For some people, the global pandemic and extensive lockdown proved to be both physically and mentally draining. But not for Tyler Joseph, lead singer of the alternative duo Twenty One Pilots: He spent quarantine writing and producing the band’s sixth studio album, Scaled and Icy.
Joseph and his bandmate, drummer Josh Dun, use their musical trademarks—a blending of multiple genres, a mix of Christian and secular themes, and complex lyrics open to interpretation, to name a few—to tackle topics such as mental illness, finding purpose, and dealing with life in isolation. It’s obvious that the album is a product of the quarantine era. In an interview with Hype Magazine, Joseph said of the title, “The words ‘scaled’ and ‘icy’ actually stand for ‘scaled back’ and ‘isolated’, which is kind of how we all found ourselves this past year.”
Despite the seemingly negative implications of the title, Scaled and Icy represents an optimistic shift in the band’s overall tone. Joseph sings about creativity, confidence, and loyalty to those closest to him, while veering away from the pessimism of previous records. Still, while there are many themes here worth appreciating, it can be difficult to find them under the complexity of the lyrics.
Scaled and Icy opens with “Good Day,” in which Joseph imagines what his reaction would be to his world falling apart (“Lost my job, my wife and child/Homie just sued me”). He approaches those events with optimism, believing that despite the pain and suffering, there are still things to appreciate about life (“I know it’s hard to believe me, it’s a good day”).
“Choker” and “Mulberry Street” both deal with Joseph’s struggles with mental illness, a common theme throughout the band’s discography. On the former song, he admits he has trouble being assertive (“I don’t bother anyone/Never make demands”) but resolves to stand up for himself and start to take action (“Alone, I’m gonna change my circumstance/I know I need to move right now”). On “Mulberry Street,” Joseph emphasizes that it’s OK to live life a little differently due to mental illness; he says it does not define his worth (“Keep your bliss/There’s nothing wrong with this, no”).
Joseph also appreciates the people in his life who support him, and he stresses the importance of loyalty to them. “Saturday” contrasts life before the pandemic with life during lockdown (“Life moves slow on the ocean floor/I can’t feel the waves anymore/Did the tide forget to move?”). But the song concludes with a recording of Joseph’s wife encouraging him to pursue his musical inspiration.
Meanwhile, “Formidable” is a tribute to someone whom Joseph respects and admires (“You are formidable to me/’Cause you seem to know it, where you wanna go”); the singer expresses how lucky he is to have this person in his life. On “Shy Away,” Joseph encourages someone (his younger brother, according to an interview with the BBC) to go out and discover his purpose (“Don’t circle the track/Take what you have/and leave your skin on the floor”).
The guys in Twenty One Pilots have never been burdened with the urge to state anything explicitly. Scaled and Icy is no exception. While there are many themes to appreciate here, it can be easy to lose track of them—or to completely misunderstand them—due to the extensive metaphors used in the songs’ lyrics.
In terms of questionable content, there aren’t too many issues to be aware of, except for references to pills and “synthetic highs” on “Mulberry Street.” “Choker” mentions “secondhand smoke.” On “Bounce Man”, a narrative song about helping a friend escape from the law, Joseph encourages running away from the authorities rather than facing consequences for committed crimes (“Yeah, I told you all along/Runnin’ away don’t make you wrong”).
Scaled and Icy is very much an album of its time, with themes any listener can benefit from—but only if you’re willing to put in the work to understand them.
A few objectionable references aside, there’s not much for parents to worry about here, but they should be wary about how their children—particularly younger ones—are interpreting Joseph’s complex and often confusing lyrics.
Lauren Cook is serving as a 2021 summer intern for the Parenting and Youth department at Focus on the Family. She is studying film and screenwriting at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. You can get her talking for hours about anything from Star Wars to her family to how Inception was the best movie of the 2010s. But more than anything, she’s passionate about showing how every form of art in some way reflects the Gospel. Coffee is a close second.