awaiting their return.
Scaled And Icy is out now on all major streaming platforms.