Before 2015, Twenty One Pilots were a fun musical oddity with a niche, but ardent fanbase, best known for a ukulele ditty about aging parents. After they released Blurryface—and with it, singles “Stressed Out,” “Ride,” and “Heathens” (from the Suicide Squad soundtrack)—they experienced a rapid surge in popularity. Suddenly, they were being listened to by thirteen-year-olds asking their parents to drop them off at music festivals as opposed to simply pockets of alternative kids. Trench is their first album after this boom. It would have been so easy for Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun to sell out here, incorporating the tired tricks of entities like The Chainsmokers one by one; rather, they’ve crafted a record with some of their most mature, polished-sounding hits yet, choosing to focus their chaotic energy instead of shutting it down completely.
Trench is a very post-Blurryface album in a myriad of ways. Like the band’s fourth studio LP, it dabbles with lore, creating an experience that fans can immerse themselves in if they choose to. While nowhere near as elaborate or solidified as the stories of bands like Gorillaz, it’s definitely enough to contribute to the album’s atmosphere and cohesiveness. Blurryface was solely focused around its titular character, who served as a tamer, more ambiguous Slim Shady of sorts; Trench expands on this entity (who is apparently also known as Nicholas Bourbaki) while adding a bunch of new terms and names into the mix. If you’re the detective type, there are lots of questions to be answered, but you don’t have to figure them out to have a good time jamming out. What is Dema? Who are the Niners? Who knows? Who’s really stopping to think about it when the music is so catchy?
Twenty One Pilots are often considered notoriously genre-less, yet they’ve always been vaguely associated with alternative rock. Trench sees them leaning into this genre more, employing and subverting its conventions more skillfully. This is done most notably on “Jumpsuit,” the album’s opening track and debut single. Here, electric guitars take the place of the traditional ukuleles, resulting in a song that sounds like the invitation to a tour of a dystopian world. It’s just as intense as Muse, but with more passionate screams; clearly, it’s Trench’s most powerful punch. “My Blood” is another highlight. This one harkens back to the indie boom of the early 2010s—the bassline sounds nebulously Tame Impala-esque, while the vocals, which alternate between lower-register and falsetto, are reminiscent of Foster the People. The refrain—“I’ll go with you”—is sure to resonate with crowds of fans during the duo’s arena tour.
Like Blurryface, Trench also sees Joseph and Dun drawing upon hip-hop influences. “Levitate” is a mid-tempo rap song that glides along as its title might suggest, loosely Drake-like in nature. “Morph” is more upbeat sonically, featuring a memorable instrumental hook, horn accents, and a melodic chorus. Yet its lyrics, which begin with the confession “Can’t stop thinking about if and when I die,” are characteristically dark, full of grit and internal rhyme. Then there’s “Nico and the Niners,” a standout whose vibe is equal parts “cruising around the city” and “get ready, kids, a revolution is coming.” The enunciated, emphatic chorus makes it one of the most fun songs to nod along to. Just as on previous albums, there are slower tracks here, too, but Twenty One Pilots are truly at their best when they’re using their stamina to their advantage.
Is Trench Twenty One Pilots’ best album? Not quite, but it’s hard to pinpoint which is. Some of the album tracks, while full of interesting lyrical wordplay, blur into each other sonically; overall, there’s a general lack of hooks. Yet the singles are cohesive and surprising in all the right ways, suggesting that Twenty One Pilots are only going to get stronger if they stay savvy and self-aware. Joseph and Dun are flying high right now; there’s no telling where they’ll soar next, but it’s sure to be interesting.