Twenty One Pilots: The Pill in the Hamburger


Twenty One Pilots’ Tyler Joseph (R) and Josh Dun (L) for their 2018 album Trench.  Photo by Brad Heaton.

As readers may already have guessed, I love all sorts of music.  Beauty in all its forms has a way of bypassing all the typical rational and even affective resistances which we have built up in our minds and hearts.  To borrow a line from the comedian/actor Chris Pratt, music and art is a way of slipping medicine in hamburger meat, so that those receiving it don’t know they are taking medicine.  Of course, music and other media are also ways of subtly poisoning the soul, but that’s a discussion for another day.

A few months ago I did a piece on the Indie/Alternative Band Foster the People and their increasing use of Christian imagery and Theology in their lyrics and imagery.  Today, I would like to focus on another band which has thoroughly impressed me, and are due next month to explode on the music scene with the release of their fifth album, Trench.  I refer to Twenty One Pilots, the now two person band made up by singer Tyler Joseph and percussionist Josh Dun, hailing proudly from Columbus, Ohio.

They had a very strong niche following up till 2015, with the release of their fourth album Blurryface and the huge success of two of the album’s singles, Tear in my Heart and Stressed Out.  To date, they have four albums, with the fifth being released in October 2018:

  1. Twenty One Pilots (2009)
  2. Regional at Best (2011)
  3. Vessel (2013)
  4. Blurryface (2015)
  5. Trench (2018)

Why do they stand out?

Twenty One Pilots stands out among popular music today because of the deep profundity and “covert Christianity” of their lyrics.  Tyler Joseph has made no secret of his deep Christian faith, and also his struggle against the fallen human condition, which includes temptations and falls into depression and anxiety.  He has endeared himself to thousands of fans by destigimatizing issues surrounding mental illness, and encouraging community and friendship as a way of coping with the stresses of life.  Theologically, the duo’s vision is extremely orthodox: they have a realist view of Original Sin, as well as a highly developed language of faith, redemption, repentance and what we would call the agonia of the spiritual struggle.  Additionally, their own struggles with what Eastern Christians would call logismoi (that is, thoughts, typically arising from demons or past sins, that create distress and temptation in the person) possess a prominent place in their lyrics.  They have inventively created a lyrical language to explain these concepts to a new generation.  People instinctively know what these realities are, but oftentimes lack the theological vocabulary, or even worse, are allergic to theological vocabulary because of its association with organized religion.  Nevertheless, the lyrics are still the medicine in the hamburger. Let’s consider a few examples.

Original Sin

Let’s start with a song from their first album, arguably the most critically praised therein: Addict with a Pen.  The lyrics are spoken from the first person, from a man who is struggling with some sort of addiction.  The ambiguity of the nature of the addiction universalizes it.  Arguably, he is speaking to God, to whom he says “I know I haven’t been the best of sons…” and that he has been travelling “in the deserts of my mind, and I haven’t found a drop of you”, which he alternatively changes to a “drop of water”, or most evocatively, “a drop of life.”  He identifies the addict as the one who is next to an ocean of cleansing water, and yet clings to the little bit of water he holds in the palm of his hand.  In doing this, he invokes the image of the Prophet Jeremiah, with the “broken cisterns” which cannot hold any water.  This is extremely Augustinian as well, who noted that all sin is largely addictive, and that we “freely went to where we unfreely found [ourselves]”.

Moving to the album Vessel, I would like to note the song Semi Automatic, which if it weren’t for the electronic beat, would read almost like a 21st century Epistle to the Romans.  He even quotes St. Paul, “I’m never what I like…I’m double sided”.  The refrain continues “I kinda like it when I make you cry, cause I’m twisted up, I’m twisted up inside…I’m semi-automatic, my prayer’s schizophrenic.”  He compares the process of struggling with his fallen humanity in a regular day, with hits dawn and dusk: “The horrors of the night melt away, under the warm glow of survival of the day.  Then we move on, my shadow grows taller along with my fears, and my frame shrinks smaller as night grows near.”  He laments the seeming impossibility of confronting the evil within.

Yet at the same time, there are moments of triumph, as he notes in his fourth album’s song Not Today, where he rejects thoughts to despair, and chooses to rise again with God’s help.  God is the protagonist of the song, where Tyler sings: “Heard you say, ‘Not Today’, tore the curtains down, windows open, now make a sound.  Hear your voice, ‘There’s no choice’, tore the curtains down, windows open, now make a noise.”  The idea here is that, in spite of Tyler’s objections, where he says, “I waste all this time trying to run from you”, God barges in his life, opening the windows and letting the light in.

