Listening to Blurryface, the fourth album from the Ohio duo consisting of Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun, I couldn’t help but ask the question, What is this? Is it pop? Rap? Alternative? Dubstep? Reggae? Christian?
Twenty One Pilots is, in fact, all of those things, yet somehow not quite any of them while managing to be more than just anything. In fact, this creative group so defies neat categorization that fans have coined a new genre label for bands like it: schizophrenic pop. That mental health-derived moniker is appropriate on another level, too, because frontman Tyler Joseph spends a lot of time spelunking through the subterranean recesses of his soul.
You might have noticed that the last descriptor I mentioned above is Christian. And while Twenty One Pilots certainly isn’t a CCM band in any traditional sense, you don’t have to listen long before you begin to notice that Joseph’s often prayer-like responses to his soul-weary struggles is definitely shaped by his faith.
On “Goner,” mortal terror grips the singer (“I’m a goner/Somebody catch my breath”), and he references a struggle between two different parts of his identity (“I’ve got two faces, blurry’s the one I’m not”). That leads to these desperate, prayer-like pleas: “I wanna be known by you/ … Don’t let me be gone.”
“Heavydirtysoul” longs for salvation: “Can you save/Can you save my heavy dirty soul?” Joseph says of his thought life, “There’s an infestation in my mind’s imagination/ … It’s just right now I got a really crazy mind to clean.” Lyrics elsewhere take to task the catchphrase “YOLO” (popularized by rapper Drake): “If I didn’t know better, I guess you’re all already dead/Mindless zombies walking around with a limp and a hunch/Saying stuff like, ‘You only live once.’”
“Doubt” unpacks another suitcase full of fears with, “Scared of my own image/Scared of my own immaturity/Scared of my own ceiling/Scared I’ll die of uncertainty/Fear might be the death of me/Fear leads to anxiety.” Joseph responds to those doubts and fears by praying, “Don’t forget about me/I’m no good without you, no, no/ … Hope you haven’t left without me, please.”
“Fairly Local” alludes to the internal spiritual struggle the Apostle Paul writes about in Romans 7: “I’m evil to the core/What I shouldn’t do, I will/ … Is that truly who I am?/ … I’m not evil to the core/What I shouldn’t do, I will fight/ … I know who I truly am.” Joseph also believes that when we know our true identity, we’re not doomed to repeat yesterday’s mistakes (“I truly do have a chance/Tomorrow I’ll switch the beat/To avoid yesterday’s dance”). On “Polarize,” He longs for moral and spiritual strength (“I wanted to be a better brother, better son/Wanted to be a better adversary to the evil I have done”), but admits he doesn’t know how to become a “saintly” person (“I think I’ve lost my halo/I don’t know where you are/You’ll have to come and find me”).
“Ride” honestly deconstructs the ideal that we’d all be willing to die for someone. Joseph sings, “’I’d die for you,’ that’s easy to say/ … But I don’t seem to see many bullets coming through/ … Metaphorically, I’m the man/But literally, I don’t know what I’d do/ … All these questions, they’re forming, like/Who would you live for?/Who would you die for?/And would you ever kill?” He then admits the questions feel overwhelming (“I’ve been thinking too much”) and says to someone (God?), “Help me!” “Lane Boy” revisits the question, “Who would you live and die for on that list?”
Sounding a bit like Eminem, Joseph confesses on “The Judge,” “I hide behind my mouth/I’m a pro at imperfections/And I’m best friends with my doubts.” Lyrics then properly put distance between the singer and hell (“I know my soul’s freezing/Hell’s hot for a reason/So please, take me”), and contrast judgment and freedom (“You’re the judge, oh no/Set me free”). “Message Man” grapples still more with guilt, including ruminations on a “suicidal session.” But the song turns a hopeful corner, repudiating that dark temptation by saying, “It/Gets better when morning finally rears its head/Together, we’ll lose this, remember the future/Remember that morning is when night is dead.” In the same territory, “Heavydirtysoul” talks of fleeing suicide: “Death inspires me like a dog inspires a rabbit.”
More internal strife fills “Hometown” and “Not Today,” both of which articulate a desire to triumph over darkness and doubt. Then, on the other side of things, “Tear in My Heart” describes a love so big that it bursts the heart’s bounds. “We Don’t Believe What’s on TV” implies that love has renewed a man’s sense of purpose.
None, unless one takes too literally the lines on “Tear in My Heart” which evocatively compare a woman’s influence to that of a butcher (“She’s the tear in my heart/She’s a carver/She’s a butcher with a smile/Cut me farther than I’ve ever been”).
Blurryface is a subversive album—but not in the way you might think.
One way to think of subversive is to accomplish a purpose that others aren’t aware of. In this case, the subversion comes from the fact that while Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun clearly articulate feelings of brokenness and disillusionment, their response—entrusting that brokenness to hope and faith and God Himself—is less obvious but still very much there.
It’s a tack that works at eroding the usual messages found in this kind of “edgy” music. And maybe it’s not so surprising when you consider Joseph’s and Dun’s involvement with Ohio’s Five14 Church, and that they wrote in the liner notes of their third album, Vessel, “Thank God for sending His Son and being a part of this even before we were.”
There are myriad anxieties swirling in shadowy recesses on Blurryface. But the band’s consistent response to them is to cry out for salvation and redemption. So in Twenty One Pilots’ own unique, hyper-hip, musically Ping-Pong-ing way, these songs are not that far removed from the poetry King David penned in his psalms—plaintive pleas for deliverance and strength and courage, even amid terrible fears and foes.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.