Twenty One Pilots has become one of my favorite bands over the last two years. And while Blurryface didn’t blow me away quite like Vessel did (it’s not really fair to compare the first album you hear from a band to anything else), it’s still going to end up being one of my favorite albums of 2015. It’s excellent.
That said, Blurryface is not for the faint of heart or the lazy of mind. One of the things I love about Twenty One Pilots is the intricacy of their songs. You are practically forced to think about the meaning of each line. Nearly every track can be interpreted in multiple ways. That’s one of the reasons I took so long to write down my thoughts about this record. I had to ruminate, to listen to each song in different ways. I mean—I didn’t have to, but I wanted to. It’s part of the joy of experiencing great music.
The concept behind the album centers around the character of Blurryface, who represents the insecurities of Twenty One Pilots’ singer and lyricist Tyler Joseph—as well as the insecurities of the people around him. Blurryface shows up in many forms throughout the record. Sometimes he is called out by name, sometimes a vocal change will signify that Blurryface is the one singing, sometimes his presence is merely implied. A constant across all the tracks, however, is the struggle between Tyler (or the perspective of the singer/listener) and Blurryface/his insecurities. To what extent each song’s meaning revolves around this character is up for interpretation, but observant listeners will likely pick out a kind of progression in the story of this battle between Blurryface and Tyler as the album plays through. The character idea adds another layer of brilliant complexity to think about when listening to lyrics that would likely still be excellent and intricate without it.
I always find it refreshing to hear music that I can be passionate about emotionally and also relate to and be challenged by mentally. Blurryface offers that rare combination in hefty doses. The band’s faith also plays a significant role in their songwriting, and I love that they ask questions and wrestle with things surrounding their relationship with God that few Christian artists seem to be willing to share in their music. I appreciate this band and this record in many ways, and I hope not to ruin what they’ve created by talking about what exactly each song means to me (links to audio/music videos on YouTube included in each title):
1. Heavydirtysoul. The guys don’t hold off with this first track, it’s one of the heaviest hitters on the album, with fast-paced rap verses and loud drums and bass moments. The music has a dark, mystical ambience to it, with moments of felt lightness in the chorus that yearns, “Can you save my heavydirtysoul?” It’s a cry for salvation, though what he is being saved from and who is saving him aren’t explicitly stated . To me, the thought of a heavy, dirty soul asking for salvation is a longing for the soul to be lightened, to be cleaned—presumably by God. I’m not crazy the bridge in this song—the metaphor works, I just don’t find it artistically pleasing—but overall, it’s the perfect kickoff track for this album.
2. Stressed Out. As a nostalgic, often anxious millennial, there are many days when this could be my personal theme song. It’s fairly straightforward, expressing the longing to return to the simpler, more care-free time of childhood, before the stresses of adulthood. The song also directly allows Tyler’s alter-ego, Blurryface, to speak, reminding him of his present insecurities. The imagery in these lyrics is spot-on and is expanded on even further in the song’s great music video. It’s a solid, mid-tempo song with a great, head-bobbing groove.
“Out of student loans and tree house homes, we all would take the latter.”
3. Ride. This tune isn’t the most musically interesting on the record, but lyrically it’s the one that hits home for me. It’s a great reggae jam, for sure, but the second verse bears most of the brilliance of this song for me. The chorus, too, spells out the battles I have in my mind—the ever-raging war between my insecurities/fears and my hopes/rationale.
“‘I’d die for you, that’s easy to say. We have a list of people that we would take, a bullet for them, a bullet for you, a bullet for everybody in this room. But I don’t seem to see many bullets coming through, see many bullets coming through. Metaphorically, I’m the man. But literally I don’t know what I’d do. ‘I’d live for you,’ and that’s hard to do. Even harder to say when you know it’s not true.”
4. Fairly Local. As the lead single for Blurryface, Fairly Local had me wondering if Twenty One Pilots would be taking a much harder musical approach to this album. I’m glad they did end up mixing styles and genres as they did in Vessels, but I do appreciate the weightiness of this song. It’s a bass-heavy tune with a hip hop vibe. It displays perhaps the clearest struggle between Tyler and Blurryface on the album, the insecurities ringing in his head as Tyler pushes through the fight to speak both truth and empathy. The metaphor of being “fairly local” in the chorus speaks to Tyler knowing what others are going through, especially understanding struggles similar to those he himself has endured. The verses remind me of Romans 7, in which Paul says, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”
5. Tear In My Heart. Another early single from the record, this song is definitely one of my favorites. It was written for Tyler’s wife and is about as close as Twenty One Pilots comes to a love song. It’s certainly the most upbeat, brightest song on the album, though the imagery is still not what you’d think of as traditionally romantic. It features several abrupt groove changes (of which I’m a huge fan) and is just a musical and lyrical blast in general.
