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Adam R. Holz

Album Review

Twenty One Pilots’ fourth album, Blurryface, was one of the biggest slow-burn hits of 2015. By the end of last year, this eclectic, genre-blurring two-man group (composed of Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun) had gone from under-the-radar cult band to being a band that was on everyone’s radar.

Including, it turns out, the music curators for the forthcoming Warner Bros. antihero flick Suicide Squad, who chose the group’s slightly ominous-sounding track “Heathens” for the movie’s soundtrack.

We liked these two guys’ songwriting on Blurryface quite a lot. Joseph and Dun don’t hide the fact that their perspective is informed by their Christian faith. But they certainly aren’t a typical CCM group, either. That means the group’s moody-but-often-redemptive songs have a chance to connect with fans who might very well be outside the faith fold.

Given the group’s generally positive vibe, I found myself sucking in my breath a bit at the thought of Twenty One Pilots landing on the soundtrack for a film as edgy as Suicide Squad looks as if it might be. And, frankly, a song name using a synonym for unbelievers didn’t boost my confidence level either.

So What Do these ‘Heathens’ Believe?

A heathen, in the most literal sense of that word, is someone outside the mainstream faith of a given group of people. As a general rule, it’s not a very nice thing to call someone.

Not surprisingly, however, Twenty One Pilots puts an interesting spin on it. They suggest that we’re all “heathens” in this song, people who are fragile and broken and in some cases pretty messed up. What these guys seem to be talking about has more to do with their awareness that we’re all fallen individuals living in a fallen world than suggesting some people are believers and some aren’t.

“All my friends are heathens,” Tyler Joseph begins. Because of that reality, those folks are understandably a bit skittish: “Wait for them to ask you who you know/Please don’t make any sudden moves.” Joseph also implies that these are folks who’ve been through a lot of pain. “You don’t know the half of the abuse,” he tells us.

No wonder these people don’t open up to others easily. “We don’t deal with outsiders very well/They say newcomers have a certain smell,” Joseph sings in the second verse. “You have trust issues, not to mention/They say they can smell your intentions.”

Relationship—real relationship—is something that’s earned over time, the band’s telling us. It’s not something that’s granted easily or breezily.

Psychopaths Among Us?

Elsewhere, things take an unsettling turn when Joseph suggests that the people we’re sitting next to may have some dark secrets. “You’ll never know the psychopath sitting next to you/You’ll never know the murderer sitting next to you/ … You’ll never know the freak show sitting next you.”

Is the band literally suggesting that we might be among psychopaths and murderers and not know it? The song doesn’t answer that question definitively. But I suspect Joseph and Dun are speaking metaphorically here, provoking us to consider that shadows lurk in all of our hearts. Accordingly, their message is the same to all of us, no matter how broken (or not) we consider ourselves and others to be: Don’t be too quick to judge people who look or seem radically different.

Meanwhile, this lyric reinforces the idea that Twenty One Pilots is trying to focus on not just our actions, but what happens in our hearts and minds: “Just because we check the guns at the door/Doesn’t mean our brains will change from hand grenades.” In other words, external measures to curb violence may protect us, but they don’t necessarily do anything to address the jarring thoughts and emotions that sometimes swim through our souls.

Twenty One Pilots seems to understand that struggles like these cannot be cured overnight. But there are some things we can do, namely listening before rushing to judgment, being careful in the way we relate to those we don’t know and remembering that we’re all “heathens” … at least in the way the band defines the word.

About that Movie Connection …

And that brings us back to Suicide Squad. I’ve suggested that when Twenty One Pilots sings about murderers and psychopaths, they’re likely doing so symbolically. But it’s easy for me to understand how the people choosing songs for the Suicide Squad soundtrack might have heard these lyrics and thought, “Psychopaths and murderers? This song is a perfect fit for our movie!” After all, some—if not many—of the characters in the movie fit exactly that description.

Remember how I mentioned above that I was holding my breath about regarding Twenty One Pilots’ presence on this soundtrack? My worry is that some younger fans of this increasingly popular band will see Joseph and Dun’s participation on the soundtrack as an endorsement of this movie—a movie that looks like it could well be among the darker comic book-inspired movies we’ve seen recently.

That said, the opposite influence could occur, too, with fans of the movie discovering a band that’s not afraid to wade into life’s grit and grime, even as it purveys subtle messages of hope.

The ones lurking behind the psychopaths and murderers, that is.

A postscript: Apart from the obvious contextual clues we get about the meaning of the word heathens in this song, some music news sites have reported that it’s also a word that Tyler Joseph has repeatedly employed in connection with smartphones as well. Beneath one tumblr selfie, for instance, Joseph wrote a poem titled “Heathen Machine”:

“these phones are heathen machines,
a ‘candid’ self portrait on my heathen machine,
I put a case on my heathen machine,
so my soul will not break, not even my screen.”

It’s not completely clear why Joseph has associated the word heathen with smartphones. When linked with the ideas in the song, perhaps he’s suggesting that these are the “machines” we use to capture the images of our broken selves even as we strive at times to suggest otherwise to the watching world.

Adam R. Holz

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.

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