As a general rule, we usually don’t review albums that came out four years ago. Then again, albums released four years ago usually aren’t still in the Top 40, either. Twenty One Pilots’ 2013 effort, Vessel, defies both of those general rules.
Over the last couple of years, the two guys who comprise Twenty One Pilots—Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun—have steadily climbed from obscurity in Ohio to the summit of the alt-pop mountain. Not only is the band’s latest effort, Blurryface, still parked in the Top 10 after 86 weeks on the chart, Vessel keeps sailing along, too. As of this writing, it’s notched 125 weeks on the Billboard 200.
So we decided to go back and review it. And I’m glad we did, because these 12 tracks—which go from sounding more than a little like Eminem one moment to being reminiscent of My Chemical Romance or even Owl City the next—are packed with psychological and spiritual insights … amid some deep emotional struggles.
“Holding onto You” is almost certainly about God: “You are surrounding all my surroundings/ … And I’ll be holding onto you.” The song finds the guys saying no to their fleshly impulses in an echo of 1 Corinthians 9:27 (“I’m taking over my body/ … And it seems a lot like flesh is all I got/Not anymore, flesh, out the door/Swat”) as well as controlling their thoughts, a parallel allusion to 2 Corinthians 10:5 (“Tie a noose around your mind/Loose enough to breathe, fine, and tie it/To a tree. Tell it, ‘You belong to me/This ain’t a noose, this is a leash/And I have news for you: You must obey me'”).
“Ode to Sleep” finds the band wondering why things are so much easier in the daytime. There’s a nighttime battle with devilishly accusatory voices (“I swear I heard demons yelling”). But there’s also determination not to give in. “I’ll stay awake,” we hear, “‘Cause the dark’s not taking prisoners tonight.” Elsewhere, the song talks about an ongoing need for forgiveness, using lyrics that allude to Peter’s three denials of Christ: “I’m not free, I asked forgiveness three times/Same amount that I denied, I three-time MVPed this crime.” The lyrically dense track also talks of our tendency to deny our need for grace: “The start of the day when we put on our face/A mask that portrays that we don’t need grace.” Similar themes of overcoming internal darkness fill “Semi-Automatic,” with the band declaring, “I will rise and stand my ground/Waiting for the night’s return.”
That internal battle continues on “Migraine.” We hear a stark reference to suicidal thoughts (“Sundays are always my suicide days/I don’t know why they always seem so dismal”), but that admission is followed by multiple lines that describe holding on to perseverance and hope: “Shadows will scream that I’m alone/But I know we’ve made it this far, kid/ … Life has a hopeful undertone.”
“Car Radio” says a guy’s stolen car radio has resulted in silence that forces him to ponder his life: “Now I just sit in silence/Sometimes quiet is violent/… I hate this car I’m driving/There’s no hiding for me/I’m forced to deal with what I feel/There is no distraction to mask what is real.” Later, the song affirms, “Peace will win/And fear will lose/There’s faith and there’s sleep/We need to pick one, please, because/Faith is to be awake/And to be awake is for us to think/And for us to think is to be alive.”
“House of Gold” finds a son longing to care for his widowed mother in her old age. “Screen” poignantly talks of how hard it is to tell people the truth about ourselves, even those to whom we’re supposedly the closest. Twenty One Pilots revisits those themes again in “Fake You Out.” That track, and “Guns for Hands,” both reference suicidal temptations as well. But the latter rightly says part of the solution for such isolating, damaging thoughts is to seek out community (“Together, let’s breathe/ … Let’s all go outside and join hands”).
Album closer “Truce” begins, “Now the night is coming to an end/ … The sun will rise, and we will try again.” The song admits the eventual reality of death, but also warns that death isn’t something to be pursued or embraced prematurely (“Stay alive, stay alive for me/You will die, but now your life is free”).
References to suicide are never glorified or romanticized; that grievous decision is consistently rejected and resisted. Still, it’s possible that the band’s lyrics about this serious subject could be taken out of context and heard incorrectly as a suggestive nod to that choice.
“Ode to Sleep” includes the self-recriminating line, “Metaphorically, I’m a whore, and that’s denial number of four.” More desperate struggles fill “The Run and Go,” where a young man confesses to his father, “Pa, I’m not the one you know, you know/I have killed a man and all I know.” I suspect we’re meant to interpret that line metaphorically, but that’s not completely clear.
Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun don’t shy away from confessing some tough things and diving into hard subject matter. It’s clear from start to finish that one (or perhaps both) of these young men have battled mightily with depression and its seductive handmaiden, suicide.
That said, it’s equally (albeit subtly) obvious that their response to those struggles has been shaped by their faith, that their spiritual convictions arm them to do battle with the darkness within. Because of that counterbalancing influence, Twenty One Pilots ultimately delivers a message of honesty, hope and determination to young fans who might be quietly grappling with the same things.
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.