EML’s Favorite Albums – twenty one pilots: “Blurryface”

Blurryface is my favorite album of the past 10 years, and twenty one pilots is my current favorite band. I love them, and their music brings out the 25-year-old still lurking inside my decrepit old body. I saw them in concert in St. Louis with my sister in August 2016, and the two of us were quite literally the oldest people there who were not chaperoning their children or grandchildren!

Formed in 2009 and based in their hometown of Columbus, Ohio, twenty one pilots consists of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun (who joined the band in 2011 after two of the previous founding members left). Incorporating a ridiculously eclectic mix of genres – including hip hop, rap, alternative rock, pop, reggae, ska, psychedelia, electronica, new wave, folk and funk – and employing a vast array of instruments and synth sounds too numerous to mention, they create music that’s complex, innovative, exciting and totally original. With their unique sound, not to mention Joseph’s distinctively quirky vocals, they sound like no other act, and their music is immediately recognizable.

Released in May 2015, Blurryface was the band’s fourth studio album. Although they’d been putting out music since 2009, it wasn’t until April 2015 that I learned of them, when I first heard their single “Tear in My Heart”. It was love at first listen, and I quickly became a huge fan. I downloaded Blurryface on iTunes as soon as it was released, and also binged on their back catalog of music, especially their brilliant 2013 album Vessel. I burned Blurryface onto a CD, put it into my car stereo, and played it every time I went anywhere for months, turning many friends onto it as well.

The album is named after a fictional character called Blurryface, who Joseph said “represents all the things that I as an individual, but also everyone around, are insecure about”, namely, our doubts, fears and self-loathing. Joseph wore black paint on his hands and neck during their live shows and music videos for the album, almost apologizing: “Very dramatic, I know, but it helps me get into that character.” The album is of such high caliber that every one of its 14 tracks could be a hit song, and in fact, in 2018 it became the first album in the digital era to have every track receive a gold certification from the Recording Industry Association of America. It spent 276 consecutive weeks on the Billboard 200 Album chart, peaking at #1. It finally dropped off the chart three weeks ago, but then re-entered the following week, and as I write this, it’s enjoying its 278th week on the chart.

Although I love every song on the album, I’ll discuss my favorites to keep this write-up from becoming tedious. The first is “Tear in my Heart”, the second single released from the album and, as I stated earlier, my introduction to twenty one pilots. It’s a delightful song of love inspired by Joseph’s marriage to his wife Jenna a month earlier. Not only do I adore the song’s exuberant arrangement, arresting stop and start melody, colorful instrumentation, and Joseph’s wonderful plaintive vocals, I also love the endearing lyrics about the contradictory emotions of joy and agony that often come from romantic love: “The songs on the radio are okay. But my taste in music is your face! And it takes a song to come around to show you how. She’s the tear in my heart. I’m alive. She’s the tear in my heart. I’m on fire. She’s the tear in my heart. Take me higher than I’ve ever been!”

The video shows Joseph and Dun performing the song in L.A.’s Chinatown, with the people around him barely paying attention. Eventually, the surrounding buildings begin crumbling as Joseph notices Jenna in a group of people, and follows her down an alley and into a restaurant. She sings to him the opening lyrics of the song: “Sometimes you’ve got to bleed to know, that you’re alive and have a soul“, to which he responds: “but it takes someone to come around to show you how“, whereupon she starts beating him until he’s bleeding. The video ends with them kissing.

The pinnacle track on the album is “Stressed Out”, which is my favorite of all their songs, and now ranks among my favorite songs of all time. It’s a catchy and brilliant song with a relatively simple alternative rap-rock melody. The lyrics speak of facing the burdens and responsibility of adulthood, while longing for the simplicity and safety of one’s childhood: “Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days. When our mama sang us to sleep, but now we’re stressed out.” The song also references the album’s title and Joseph’s alter-ego Blurryface, expressed in the lyric “My name’s Blurryface, and I care what you think.” I especially love the strong drumbeats, spacey synths and contemplative piano keys. The song was a massive hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot Rock Songs, Mainstream Top 40, Adult Top 40 and Alternative charts, where it spent 12 weeks on top. The delightful video, which has been streamed more than 2.1 billion times, portrays Joseph and Dun as both children at play and young adults grappling with the onset of adulthood, their parents and siblings looking on in bemused disapproval.

