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Album Review

What do we do with depression and suicidal thoughts? How do we hold on to faith and hope when all seems dark? These questions drive the creative efforts of the Ohio duo of Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun, aka Twenty One Pilots, on their fifth effort, Trench.

The band's work is deeply autobiographical, as Joseph has talked at length about his struggles with depression. But the band's work is also deeply metaphorical. And these questions, these struggles are framed within an extraordinarily detailed narrative structure over several albums that continues to evolve, one with recurring characters, concepts and conflicts. Lyrics are packed with allusions and references to characters and a detail-drenched backstory.

In her Billboard article "Twenty One Pilots' Trench: Decoding the New Album's Hidden Meanings," Paige Williams writes, "With the arrival of their fifth album Trench, much of their fervent fan base—aka, the Skelton Clique—expected the story to continue unfolding with the introduction of more characters and events. However, the album isn’t as straightforward as this. The narrative has unraveled somewhat; it’s more like a series of fables explaining what life is like inside the band's alternate universe."

Much of the lyrical content on Trench does indeed feel as if you need a secret decoder ring to properly interpret and understand. That said, Joseph and Dun still give us plenty to grapple with regarding their ongoing struggle between the desire to hold onto life and the temptation to slip into the abyss of despair.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Album opener "Jumpsuit" expresses anxiety ("I crumble underneath the weight/Pressures of a new place roll my way") and issue an almost prayerlike plea for protection ("Oh, jumpsuit, jumpsuit, cover me"). We also hear this promise: "If you need anyone/I'll be right there."

That tension—between anxiety and hope—emerges repeatedly here. "Levitate" soars ("Oh, I know how to levitate up off my feet") and struggles to keep fears and, perhaps, suicidal thoughts locked way ("Please, keep me from; please, keep me down from ledges/ … Keep your wooden wedges under doors"). We also hear commentary about culture's ravenous, exploitative appetite ("This culture is a poacher of overexposure, not today/Don't feed me to the vultures"), as well as confessions about having a divided mind and heart ("My heart is with you hiding, but my mind's not made").

"Morph" tries to come to terms with the reality of death: "Can't stop thinking about if and when I'll die/For now I see that 'if' and 'when' are truly different cries." Still, the band recognizes that death must be reckoned with: "We're surrounded and we're hounded/There's no 'above,' or 'under' or 'around' it." We also hear about the temptation to change to please others ("I'll morph to someone else/Defense mechanism mode") as well as a call to courage ("What are we hear for/If not to run straight through all our tormentors?").

"My Blood" emphasizes solidarity ("Stay with me, no, you don't need to run") and faithful friendship ("When everyone you thought you knew/Deserts your fight, I'll go with you"). That loyalty even extends, it would seem, to willingly dying to save another: "If you find yourself in the lion's den/I'll jump right in and pull my pin/And go with you" (although these lines could, admittedly, be heard negatively as well). "Smithereens" unpacks similar thoughts: "For you, I'd go/Step to a dude much bigger than me/ … For you/I would get beat to smithereens."

"Neon Gravestones" seems to critique a culture that praises celebrities who've died because of their self-destructive lifestyles: "We give them the highest of praise, and hang their banner from the ceiling/Communicating, further engraving/An earlier grave is an optional way/No." The band also reminds us that we need to pay attention to the lonely and forgotten, not just the famous: "They say, 'How could he go if he's got everything?'/I'll mourn for a kid, but I won't cry for a king."

Things get personal when the band talks about the temptation of suicide themselves: "Neon gravestones try to call for my bones/But they won't get them/No they won't get them." The song also cautions against using suicide (or perhaps violence against others) to get attention ("And could it be true that some could be tempted/To use this mistake as a form of aggression?/ … A form of a weapon?/Thinking, 'I'll teach them'/Well, I'm refusing the lesson.") The specter of taking one's life appears to turn up again in "Nico and the Niners," with the band again rejecting that idea: "Save your razorblades now, not yet."

Internal battles fill "The Hype," though the band is trying to move in a positive direction ("No, I don't know which way I'm going/But I can hear my way around"). Likewise in "Cut My Lip": "Though I am bruised/Face of contusions/Know I'll keep moving." And there's more of the same in "Leave the City": "For now, I will stay alive."

"Bandito" ponders the tension between taking the high road and the low road. We also hear this philosophical nugget: "But I'm still not sure if fear's a rival or a close relative to the truth." "Pet Cheetah" is a lyrical fever dream that contrasts the paradox between our need for quiet contemplation in a world that moves at warp speed.

Objectionable Content

On the surface, "Chlorine" seems to compare music to a chemical high ("Sippin' on straight chlorine, let the vibe slide over me/This beat is a chemical, beat is a chemical"). As the song progresses, it seems to deal more with an extremely toxic relationship ("I despise you sometimes/I love to hate the fight and you in my life is like/Sippin' on straight chlorine").

Apart from further explanation, some of the band's confessions have a grim feel to them, such as when we hear, "I am a vulture who feeds on pain" ("Levitate"). And some lines about, it would seem, succumbing to suicide sound harsh and unfeeling: "Promise me this/If I lose myself/You won't mourn a day" ("Neon Gravestones").

"Nico and the Niners" includes these ambiguous lines: "I'm so high, I'm so high." The band also ominously admits, "We'll win, but not everyone will get out." Similarly dark ambiguity turns up on "Bandito," where we hear, "I created this world/To feel some control/Destroy if I want."

Summary Advisory

Twenty One Pilots, along with Imagine Dragons, has been one of the biggest musical success stories of the last 10 years or so. And it's probably no coincidence that both bands share some significant similarities. Both blur genre lines between rock, pop, EDM and rap, appealing to a broad base of fans. Both groups plant their flag in the soil of ambiguity and struggle. They admit that life is worth fighting for while simultaneously acknowledging that, at times, the fight seems overwhelming. You won't find any easy answers with Twenty One Pilots. But you will find gritty honesty.

And so it is on Trench. In an interview with musicfeeds.com, Tyler Joseph said that the album is about those uncomfortable, disorienting spaces in life that are neither here nor there: "When you’re travelling inside of Trench it’s similar to really being in between two places, whether that’s in between jobs or in between school or in between seasons of life; something that I think a lot of people can relate to. So, the narrative is really to try to describe some of those emotions that some people could come to feel as they travel through their own journey."

Those in between spaces tend to defy easy categorization. But most of the time on Trench, Twenty One Pilots once again leans toward determination instead of despair, while openly admitting the temptation toward the latter is a very real one.

A postscript: Though Twenty One Pilots has consistently dealt positively and honestly with the issue of suicide, for some, even a positive reference to it could reinforce suicidal ideation. For more information on helping teens deal with this important topic, check out Focus on the Family's new resource Alive to Thrive.

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Director

Distributor

Network

Performance

Debuted at No. 1.

Record Label

Fueled by Ramen

Platform

Publisher

Released

October 5, 2018

On Video

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Adam R. Holz

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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