Last issue I discussed Twenty One Pilots’ excellent recent show in Auckland: easily as good as anything I’ve seen in 25 years of live concerts.
Their latest record is something of a concept album that features a character named Blurryface, who gives the album its title. “This character helped me understand my insecurities,” singer Tyler Joseph told Rolling Stone. “I give it a name . . . so I could really stare at it and analyse from that perspective.”
When performing he wears black makeup on his neck and hands to represent how he feels suffocated and shackled by his insecurities. This macabre theatricality serves the purpose of telling the story Joseph and drummer Josh Dun want to share: that life can be a confusing struggle, but we’re not alone and must persevere with faith and hope. By the end of the show the make-up has worn off: the character has been defeated.
The song Heavydirtysoul opens the album and the concert. “Right now I got a crazy mind to clean. . . . Can you save my heavy dirty soul?” asks Joseph. “Sing it with me if you know what I’m talking about,” the second verse invites the crowd, and they sing to him in unison.
Motifs of sleep and sleeplessness, of death and darkness, play out in many songs, and Guns For Hands has these, but also the converse: to this “whole room of these mutant kids”, Joseph wants to proclaim, “There’s hope out the window/ So that’s where we’ll go”.
Migraine draws a metaphor for anxiety. “Wars behind my face and above my throat / . . . Behind my eyelids are islands of violence / My mind’s shipwrecked” which both migraine sufferers and those who have depression or anxiety will respond to. But again, hope: “Shadows will scream that I’m alone / But I know we’ve made it this far, kid.”
Polarize speaks of the tension of trying to do the right thing. “It’s deciding . . . where to fight / . . . I wanted to be a better brother, better son / Wanted to be a better adversary to the evil I have done.”
The band’s name comes from an Arthur Miller play that tells the story of a businessman who faces a moral dilemma when he knowingly sells faulty aeroplane parts, an action that causes the death of twenty-one pilots.
“Making the right decision in life sometimes takes more work,” said Joseph to Rolling Stone.
Polarize is one of many songs that addresses an unidentified “you” — “I don’t know where you are / . . . Help me out” — who seems to be God.
The band are committed Christians and their faith often comes through.
“For me and my faith, it will always be a big part of my music, whether it’s directly or indirectly,” Joseph told fans in a Q&A on the Reddit website. Mostly indirectly on Blurryface, but earlier works are more clear.
Addict With a Pen appears in a medley of older songs: “I know I haven’t been the best of sons / . . . You hear me screaming Father / . . . So wash me with your water.”
The Judge appears in a lighter section featuring ukulele and crowd participation half an hour in. “You’re the judge, oh no, set me free” speaks of both the justice and mercy of God. The song builds to a crescendo, then the lights go down. In the darkness a distorted voice comes over the speakers.
This is the Blurryface persona, and it urges the listener to “Stay low” in a spooky, unsettling moment. The band kick into Lane Boy and the meaning of the intro becomes clear — the song is about conforming to others’ expectations, keeping your head down, staying in your lane. Specifically, it refers to the band resisting expectations for their musicmaking, “but we go where we want to / . . . I know a thing or two about pain and darkness / If it wasn’t for this music, I don’t know how I would’ve fought this.”
It’s clear from fans that this band’s music means a lot to them. This is not just Joseph working out his insecurities and struggles through his art but also the proffering of a message of hope and joy.
Twenty One Pilots are, in a real way, collaborators in the Church’s project of “preaching and rendering accessible and comprehensible to the minds and hearts of our people the things of the spirit”, as Bl. Pope Paul VI put it in an audience with artists.
St John Paul II, reiterating the idea that the Church and artists need each other, said artists are “constantly in search of the hidden meaning of things, and their torment is to succeed in expressing the world of the ineffable”.
Twenty One Pilots are on this tormenting mission, and when so much so-called “Christian music” is so vapid, it’s great to know there are Christians like Tyler and Dun — and others —making art like this.