It’s always pleasing when a band comes along that manages to completely defy genre parameters, even if the resulting product is a bit too obtuse to be enjoyable.
Unbeknownst to many Twenty One Pilots have been doing this since 2009. Fuelled by Ramen debut Vessel was their first point of exposure for many, and won over many despite its never quite successful amalgamation of elements from as many subgenres as humanly possible. The duo showed promise but were consistently that little bit too ambitious, their songs relying more on shock factor than any memorable melodies or emotionally resonant passages. Blurryface changes all that in one fell swoop, a colossal step up that sees the lunatic machine click into gear. Impressively, the band has lost none of their novelty, simply improving their songwriting immeasurably.
Killer opening brace “Heavydirtysoul” and “Stressed Out” are all it takes to convince that rap, rock, pop and electro can sit as natural bedfellows in songs that could appeal to fans of any of those subsets. Those and first single “Fairly Local” are all also polished enough to appear perfect for mainstream radio exposure, despite the latter’s assertions to the contrary. Vocalist and chief songwriter Tyler Joseph puts so much energy into his performance you could probably power a small village with it, his dissections of the music industry and wider pop culture built into the overarching themes of growing up explored through the recurring Blurryface character. Flitting between styles has always been a weapon he’s drawn on, but here his choruses are strong as steel, and his rapid-fire tirades lock into the music’s groove rather than spiralling off out of control. The overall shift towards accessibility has greatly benefited the Twenty One Pilots sound, and made their idiosyncrasies all the more fun.
The sheer diversity of reference points for the album is simply staggering. From the JMSN-esque falsetto on “Message Man” and elsewhere to the Eminem stream of consciousness rapping across ‘Blurryface’s entirety the vocals are as diverse as the music, which recalls The Specials, Tyler, the Creator and Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s ‘Utopia’ soundtrack at different stages. “Tear In My Heart” breaks the mould by wholeheartedly adopting the sound of The Killers, managing to better anything they’ve written since 2006. Acoustic driven numbers “The Judge” and “We Don’t’ Believe What’s On TV” would have sounded anomalous in isolation but work perfectly as a separated pair. Key to drawing this diversity together is the considerable talent of drummer Josh Dun, who adapts perfectly to each left turn. It’s impossible to tell how songs will sound by their conclusion even as they’re playing, demonstrated by the perversely pleasurable deconstruction of “Lane Boy” from reggae strut to breakbeat clusterfuck.
A smattering of filler does dilute the brilliance of Blurryface, particularly towards the album’s end. “Hometown” is too lukewarm to pull of the dance pop template it tries to plug into, and Joseph finally trips up lyrically in the non-eventful “Not Today”. He saves (blurry)face on brilliant parting shot “Goner”, a plaintive and subdued piano ballad with a perfectly judged explosive conclusion. Compared to the relatively flippant majority of the record it’s a stirring piece that shows substance as well as style.
Flawed masterpiece is thereby the most apt label to give a career-defining album for Twenty One Pilots. The decision to pull their disparate tendrils of noise into more readily digestible shapes rather than rein them in at all has worked wonders on ‘Blurryface’, only an excess of material and the occasional misstep continuing to hold them back from real excellence. If the lyrics of “Stressed Out” are true and the titular character cares what his listeners think, he’s unlikely to be unhappy with their reactions.