Album Review: Twenty One Pilots – ‘Scaled and Icy’

The latest album from Ohio emo duplet Twenty One Pilots, Scaled and Icy sees them embracing a sunnier sound – Gemma Cockrell asks whether it’s worth sticking around to decipher all their secret messages?

On Scaled and Icy, Twenty One Pilots return with their genre-bending blend of rock, rap, and pop, but with considerably more upbeat lyrics in comparison to their previous releases. The album’s title is a shortened version of “scaled back and isolated,” a nod to quarantine but also an anagram of Clancy Is Dead, a reference to the protagonist from their previous album Trench. For a listener who is fully immersed in the plotlines behind Twenty One Pilots’ albums, this may be important and crucial information, but for casual fans, this may mean very little at all. However, Scaled and Icy is an album that can be enjoyed regardless of the listeners’ knowledge of the complex and intricate backstory behind the music.

Lead single Shy Away marked Twenty One Pilots’ first step into pastures new. It features much more uplifting lyrics than typically heard from the duo, written by compiling advice on creating music that Joseph gave to his younger brother. These lyrics are accompanied by a larger-than-life instrumental of layered rhythmic guitars, sounding much more like the product of a full band rather than only two musicians, representing a step forward for Twenty One Pilots in terms of their sound. Saturday, which was also released in advance of the album as a single, takes a similar approach to Shy Away with an expansive and upbeat sound. It incorporates pop and dance influences to craft a song that is destined for mainstream radio play. Once you dive into the lyrics, you will realise that they are about disorientation during lockdown, but on the surface, they seem slightly vapid, basic, and uncreative in comparison to what fans have come to expect from the duo. Regardless, the song exudes such a positive and joyous energy that it is impossible not to enjoy.

‘Aside from its moments of reflection, Scaled and Icy captures a matured and overall happier version of Twenty One Pilots.’

Album opener Good Day marks a similar shift in stylistic direction for Twenty One Pilots. Where on previous albums, they have opened with huge explosions of sound, Good Day nurtures a simple piano riff reminiscent of Elton John before building up in layers and complexity as the song progresses. Another piano-driven track is Mulberry Street, which features perhaps some of the most complex and analysis-worthy lyrics on the entirety of Scaled and Icy. The specific usage of the word “bliss” in the lyric “Keep your bliss / There’s nothing wrong with this” may refer to the Dr. Seuss book ‘And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street’, where Mulberry Street runs into Bliss Street. The song captures Joseph’s feelings when he visited New York, where the real-life Mulberry Street is located. A fitting musical comparison here is the bright piano sounds of Billy Joel, who coincidentally also released a track inspired by the same street titled Big Man on Mulberry Street in 1986.

There are moments here where Twenty One Pilots look to their past instead of moving forward. Choker features a rap verse that is reminiscent of their 2009 self-titled album, whilst album closer Redecorate also features rap verses that detail the heart-wrenching thoughts that go through people’s heads in the moments before they die. It is by far the most moving track on Scaled and Icy, as well as serving as the moment which is most reminiscent of the duo’s early and more emotional roots. No Chances also harks back to the duo’s past, but it doesn’t delve as far back as Choker and Redecorate. Instead, it has similarities to the darker and more complex sounds of Trench. It also lyrically serves as a continuation of Trench’s rich storyline, but even when the song is isolated from the underlying narrative it is still a highlight of Scaled and Icy, with chanted gang vocals courtesy of assistance from Joseph’s brother and his friends.

Regardless of these moments of reflection, Scaled and Icy is an album that captures a matured and overall happier version of Twenty One Pilots. They may not be in the same mindset as they were when they wrote the 2015 chart-topping Stressed Out, but that isn’t an entirely bad thing. Scaled and Icy marks a natural progression as the duo reach new stages of their lives as they grow up. The lyrics may not be quite as deep or complex as they were on the duo’s early releases, but it is rewarding to see Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun emerge from the darkness in a happier place in 2021.

Written by: Gemma Cockrell

Edited by: Olivia Stock

Featured image courtesy of Renegade Music.