Faith and Thought

Twenty One Pilots frequently juxtaposes belief with daylight and wakefulness, and doubt with darkness and sleep.  Ironically, the third album opener, Ode to Sleep, he desperately tries to escape the demands of being awake, because that means he will have to bear the attacks of evil.  He remains defiant, and he sings, “I’ll stay awake, ’cause the dark’s not taking prisoners tonight…I swear I heard demons yelling, those crazy words they were spelling, they told me I was gone, they told me I was gone.”  He ignores the demons voices, but nevertheless complains against them, telling God “Why won’t you let me go?  Do I threaten all your plans? I’m insignificant.  Please tell ’em you have no plans for me…I will set my soul on fire.  What have I become?  I’m sorry.”  The tension remains unresolved, but developed throughout the album.

In probably his most explicit praise of God, Tyler mentions “The start of a day when we put on our face, a mask that portrays that we don’t need grace, on the eve of a day that is bigger than us, we open our eyes, cause we’re told that we must, and the trees wave their arms and the clouds try to plead, desperately yelling there’s something we need…I’m afraid to tell you who I adore, won’t tell you who I’m singing towards…”  The mention of grace, the use of nature as revelatory of God, and other themes, are woven into a song of incredible complexity.  It’s a complete rejection of Pelagianism.

One of the most popular songs before the Blurryface era, Holding On To You continues the theme of attachment to God, with an almost mystical description of the experience of God:

“You should take my life, you should take my soul:

You are surrounding all my surroundings, sounding down the mountain range of my left-side brain, You are surrounding all my surroundings, Twisting the kaleidoscope behind both my eyes.  And I’ll be holding onto you.”

The song was originally supposed to be called “Entertain My Faith”, in which he invites the listener to do just that for a moment, as he calls the listener to remember his intrinsic dignity as a rational creature.  In that vein, he condemns vapid and stupid music, saying it is beneath our dignity, and that we ultimately should not be passive consumers of it: “When are we gonna stop with it, lyrics that mean nothing, we were gifted with thought.  Is it time to move our feet to an introspective beat?  It ain’t the speakers that bump hearts, it’s our hearts that make the beat.”

Transcendence and the Search for God

On almost every live show, Twenty One Pilots ends with the song Trees, which is arguably one of their most popular songs.  It is deceptively simple.  “I know where you stand, silent in the trees.  And that’s where I am, silent in the trees.  Why won’t you speak?…I can feel your breath, I can feel my death.  I want to know you, I want to see, I want to say: Hello.”  That’s the essence of the song.  It’s the frustration with God’s seeming ‘silence’, while also knowing the closeness of God, along with the knowledge of his own mortality.   This is a song which one must hear in order to understand the emotional intensity of it.  It pushes Tyler Joseph’s voice to the limit.  After a long live show, he almost always admits to fatigue.  Yet he says “We don’t even know where that energy comes from, you know, we feel like there’s nothing left, and then we play Trees and something else kicks in.” I can testify by experience that the atmosphere is electric when they perform that song live.  It taps into something very deep, a longing for something that everyone can just barely touch with the fingertip of their mind.

What’s Coming in October

Trench,  which will release October 5, 2018, is already promising to be an extremely complex and rich album, which even the so-called “Pop Song Professor“, who is a regular commentator and critic of contemporary music, has called a “Rock Opera”.  What seems to be emerging in a Trench is a synthesis of themes of the previous albums, which even are shown in the three existing music videos for the album: in them, Tyler Joseph is shown imprisoned by these mysterious beings called “The Niners”, which some interpret as deadly sins or devils.  These beings attempt to make Tyler love and prefer his imprisonment, which is called alternatively ‘Dema’ or a “Tower of Silence“, which is an ancient Zoroastrian structure where bodies were exposed to sun and carrion so that the flesh of the deceased would be completely consumed, and the bones bleached.  However, much of the drama of the album is how the evil beings attempt to abduct him on his journey out, and drag him back to the prison.  In the process, though, Tyler comes to rely on his allies and friends whom he calls ‘Banditos’, who protect and support him in the path to freedom.  It is in this vein that the single which is already gaining radio time, My Blood, is rising in the charts: its beat, reminiscent of 80s era synthpop, is an expression of unconditional commitment in the face of personal adversity.  Once again, he even uses Biblical imagery: “If you find yourself in a lion’s den, I’ll jump right in, and pull the pin.  I’ll go with you.”

In an age of artists who glorify promiscuous sex, money, drugs, vanity and pride, it is refreshing to see music in the mainstream which talks about the only things really worth singing about: love, God, relationships, the universal struggle for spiritual and personal growth, and the fight against sin, fear, and depression.

I heartily recommend Twenty One Pilots to parents and grandparents whose children love music, but also crave something with depth.  The duo are extremely capable musicians who firstly make good music, and then also crafted meaningful and honest lyrics.  Our culture, addicted to ugliness, despair and malice in the name of “realism”, needs more bands like Twenty One Pilots, a delicious ‘hamburger’ delivering much needed medicine to sick hearts and minds.

…And I think, come October, I myself will even wear a little more yellow, in honor of the Banditos.