You know how you can often remember clearly details of important moments of your life? Well, I clearly remember learning about twenty | one | pilots for the first time. I was riding the shuttle to church from the satellite parking lot, and the driver and I were talking music.
“You should check out twenty | one | pilots,” he said. “They’re like a combination of [rapper’s name I can’t remember] and Blink-182.”
“That’s quite a combination,” I said. Honestly, I’m not always great at remembering music recommendations from other people (I’m way more likely to discover new music on my own), but for some reason, the name stuck with me and later that week I started browsing the Internet, looking for their stuff.
What I found has changed my musical world. Even in a year with an excellent new NEEDTOBREATHE album, twenty | one | pilots’ Vessel has been the most played album on my iPod. Now, to be fair, I was a little late to the game in only finding out about this masterpiece earlier this year, as it originally released in early 2013. But I’m hoping other fans will forgive me. I’m all in now. And I want to share this unbelievable musical salve to my soul with everyone else. Thus, this review.
twenty | one | pilots is hard to describe, definitely difficult to box into a genre. Hip hop, rock, pop, dance, electronic, alternative—they’re spread across the board. Comprised simply of Tyler Joseph (vocals, keys, etc.) and Josh Dun (drums), most of the songs start off as Tyler’s erratic but brilliant poetry. Not to be outdone, Josh’s energy and chops on the drums are the engine for their driving sound. The band gained quite a following around their hometown of Columbus, OH, before gaining attention on a national and even international level. They fall into the category that I personally find myself drawing music from most often—Christians who don’t claim to be a Christian band. Their lyrics are ripe with deep spiritual truth and hope, but also with vulnerability and struggle.
An important caveat to twenty one pilots’ music is that most of their songs carry multiple meanings and are written in such a way that leaves interpretation open to the listener. Tyler has spoken out about the meanings for some of these songs, but his lyrics are so rich and poetic, that, like good poetry, much can be read into the words beyond what he’s shared, or even his original intent.
“It’s hard to continue talking about something that I already felt like I said the way I wanted to say it,” Tyler admits.
In true artistic fashion, his own definitions for the songs do not always explain every detail of every concept that inspired them, especially when it comes to biblical and spiritual allusions that stem from his faith. Many fans feel strongly about how they interpret the lyrics for themselves, especially because many of the songs reach out to personal and serious areas of their lives. I will say that, like much good music, I will read things into this music that others will not, and vice versa. I will share below what I interpret these songs to mean and how they speak to me. My interpretations are in no way exclusively correct. But at the same time, they are certainly meaningful to me.
1. Ode to Sleep
This first track is probably the biggest enigma of the album. It’s hard to nail down musically or lyrically. A raging rave to kick things off, Ode to Sleep goes big and hits hard, broken up with sudden transitions to a peppy-sounding bridge and a crooning chorus. Tyler bemoans the nightmares and fears that accompany sleep, in contrast to the control he feels over the day. He’s said in an interview that he feels sleep is so important, yet so many people struggle with it. Beyond that, clear allusions to Jesus’ disciple Peter also point to a deeper spiritual themes of hypocrisy, denial, shame, and fear (“I asked forgiveness three times/ Same amount that I denied/ I three-time MVP’ed this crime/ I’m afraid to tell you who I adore/ won’t tell you what I’m singing towards/ Metaphorically I’m a whore/ and that’s denial number four”). Some might balk at the breathless, disjointed nature of this song, but others might just find it brilliant.
2. Holding On To You
This is the song that first made me fall in love with this band and this album. It’s definitely a solid introduction to twenty | one | pilots, with so many of the elements that make them great present. Thought-provoking rap, a poignant yet catchy chorus, musical and lyrical build up and jam sesh-esque breakdown, and a smorgasboard of electronic, rock, hip hop, even piano pop sounds. For me, this song is all about faith, the marriage of thought and emotion, and the struggle of growth/sanctification. The cry of “Entertain my faith” and its possible meanings sends me to a place of prayer, longing, desperation, and determination.
“Tie a noose around your mind/ loose enough to breathe/ fine and tie it/ to a tree/ tell it/ “You belong to me/ This ain’t a noose/ this is a leash/ And I have news for you/ you must obey me”
Another one of my favorite tracks on the album, Migraine is a very serious song set to a captivating, head-bobbing, driving groove. Lyrically, it deals with depression, loneliness, and the other unbidden places our minds might take us. But on the shores of the “violent island” so many of us find ourselves on at some point during our journey, Tyler points out two beautiful, life-bearing truths: “the game is not played alone” and “life has a hopeful undertone.” About this song, Tyler has said that a headache points to a bigger problem, that it’s your body using pain to alert you to a deeper issue, and that’s the metaphor he’s getting at here.
