by Josef Junek
They were coming back!
The news spread quickly. Finally, after a year of no touring or social media activity, and four years without a new album, Twenty One Pilots was coming back.
As soon as I heard, I immediately hopped onto YouTube to check out their new singles—”Jumpsuit” and “Nico and the Niners.” I was ecstatic. TOP had been my favorite band since 2013 when I first heard “Holding On To You” on my local Christian/alternative radio station. Their strange mix of genres (electronic/pop/rock/hip-hop/reggae/folk/baroque/ukulele) combined with deep philosophical and sometimes, even theological ponderings were unlike anything I’d ever heard before. What could I expect from their new album Trench? A prayer to God in Beatles-esque harmony, like “Holding On To You”? Maybe a cheery summer-sounding PSA about teenage depression, like “Guns for Hands”? Or perhaps even another nostalgic rap about lead singer Tyler Joseph’s childhood, like their mainstream hit “Stressed Out”? I eagerly clicked on the link.
Six minutes later I was finished.
I had just watched the music video for “Jumpsuit” and listened to “Nico and the Niners,” and the same question that raced through my mind was echoed by every other fan at that exact same moment.
“What the heck was that?”
It was good, but it was weird, even for Twenty One Pilots. As the full album released, we got a low-energy, synth-heavy, incredibly repetitive conglomeration of songs dedicated to Tyler’s family and the songwriting process itself. Smattered throughout the album was an overarching allegorical story about a fantasy world called “Trench,” encompassing the city of “Dema,” ruled by the nine bishops of “Vialism.” The music videos show us red-robed figures on white horses, a gang of banditos throwing yellow flowers, rooms of neon lightbulbs…what does it all mean?
Over the next month or so, I pored over the lyrics, pulled up song-analysis sites, studied YouTube explanations, watched interviews with Tyler, and eventually, I found a solution.
While much is left to speculation, since TOP never explain their lyrics, I am convinced that Trench is about Tyler’s struggle with doubting God.
Whether this analysis is accurate to what Tyler Joseph intended or not, a close look at the album Trench reveals some important truths about doubt.
First, we must understand what Dema represents. The only bit of information that Tyler has divulged for us through interviews and press conferences is that Dema is a city stuck in between two places. Where we used to be, and where we need to be. But what could those two places be? If you watch the music videos in order, the very first words you hear are not lyrics, but rather Tyler speaking in soft monotone, giving the audience a tease as to what is coming: “We’ve been here the whole time. You were asleep. Time to wake up.”
This recalls their hit “Car Radio,” where Tyler uses “awake” and “asleep” as metaphors for having faith and living life in apathy respectively. If those are the two places surrounding Dema, then Dema represents that time in your life when you know you ought to believe in something greater, but your inclination is to disbelieve. It’s that horrible shifting middle ground of doubt.
Doubt has been a theme of Twenty One Pilots’ ever since “Implicit Demand for Proof,” the first song on their debut album. While in previous songs, Tyler was able to question God directly and ask Him to change his thoughts, in Trench Tyler is not able to reach beyond his doubt to even talk to God. He feels trapped.
We learn in “Morph”—the first song to really introduce the rules of Dema—that the giant walls surrounding the city represent the problem of death. Tyler knows he will die one day, and he wants to find a way to the Afterlife. He sings, “there’s no above or under or around it.” “Above,” to Tyler, is the folly of blind faith based on emotion. “Under” is surrender to apathy or suicide, which is unacceptable. That only leaves “around” which represents logic and reason. He’s searching desperately for proof of God while trying to get around the walls. But Dema is surrounded by one continuous circular wall. If you start on the inside and try to go around, you’re trapped; you’ll keep running and never find a way out. That is exactly what happens to anyone who tries to prove the existence of God absolutely. To do so would be a “scientific miracle,” since it’s an impossible task. You can only run around in circles.
This is the first truth: Doubt is an endless loop. You can never be satisfied if you continue the same thought process.
What caused Tyler to doubt God? We learn that the city’s overlords—the bishops— control Dema’s inhabitants through the religion of “Vialism,” which is shown in the music videos as the worship of neon lightbulbs. In a general sense, this is a worship of something man-made and unsubstantial. More specifically in Tyler’s case, it could represent fame. The bishops are depicted as manifestations of Blurryface, the titular character of TOP’s mainstream breakthrough album. Because of Blurryface, Tyler received everything one could want from the world: fame, awards, and a ton of money. It is the Blurryface album that brought Tyler to this city of doubt. This is counterintuitive to how we would normally think the story should go. Mostly we think doubt in our faith arises from some traumatic God’s Not Dead sob story, where so-and-so died of cancer, leaving us to question such-and-such about God. While that does happen, more often it is when life is good that we forget God. When the thought of God does cross our minds, we doubt because we already feel in control of our circumstances. We reason, “Why should there be a God when I’m already god of my own life?”
Yet, while Tyler is enjoying his success, his concurrent journey through doubt feels hollow. As Tyler continues to run through Dema, he cries, “In city, I feel my spirit is contained/Like neon inside the glass, they form my brain/But I recently discovered/It’s a heatless fire.” This worship of Vialism is sucking the spirituality out of him. Hence, the low energy of the album. He’s running in circles. Hence the overly repetitive lyrics of the album. He can sing about his family and songwriting, but God is something he doesn’t want to think about. Hence the somewhat shallow topics in the album.
It is because of the second truth: Doubt mostly arises from normal life. When things are fine, our faith is all too easy to let slip by.
