Scaled and Icy: Can Twenty One Pilots get back to their former glory?

Alt/indie duo Twenty One Pilots are back this year with their fifth studio album, Scaled and Icy. While their last album (2018’s Trench) was still widely successful, I have to say I didn’t really like it. I think they veered too far away from their slight rock leanings and more into generic pop music. Having heard the singles off of their new album before this review, I have a horrible feeling that I will feel the exact same about this one, too. It’s a shame, as both ‘Vessel’ and ‘Blurryface’ were up there with some of my favourite albums of the 2010s. If I offend anyone with this, I just want to say sorry in advance. Let’s get into it, shall we?

‘Good Day’ opens on some electronic, sci-fi sort of sounds. As they clear up, we get a pretty great piano melody backed by a simple drumbeat. I wasn’t expecting something so upbeat and enjoyable straight out of the gate given the single quality, so I’m already thrown through a loop. It almost gives off some ELO/Madness vibes. Tyler Joseph’s instantly recognisable vocals come in over the top, delivering a surprising amount of range and top end given his usual lower, moody/rap style with a lot of their more recent tracks. It’s giving off more ‘Vessel’ feels and I am fully onboard. The chorus is pretty short and sweet; the dynamics of the song don’t change that much but it’s still catchy. It slows up a bit coming out of the second chorus, the piano and drums becoming even simpler, and the real highlight here are the fantastic vocal harmonies between the two guys. It slowly builds up more and more into a final chorus and outro to finish things off. A simple, strange way to open an album, but a massively enjoyable one. And, while it isn’t really rock music, it makes the playlist anyway! 

Next up is one of the singles, ‘Choker’. It opens on some great drums and electronic sounds, giving off major ‘Blurryface’ vibes. However, my main issue with this song is the same issue I had with the songs on ‘Trench’: it doesn’t go anywhere. The not-quite-mumbled vocals stay monotonously the same throughout and the instrumentation barely changes throughout. While the same could be said for the previous song, at least that one was upbeat and enjoyable. I miss when the band would have more dynamics in the song, changing seamlessly between rap to heavier stuff to piano or ukulele stuff. This just sounds lazy, honestly, like a band who have lost their spark after finding fame and no longer want to push boundaries and experiment but rather fit into the same general pop sound that the masses eat up because the radio tells them to. And, to top it all off, the chorus is nowhere near as catchy as 90% of their other stuff. 

The album’s lead single, ‘Shy Away’, opens on more drums and electronic sounds, like the previous song. It’s a little faster in terms of its tempo, which is nice at least. The verse is just fine really, it being a clear ‘we need to have something in this song than just the chorus.’ Speaking of the chorus, I both love it and hate it at the same time. It’s simple, anti-climatic and a little boring… but damn if it isn’t a massive earworm that I’ve had stuck in my head at various points since first hearing it. There isn’t much more to the song – the bridge generally has the same instrumentation as the chorus but with different vocals on top. It features the very bare basics of an American indie song these days. I’m on the fence as to whether I think this is a good song or not. I think, in the most basic way, it is a good song but it just isn’t a good Twenty One Pilots song. It lacks the spark that the band had in their early few albums and because of that I find myself not liking it as much. 

‘The Outside’ opens on a great electric/synth melody with the drums adding fantastically to the overall rhythm when they come in over the top. The verse again is simply meh, but the highlight here is the chorus – catchy vocals made even catchier by more fantastic harmonies and backing vocals. Heck, it even begins to get a little heavy towards the end of it before dropping back down to the verse again. The track has a pretty heavy 80s synth-pop vibe to it (Depeche Mode and stuff like that) which I dig. We head into some rap after the second verse which is something Tyler always does so well. And, if anything, the part is far too short. I want more quick, great lyricism. I wasn’t quite that fussed about the outro part after the last verse, but the song up until that point was excellent; my favourite TOP song since ‘Blurryface’. 

The final and most recent single from the album, ‘Saturday’, is up next. It opens on another annoyingly catchy chorus as I really don’t like it that much (maybe even less than ‘Shy Away’s). This song is similar to ‘Shy Away’ in a lot of ways actually, in that the dynamics aren’t really there and there is very little difference between the verses and choruses aside from different vocals. It’s so basic that I might as well be listening to The Weeknd. Again, have little to nothing to say about this song aside from it being my least favourite on the album so far. 

Outside of the slightly faster tempo and marginally more enjoyable chorus, if I didn’t know ‘Never Take It’ was a different song I may have assumed it was part of ‘Saturday’ still. That’s how samey and generic this band have become over the last couple of albums. It does have a (and I say this loosely) kind of guitar solo in it which is different I guess. 

I have similar sentiments towards the next few tracks, ‘Mulberry Street’, ‘Formidable’ and ‘Bounce Man’. They all suffer from the same issue as ‘Never Take It’ – both of them could quite easily blend into the same song. They are all perfectly fine slow indie songs, but there is absolutely nothing special about them. For a band that produced such interesting, genuinely awesomely written songs like ‘Semi-Automatic’, ‘Stressed Out’ and ‘Heathens’, it is such a disappointment to hear them lose that fire and edge and make generic pop music like this. It almost feels like they’ve suffered from the same issue that Eminem had after his rehab stint, he was happy and just made general pop music for the most part afterwards. This could be anyone making this album, whereas it took something special to make ‘Vessel’ and ‘Blurryface’. 

‘No Chances’ at least has a different feel to it, leaning a lot heavier on the duo’s hip-hop influences; Tyler’s rapping, slightly lower instrumentation and backing vocals gives me old-school Eminem vibes at times. It’s a much-appreciated change of pace after four or five songs that sounded very similar. The chorus, while catchy, is disappointingly slow and ballad-y given the feel of the rest of the song, but I’m willing to let it go given that the song overall is pretty good. This is honestly my favourite song on the album by quite a margin. It’s the closest thing to their older tracks and I believe it would have made a much better single than any of the other songs they released. It did enough for me to make it onto the playlist!

The final song on the album, ‘Redecorate’, unfortunately drops the quality of the album down again. It’s a slow, boring pop song which feels a little disappointing after how good the previous song was. At least there was some half decent rapping in here. 

Overall: I came into this review with pretty low expectations and I guess at least I wasn’t disappointed. I have to admit I found myself liking more of the songs from this album than the previous so at least it’s an improvement. Three or four good songs doesn’t make it a great album especially when the other tracks all sound eerily similar and kind of boring. I feel like after a few more listens, I may enjoy a couple of them more. However, I still cannot shake the disappointment that a previously great band has been reduced to this. It’s a shame, but I guess there will still be plenty of other people out there that’ll love this album.

Score: 3/10

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