“The songs on the radio are okay. But my taste in music is your face. And it takes a song to come around, to show you how.”
6. Lane Boy. The music industry is, well, flawed. In many ways. Artists like Twenty One Pilots who want to stay true to themselves are under much pressure to cave in to what others say they must do to be successful. This song is about that battle, about following their own path and sticking to it. The back half of the song features an epic electronic breakdown and super-epic solo from drummer Josh Dun.
7. The Judge. OK, I’m going to beg a little. Just listen to this song. Please. It’s so good. Musically, it’s my favorite track on the album. Ukulele and tempo changes and awesome grooves, oh my! Lyrically, it’s a feast that could be interpreted in many ways (Genius users have a few decent suggestions here). Whatever way you look at it, it’s a cry for mercy from one being judged to the judge.
“I don’t know if this song is a surrender or a revel. I don’t know if this one is about me or the devil.”
8. Doubt. Doubt is another musical treat, with a great electronic hook and catchy chorus. It’s also another song I relate to lyrically, as the artist spouts insecurities and doubts—especially about faith—even while asking God not to forget about him in the midst of these struggles. It’s a place many of us find ourselves sometimes, I think, even if we don’t readily admit it.
9. Polarize. Tyler literally spells out what he means by “polarize” within the song’s lyrics: “Polarize is taking your disguises, separating ’em, splitting ’em up from wrong and right. It’s deciding where to die and deciding where to fight.” It’s another faith-heavy tune, speaking about making hard choices and denying problems and certain things about ourselves, while continuing to cry for help. Musically it’s a driving, mid-tempo track, with some fun backing vocals.
“I wanted to be a better brother, better son. Wanted to be a better adversary to the evil I have done. I have none to show to the one I love. But deny, deny, denial.”
10. We Don’t Believe What’s On TV. I go back and forth in my feelings about this track. It’s an catchy, upbeat, ukulele-laden tune, but the fact that I don’t know exactly what he’s talking about with all the hair references (and can only guess) kind of frustrates me for some reason. My ultimate take on the meaning is about looking beyond the superficial, finding value in people, and trusting your friends and loved ones to be there even when you fail. It also features one of my favorite lines on the entire album (see below).
“What if my dream does not happen? Would I just change what I’ve told my friends? Don’t want to know who I would be, when I wake up from a dreamer’s sleep.”
11. Message Man. Tyler asks us to “please use discretion when you’re messing with the message, man.” So that’s about all I’ll say about this song. It really sort of sums it up. And kind of makes me feel guilty for trying to spell out the meaning of each of these songs. Haha. To be honest, this is my least favorite track on the record.
12. Hometown. It’s one of the least lyrically complex songs on the album, but Hometown still has some brave things to say about lostness, darkness, feeling like an outsider, and hope. The tune boasts a really ear-pleasing musical style, especially with the electronic hook that accompanies the chorus.
13. Not Today. “This one’s a contradiction because of how happy it sounds,” Tyler sings. It certainly is an upbeat, fun track with excellent musical layers. But in alignment with perhaps the most common theme of this album, it represents a struggle—most likely between Tyler and Blurryface (his insecurities).
“Oh don’t you test me, no. Just because I play the piano. Doesn’t mean I, I’m not willing to take you down.”
14. Goner. THIS. This is a beautiful song. Simple, but gold. It reminds me of the masterful song Trees from Vessels. The climax here is the most poignant emotional and musical moment of the entire record, and I would say, carries within it all the emotions from the previous songs combined into one epic ending. That struggle with insecurity and that cry for help that have pervaded these songs culminates in “I’m a goner. Somebody catch my breath. I wanna be known by you.” It’s the deepest longing in all of us—to be known and loved. And it’s the perfect answer to the questions about insecurity that Blurryface raises. We can find security in being known and loved by the one we have been doubting, questioning, and crying out to. Our sins and insecurities blind us to what we were made for: to know God and to be known by Him.