“Am I the only one I know/ waging my wars behind my face and above my throat?/ Shadows will scream that I’m alone/ But I know we’ve made it this far, kid”
4. House of Gold
Written on a ukulele, House of Gold is the most traditional, radio-friendly song on this record. String-heavy, with even a bit of a folk-alternative, post-pop-punk vibe (yes, that’s a thing), it’s a sweet, fun tune about making a promise to care for his mother.
5. Car Radio
The rumor is that someone once stole the stereo system from Tyler Joseph’s car, and this song is the result. As trivial a topic as this is, there seems to be much more beneath his words about having to deal with his thoughts in the silence of driving his car. The synth breakdown in this song is awesome. And yes, this song is perfect to jam out to in your car. That’s part of its beauty.
Another track with a great, laid-back groove and an energetic build-up that will sway your head and bounce your foot, it also boasts more heavy content. It’s about being two-faced, hypocritical, and basically not acting like who you say you are. It reminds me of Paul in Romans 7, saying, “I do want I don’t want to do and don’t do what I want to do.”
“I’m never what I like/ I’m double-sided/ And I just can’t hide/ I kinda like it/ When I make you cry/ Cause I’m twisted up/ I’m twisted up, inside my mind”
One of the calmer, more repetitive songs all the way through, Screen has been one of the most impactful for me. It’s driven by a simple piano melody. Similar to Semi-Automatic, this song deals with misrepresenting yourself, wearing a mask. But Screen is less about action and more about emotion and vulnerability. It is especially powerful to think of in terms of my relationship with God, knowing He’s the only one who can see into my soul, yet still trying to hide myself from Him in many ways.
“I do not know why I would go/ In front of you and hide my soul/ Cause you’re the only one who knows it/ Yeah, you’re the only one who knows it/ And I will hide behind my pride/ Don’t know why I think I can lie/ Cause there’s a screen on my chest/ Yeah, there’s a screen on my chest”
8. The Run and Go
The meaning of this track is somewhat of a mystery to me, but it seems to deal with the battle between trying to push someone away yet needing them to be close in times of trouble. The cheerful melody builds to a heavy ending, with a quiet break before the build-up. Of all the songs on the record, this is the one I’m most likely to catch myself whistling along to.
9. Fake You Out
Another great, electronic-based melody, Fake You Out almost sounds like an 80s video game at points. The lyrical content deals strongly with depression, especially in the heavy-hitting rap verse. The faking out is someone showing they’re one way on the outside when they aren’t on the inside. Tyler says it’s about how we’re constantly lying to people about who we are so we’ll look a certain way, but it gets really dangerous when we start lying to ourselves. For such a serious song, the layered vocals and electronic instruments make for a fun chorus.
10. Guns For Hands
Guns For Hands was the first twenty | one | pilots song I listened to. It was a great introduction, and still a brilliant track, though some of the others are what drew me into more of their music. It’s such a catchy tune with such a great beat, and lyrically would make a great mash-up with Foster the People’s Pumped-Up Kicks. The reggae breakdown is unexpected but perfect. Yet another song that deals with depression and suicide, but infused with the band’s knack for expressing hope in the midst of the pain.
With barely 13 lines, Trees is lyrically the simplest song on the album. Musically, it’s a freaking beast to jam out to. Spiritually, it has spoken to me time and time again. To me, it brings to mind the story of Adam and God in the garden, after Adam sins. But when I first heard this track, it blindsided me with how very personal it felt, like Tyler had been reading my mind or something. I’ve felt this longing so strongly for many months—longing for God’s presence, to know Him, see Him, hear Him, yet at times finding myself hiding from Him like a coward, as if it is possible to hide from Him. If I could just hear Him speak one word—just “hello,” I feel that it would change everything. Thus, the emotional cry of this one word in this song has often been the cry of my heart.
This is my least listened-to track, but it’s still good. The only true ballad on the album, it’s soft and ethereal, and somehow a satisfying way to end such an epic record. Not that anyone listens to entire albums all the way through, anymore. But in case you do, you’ll understand. Tyler says this song is his thank you to anyone who really listened through and truly appreciated the whole album.
One of the great things about twenty | one | pilots is how they avoid being pigeon-holed both musically and lyrically. Just as their music varies and draws from all kinds of styles, their words are a reflection of their lives. They don’t just write about love or God or depression, but different aspects of who they are and what they’re dealing with are woven in and out through their songs. Above all else, twenty | one | pilots is brazenly creative and refreshingly real. I can’t wait to hear new music from these guys (and to go to one of their insane shows), but until then, Vessel will continue to burning through air time in my life.
One more treat. Another favorite (unreleased in the U.S.) track of mine from these guys is this version of Lovely. Do yourself a big favor and take a listen.
Have you heard this album? What did you think? What is your favorite song? How have these tracks spoken to you? Leave a comment below.