“Ride” was the fifth album cut to be released as a single, and was also a big chart hit. It’s a deliriously upbeat alternative hip hop song with a strong reggae undercurrent, and I love Joseph’s extraordinary vocals that go from earnest to rapping to falsetto to impassioned wails. He’s a really talented rapper, with an ability to deliver lyrics in a hard, staccato style of fast-paced rapping that only a handful of artists like Eminem are good at. The lyrics speak to uncertainties and anxieties over the meaning of life, with references to thinking about death, which Joseph raps about at high speed: “‘I’d die for you,’ that’s easy to say / We have a list of people that we would take a bullet for them, a bullet for you, a bullet for everybody in this room / But I don’t seem to see many bullets comin’ through / See many bullets comin’ through / Metaphorically, I’m the man / But literally, I don’t know what I’d do / ‘I’d live for you,’ an’ that’s hard to do / Even harder to say when you know it’s not true.” At the end, he concludes “I’ve been thinking too much, help me.” Dun’s power drumming is amazing, and the organ is a nice touch as well.

“Tear in My Heart”, “Stressed Out” and “Ride” all rank in the top 20 of my 100 Best Songs of the 2010s.

The guys show their darker, edgier side on album opener “Heavydirtysoul” which was the sixth and final single released from Blurryface. A melodically complex song with harsh industrial synths, crushing drumbeats and Joseph’s frantic rapping, several critics named it the best track on the album. They typically opened their sets with this song for their tours promoting Blurryface.

“Lane Boy” is a perfect example of how they blend together an unorthodox mix of music styles like dubstep, hip hop, jungle, ska, EDM and rock to achieve a thoroughly original and melodically surprising sound. And Joseph’s rapping on this track is particularly mind-blowing. The song challenges the idea that artists should stay in a ‘lane’ or be defined by a particular style, sound or genre, and not stray or vary from that expected formula for fear they’ll alienate fans or confound music critics: “They say, ‘stay in your lane boy, lane boy,’ but we go where we want to / They think this thing is a highway, highway, but will they be alive tomorrow?

Another favorite is the beautiful track “Hometown”, which shows that the band is equally skilled at producing a more conventional EDM-styled song. I’m a big fan of this kind of electronic dance music, and the lush sweeping synths and driving beats are cinematic and glorious. The lyrics seem to address questions of faith, self-identity and depression: “Where we’re from, there’s no sun / Our hometown’s in the dark / Where we’re from, we’re no one / Our hometown’s in the dark.”

Album closer “Goner” is a melancholy song about defeating the darkness and fears represented by Blurryface once and for all. The track starts off with a gentle piano melody as Joseph plaintively sings “I’m a goner, somebody catch my breath / I wanna be known by you.” The music gradually builds with added percussion as he pleads “I’ve got two faces, Blurry’s the one I’m not / I need your help to take him out.” At the three-minute mark, the song erupts with explosive percussion and screaming synths as Joseph passionately wails “Don’t let me be / I’m a goner, somebody catch my breath!“, abruptly calming down at the very end and leaving us spent.

Twenty one pilots would go on to release an equally outstanding follow-up album Trench in 2018. A concept album about the saga of the fictional evil city of Dema ruled by nine bishops, Trench was produced by Paul Meany, front man of alternative rock band MUTEMATH (who opened for twenty one pilots on their Emotional Roadshow Tour), and reflected a somewhat more mature and even more complex sound for twenty one pilots. Nevertheless, Blurryface remains my favorite of their albums.

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