Vessel: Twenty One Pilots’ sophomore album turns 10

It is a commonly held belief that the music that someone listens to around the age of fourteen is influential to their music taste for the rest of their life. A combination of adolescent rebellion, important events in the listener’s life, and the beginnings of them forming their music taste independently of outside forces that would likely have some sway over music taste, particularly familial influences. I state this as a means of preparing the ground for the shocking, almost horrifying revelation that 14-year-old me was a massive Twenty One Pilots fan. Whilst my peers were getting really into the solo careers of One Direction, K-Pop or this random indie singer called Billie Eilish, I was obsessively listening to the work of bands like Twenty One Pilots. Both the music itself and the members, Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun, were deeply impactful to me in a way that I won’t elaborate on in case someone ends up finding my old fanfiction.

This, however, creates a very complicated relationship between me and their 2013 album VesselAs I was relistening to it for the thousandth time I was simultaneously wishing to be far more critical of it – the random shifts in production for no particular reason, the strange mixing that sometimes throws a song out of kilter, Tyler Joseph’s blunt, occasionally simplistic lyrics, and weak vocal performance – and yet unable to find fault with the album. For me, as I assume it is for many fans, albums like Vessel serve as this shout in the void that is able to deeply resonate with the listener in a way that is almost amplified further by its flaws. Moments of poor vocals or lacklustre production envelop this sentiment. Either inadvertently or deliberately this album is symbolic of the experiences of many. The flaws give this underlying sense that the album was created in the moment as a cathartic scream for the band’s members and by extension, the listeners.

That the loss of a car radio can feel like the end of the world.

The song ‘Car Radio’, (which is by far the most popular track on the album with 450 million streams and counting), is symbolic of this sentiment. A premise that initially appears quite banal, the loss of a car radio, is explored as if the wish that “I liked it better when my car had sound” means that the narrator is using these sounds as distractions – if they can focus on the songs on the radio or a litany of other menial tasks, they will not have to confront anything within themselves. The loss of the car radio means that they are forced to “just sit in silence” and deal with these things that could be devasting even if only dealt with for a short time. Twenty One Pilots could explore this concept further in a second verse, what might happen now the person is forced to deal with only themselves for company, but they don’t.

Instead, they opt for this large soaring electronic instrumental accompanied by Joseph screaming “And now I just sit in silence” before repeating the opening verse and ending the song abruptly. This lack of closure or elaboration on the speaker’s state merged with the abrupt change in style from sparse piano and spoken word to electronica, is frustrating when critically examined. It is almost without purpose. However, there is this youthful confusion that the song resonates with, making minor losses that spiral into so much more. That the loss of a car radio can feel like the end of the world.

They are still able to resonate with the listener, despite the sometimes simplistic lyrics. 

Similar effects are felt on tracks like ‘Holding on to You’ which has an emotional bridge built on the yearning, desperate repetition of the lyrics “entertain my faith” before an abrupt change to a rap verse and ‘Trees’ which has a structure that is very similar to ‘Car Radio’ – centring around one verse and a lot of switches in production that work to capture the emotions at the core of the song. Even tracks like ‘Screen’, ‘House of Gold’, and ‘Truce’ that are far more one note regarding production, they are still able to resonate with the listener, despite the sometimes simplistic lyrics. 

Whilst the experience of returning to this album may be accompanied by rose-tinted glasses that are not present for some of their other projects – their most recent album, Scaled and Icy (2021) fits alongside most of Imagine Dragons’ discography as perfectly crafted for car commercials and their failed attempt at a cover of My Chemical Romance’s beloved song Cancer is genuinely painful to listen to – there is a certain kindness afforded to Vessel. Not only is the band’s debut on a major label allowing them to take songs off their previous album Regional at Best (2011) and improve on the production in several areas, but it is also a deeply personal album that explores mental health, love, finding your place in the world with this earnestness that made the band beloved with so many people. There are undoubtedly flaws to Vessel that more critical listeners will take note of but to me, it will always be one of the first albums I fell in love with as I listened to it on my small portable cd player (because I had one of those for some reason) in the middle of the night when I was 14.

Recommended listening: ‘Ode to Sleep’


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