Twenty One Pilots wade in wishy-washy watercolor on ‘Scaled And Icy’

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

Before May, the discography of Twenty One Pilots was anything but colorful. The alternative rock duo, composed of singer-rapper Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun, reigned over grey area — they immersed themselves in clashing genres, somehow scrapping together cohesive records from scattered angst and trepidation. Released May 21, the pair’s latest album Scaled And Icy brightly explores hues and tints, finding rapture that sometimes feels more motley than prismatic.

The album is scattered yet chromatic, its 11 tracks like felt-tipped markers left uncapped in a pencil case. It traces patterns more absentmindedly than purposefully, and though it tends to be more perplexing than cohesive, the record does succeed in escapist ventures. Scaled And Icy principally prevails as a product of quarantine — its title an abbreviated form of “scaled back and isolated” — that aims to brighten dark days.

The duo opens with “Good Day,” a song that sounds like it could easily play over the exposition of an animated Pixar movie. But beneath its cheerful piano riff and jaunty chorus, Joseph contemplates in verses what it would be like to lose his loved ones, and this pensive eeriness suggests a darkness underlying the seemingly optimistic record. However, Twenty One Pilots struggle to elucidate this promising implication into anything apposite, bobbing above and below its album’s surface-level cheer incoherently.

The record suffers from a distracting disorganization, but quarantine inspiration provides some effective infrastructure. The duo’s cool and collected lead single “Shy Away” discusses the importance of following creative ventures, and Joseph and Dun reach weekend euphoria after monotonous lockdown days on the catchy but unimaginative track “Saturday.” Here, Twenty One Pilots sufficiently conform to mainstream pop techniques, demonstrating that they can still land on their feet as they freely leap from genre to genre.

Joseph and Dun, while able to vault anywhere from funky pop to alternative hip hop to indietronica, present diverse tracks that are stronger individually rather than together. They unpredictably and illogically shift from bliss to blame, and while volatility used to be the duo’s strength, it’s more distracting than calculated on Scaled And Icy.

“Never Take It,” for example, makes for an overstuffed yet somehow insipid political statement, pointing fingers at those benefiting from spreading misinformation. Confusingly, it’s followed by the breezily bright “Mulberry Street,” which pulls listeners into a bustling city street with its piano riff later joined by merry horns and harmonies. Even though Joseph shouts “Keep your bliss” here, it doesn’t take long for the album’s optimism to frustratingly trickle away. By mixing bursts of quarantine-inspired felicity with gloomier, hollow tracks, Twenty One Pilots bewilder instead of providing meaningful balance.

The duo messily color outside the lines on lonelier tracks, and though occasional insight shines through the gloom of “Choker” and “The Outside,” Joseph and Dun still struggle to navigate and enliven the disarray of Scaled And Icy. With the risky penultimate track “No Chances,” the album takes a drastic turn. It stirs up visions of flamethrowers and switchblades, questions ever-present surveillance and hauntingly chants “We come for you/ no chances.” The song, uncanny and unnerving, acts as a permanent marker that graffitis the album’s varicolored portrait.

“Redecorate,” the record’s final track, is Twenty One Pilots’ reflective attempt at redemption. While the song’s intensity is similar to “No Chances,” its severity here makes room for more refined storytelling. Joseph’s staccato rap constructs a vivid scene out of a single messy bedroom, transforming chaos into a meaningful allegory about life and loss.

The track would satisfy standing alone, but in the context of Scaled And Icy, it illustrates Twenty One Pilots’ conscious decision to backtrack: Rather than commit to the album’s initial promise of joy, the duo defaults to chilling melodrama to offer introspection — introspection that arrives too late.

Scaled And Icy sees Twenty One Pilots begin to color their somber charcoal sketches, and though their illustration is blotchy and smudged in more than a few areas, the record manages to remind listeners that life is better in color.

Contact Taila Lee at [email protected].