‘An expectation-crushing statement of ambition,’ and an ‘engaging puzzle,’ Twenty One Pilots’ sixth studio album Scaled and Icy has already been met with mixed reviews. Whilst The Financial Times’ two-star review seems rather harsh, long-time fans might also see NME’s four-star review as a bit overly rewarding. The duo continues to demonstrate their knack for taking risks, producing an album that veers somewhat sharply away from the bold universe of ‘Trench’ to a more colourful and varied ‘immersive universe.’ But the only real homage to the loyal fanbase, or ‘Clique’, is the fact that the album title Scaled and Icy is an anagram of ‘Clancy is dead,’ Clancy being an instrumental character in the Trench universe. Nevertheless, this album still has the hallmarks of typical Twenty One Pilots experimentalism, and the result is an album full of catchy, vibrant tracks which, matching lead singer Tyler Joseph’s new pink hair and role as a new father, seems more than appropriate for their evolution as artists.
The scene of the album is set with the opening track “Good Day”, with its stripped-back piano and vocals, reminiscent of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky”. While this song really does establish the mostly upbeat and lighthearted tone of the album, its energy is only really matched by the songs in the first half of the album, at which point it feels as if the tone shifts a little. Intentional or not, some might say that consistency is lacking from this compilation of tracks. The opening track is followed up smoothly with arguably the best track on the album “Choker”, which was released as a single in April. ‘Choking’ is a basketball term for missing two shots from the free-throw line, and Joseph reveals that the song is about ‘choking’ and failing to rise to the occasion in friendships and relationships. The musical style, with the rap break towards the end, is reminiscent of 2009 tracks such as “Addict With A Pen”, meaning that this song delights in both its lyrics being typical to Twenty One Pilots, and its musical structure.
“Shy Away” was the next single to be released before the album but, unlike “Choker”, it is a more straightforward pop anthem. It follows on nicely from the previous song and contains themes of anxiety and stepping out of one’s comfort zone, yet still appears to somewhat miss the mark. The next track, “The Outside”, makes up for this shortfall, with its more complex rhythm and musicality which, whilst still embodying a more mainstream pop structure, is extremely fun to listen to – perhaps surprising for a song which seems on the surface to be about “vibing”. “Saturday” follows next and, in possibly the most disappointingly mainstream way yet, this song definitely falls short of expectation. It’s still a pleasant and light-hearted track, but arguably fails to showcase the band’s skills.
“Never Take It” is another saving grace on this album. The political message about the misinformation spread by the media and the divisions it’s creating: “They’re trying hard to weaponize you and I,” as well as the rock riffs underpinning the song, make it a different but altogether refreshing track from Twenty One Pilots. “Mulberry Street”, too, is a stand-out track on this album, one that Joseph has revealed takes inspiration from the bright piano sound of Billy Joel, and channels feelings of being out of place.
Despite “‘Formidable” being an ambitious attempt to embody The Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love”, the final four songs of this album seem out of place and less imaginative than the other tracks. “No Chances” appears to be appealing to the dark, rebellious tones of Trench, but within this lighter and more colourful album, this doesn’t make much sense. “Redecorate” also feels like an appeal to more mainstream pop or rap sounds and isn’t a bad track in itself, but is a somewhat disappointing end to the album.
Scaled and Icy, then, as a less emotionally dense lockdown creation, does what it sets out to do from track one: it ‘paints the town’ in bright and varied sounds. Whilst the songs don’t always flow as nicely as in previous Twenty One Pilots albums, sometimes coming off as creative “indecisiveness”, they still present a collection of light-hearted tracks perfectly in time for the summer. There is definitely something lacking, but at the same time the duo has managed to retain their sound and charm in a characteristic Twenty One Pilots manner. Besides, it’s quite the refreshing emotional listen after the deep-hitting tone of Trench.