Clancy is twenty one pilots’ Past, Present and Future

The Columbus, Ohio duo concludes nine years of extensive world-building on their lyrically ambitious but sonically uneven seventh and latest LP.

Music Reviews Twenty One Pilots
Clancy is twenty one pilots’ Past, Present and Future

It’s hard to believe it’s been over nine years since twenty one pilots released “Stressed Out,” catapulting the homegrown Ohio duo into the stratosphere. Discovering this song marked the beginning of my journey with the band, and shortly after I was mass consuming YouTube interviews in which the duo constantly reinvented their origin story, begging my parents to see them live (I got to go twice!). This was the Blurryface era, and in addition to it being many fans’ introduction to the band, it laid the foundation for what would become nine years of world-building. It is an expansive world, too, featuring mind control, dragons and evil bishops, but it is (or so it seems) coming to a close with the pilots’ latest record, Clancy.

The twenty one pilots’ lore, while elaborate, has always paralleled the more concrete story of singer Tyler Joseph’s battle with mental health. 2015’s Blurryface introduced a character of the same name to personify Joseph’s anxiety and depression, while 2018’s Trench expanded the world and saw Joseph trying to escape with the help of the Banditos, led by drummer Josh Dun. Upon its release, Trench quickly became twenty one pilots’ best record, as it paired its grand world building with a cinematic musical experience, complete with enveloping atmospheres and the band’s best writing to date. Unfortunately, the follow-up, Scaled and Icy, did not expand upon these qualities, but rather housed a collection of mediocre pop songs. As far as the lore goes, it was intentional, as Joseph was made to comply with the bad actors trapping him in Dema (which is home to Blurryface and is the city that represents Joseph losing his mental battle) by writing “propaganda.” However, furthering lore is not an excuse to write bland music. As fans awaited Clancy, it was easy to fear that the songwriting would again suffer in the name of world building. You prayed for another Trench, dreading another Scaled and Icy.

As it turns out, for better or worse, Clancy is distinct from both of these records. Rather than adhering to one aesthetic over another, be it towering soundscapes or pseudo-feel good simplicity, Clancy is more scattershot. The album pulls from a range of twenty one pilots’ eras, resulting in a grab bag of styles the band has toyed with in the past. “At the Risk Of Feeling Dumb” is underpinned by a reggae beat reminiscent of “Ride,” while “The Craving (Jenna’s Version)” is as stripped back as a twenty one pilots song has been since “House of Gold” and “Truce” off of Vessel. The duo also brings some new elements into the fold, such as the strings on “Vignette” and “Lavish,” but these additions come across more as embellishments than reinventions, as there is little to no sonic throughline across the album. In theory, a twenty one pilots tour de force would be an interesting way to conclude the longstanding story, but unfortunately the execution on Clancy often leaves much to be desired, particularly in the second half.

The first half, however, is quite strong. The lead single “Overcompensate” is an ambitious start to the record, accelerating over a synth intro for a minute-and-a-half before the beat masterfully breaks down into the first verse. In the build up, “Welcome back to Trench” can be heard, followed by lyrics from “Banditos,” calling back to the 2018 release and affirming that we are once again immersed in twenty one pilots’ long-standing world. The immediately aggressive drumming is also reminiscent of “Heavydirtysoul,” the Blurryface opener which introduced fans to the mythology in the first place. While “Overcompensate” might not be as explosive as Trench’s intro, “Jumpsuit,” it definitely builds the hype upwards (and it will definitely get the crowd going live).

The following “Next Semester” is an infectious punk inspired banger, complete with a driving chorus and some of Joseph’s most expressive vocals on the record. By the third time he sings “I remember what I was wearing,” you can’t help but shout along with him. It’s one of the best tracks on the record and also features an acoustic guitar breakdown that is both fitting and very twenty one pilots core. The sequence of three tracks after “Next Semester” keep the momentum going, especially with choruses you’ll be singing along to by the end of each song. “Routines in the Night” is perhaps the catchiest, smoothly blending lyrics about movement with late night mental battles, not unlike the overarching lore. Joseph sings, “While all the world’s asleep, I walk around and stare, through the memories, down the halls in my head.” The chorus on “Backslide” also evolves nicely, and when Joseph finds his pocket with “I’ll take anything you, if you could throw me a line,” he is playing perfectly into the strengths of his off-kilter voice.

Unfortunately, there are many times on the record where Joseph’s vocals don’t go over as well, particularly when he’s rapping. The verses on “Backslide” and “Routines in the Night” are fairly awkward, and it’s not smooth sailing from there. In addition to featuring strings that are cooler in concept than reality, “Vignette” and “Lavish” are home to more rapping that does nothing to compliment the surrounding atmospheres, and the verses on “Snap Back” aren’t much better (side note, what are they doing playing with that Glass Animals’ Dreamland-style beat?).

Even when there is less rapping, the production often falls flat, as is the case for “Navigating” and “At the Risk Of Feeling Dumb.” Both songs attempt in-your-face, hard hitting climaxes, but the way the guitars and bass come together isn’t nearly as impactful as comparable moments on Trench. In particular, Joseph achieved an incredibly fat, distorted bass tone on that record and it is sadly missing from Clancy.

Fortunately, some of the record’s final moments do stick the landing: “Oldies Station” is a sweet message from Joseph to a younger generation of twenty one pilots fans, encouraging them to keep pushing through even though growing up is difficult. It’s earnest, direct and a welcome change of pace. Finally, the outro “Paladin Strait” features tasteful synth layering and is a nice end to the record. In typical twenty one pilots fashion, the music sounds joyful but the lyrics are anything but, with Joseph repeating that he is “past the point of no return,” ultimately losing the battle he began both at the start of this record and at the start of the duo’s entire saga nine years ago. If this is the end of the story, the conclusion is bleak. It’ll leave you wondering if it’s a coda after all.

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