Tyler is not without hope. In the music videos, we’re introduced to a group of yellow-clad outlaws who follow Tyler at a distance wherever he goes. They lead him out of Dema with torches on multiple escape attempts. They shower him with bright yellow sunflower pedals before he’s recaptured by the bishops, time after time. However, he clings to the sunflowers in the hope he will one day escape for good. This is when the group sends him a secret message, (sang backward at the beginning of “Nico and the Niners”). It says: “We denounce Vialism. You will leave Dema and head true east. We are banditos.”
This prompts Tyler to sing about how fearless he suddenly becomes when he hears this message, which he condenses into the phrase “east is up.” What does this phrase mean? The banditos wear yellow, carry fire, and give sunflowers, all symbols of the sun. The sun rises in the east, so “east is up” is the banditos’ way of telling Tyler that the morning sun has risen. What is the significance of the morning sun?
TOP cleverly gives us a clue in their current tour, The Bandito Tour, where they’ve reprised only one song from their debut self-titled album. The song is called “Taxi Cab,” a cleverly written analogy of the Holy Trinity directing Tyler’s life, through the metaphor of a taxi. This is the last verse: “Then there were three men up front/All I saw were backs of heads/And then I asked them am I alive and well or am I dreaming dead/And then one turned around to say/We’re driving toward the morning sun/Where all your blood is washed away/And all you did will be undone.”
The morning sun is a symbol of Heaven. In this season of doubt, the only way Tyler can carry on is to have other people let him know that Heaven exists. God exists. He’s got things under control and there is such a thing as the Afterlife.
Which brings us to the third truth: You must not live in doubt by yourself. You must have other people in your life to break you out of the circular track of your mind.
But it seems the banditos’ message is not enough to break Tyler free of his doubt. Every time they lead him out of the city into the greater world of Trench, the bishops come and steal him back for themselves.
Why is it that every time we think we have shed ourselves of doubt, we fall right back in again?
Tyler reveals his answer in the song “Bandito,” one of the most low-energy, most repetitive songs of the entire album. He reveals, “I created this world/to feel some control.” Then he sings, “I could take the high road/But I know that I’m going low/I’m a ban, I’m a bandito.” This entire allegorical world, Trench, Dema, the banditos, the bishops, Vialism. It’s fake. It’s a figment of Tyler’s imagination. He created a fictional narrative to feel like he could be his own god, furthering his doubt. He knows he could “take the high road”—he could live in reality—but he wants to live in this sub-creation. He wants to be a bandito, a fictional character whose circumstances he can control.
And so, we too create narratives for our minds to live in. When we doubt in God, we often create some form of narrative to compensate. Some of us, like Tyler, create artistic fictions and throw ourselves into our art whenever we face doubt. Some throw themselves into other people’s music, books, or films, immersing themselves in those worlds. Sometimes we create scientific explanations as to how things came to be. Sometimes we subconsciously exaggerate our own life situations. We create these narratives to feel control, and it is fun! There’s no denying it. And if we enjoy a destructive behavior known only by us and controlled by us, is there any hope of escaping?
It is unlikely because of the fourth truth: When doubting God, we compensate with a specially-tailored narrative that gives us control and no reason to leave.
It looks as if Tyler’s fate is sealed. He can’t leave Dema and he doesn’t want to leave.
But then something strange happens. Something strange and wonderful.
For the second-to-last song of the album, Tyler sings one last time about his family. It’s “Legend,” and it’s about his late grandfather, who passed away during the writing of the song. It’s a very sweet and poignant song, a fitting tribute. While the song is mostly Tyler’s regrets about not visiting his grandfather in his last days, the song takes a sharp turn at the last verse: “Then the day that it happened/I recorded this last bit/I look forward to having/A lunch with you again.” As soon as his grandfather passes away, Tyler’s perspective changes. Instead of only showing regret, he takes on a hopeful tone. He expects that he will see his grandfather again after his passing.
Tyler believes in the Afterlife again.
This segues straight into the last song of the album, “Leave the City,” where Tyler sings about how he’s going to leave the city, but for now, he’ll stay alive. This has two meanings. One is connected to the metaphor of Dema’s walls symbolizing death, which we saw in “Morph.” In this sense, Tyler is saying that someday he will die, but he won’t try to hasten the process. The second meaning is that in time, Tyler will leave the entire world of Trench. He’ll get out of this narrative he’s created, thereby eradicating himself of this doubt. He even says that his characters “know that it’s almost over.”
Based on the track placement, it would seem his grandfather’s death somehow shook Tyler loose and snapped him back to reality. Instead of this narrative of Blurryface having a deathly grip on him, keeping him from belief, suddenly he’s able to realize that this is no fantasy world. We live, we die, we must go somewhere after that, and someone must be pulling the strings.
If Tyler is sure of one thing, it is the fifth truth: While these narratives we create as a coping mechanism can be fun to play in, it’s not reality. They must be dropped completely if we are ever to escape that horrible city between two places: the city of Doubt.
The one truth Twenty One Pilots does not tell us in Trench is how we can escape these narratives. Are we to go above in blind emotional belief, go under in apathy, or around in proof? All three seem to have major downsides, but perhaps there’s a healthy combination that can lead us back to God. Maybe there’s a fourth option. Maybe there is no correct “method” because faith is a one-step process.
I’m sure the way in which people shed their doubt varies from person to person. But if you ever find yourself trapped in doubt, do whatever you must to get out. Life is too great a story to waste living as a lesser character in one of your own.
East is up.