Considering how much I tend to dislike songs that specifically reference quarantine, and Twenty One Pilots, on the whole, I actually quite enjoyed the band’s last single ‘Level of Concern’. It was light, poppy fun that was able to reference current events without sounding hilariously dated in the process. It sounded very much like The 1975, which is the direction I like my favourite Pilots tracks to take. It’s certainly better than when they try the whole “white boy indie rap” routine.
So imagine my delight when the boys stick to their better instincts on ‘Shy Away’, the newest single from Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun’s now decade-plus long project. There are no cringy rap breakdowns, no weirdly shoehorned-in references to Christian iconography, and faux-rock band aggression from a band that was always a pop act deep in their hearts. Just simple pop melodies and elastic guitars.
Maybe it’s just me, but pop music has seemed to take a step back from grandiosity in recent years. With the rise of SoundCloud rap and bedroom pop, artists have embraced the merits of keeping the scope of your ambitions smaller. Cheaper sounding keyboards take up prominent space in arrangements, lyrical themes deal with anxiety and everyday problems, production is minimalist and doesn’t have to have that major studio sheen covering it. After two albums that sound like they were tailor-made for chart dominance, it’s refreshing to hear something like ‘Shy Away’ from Twenty One Pilots.
Lyrically, ‘Shy Away’ is one of those “reach for the stars, who cares if you fail, because at least you tried” type of motivational songs. Apparently, the inspiration came from Joseph’s advice to his younger brother Jay about following his dreams in the music industry, which basically came down to the lines in the pre-chorus: “Shed your modesty/Don’t circle the track/Take what you have/And leave your skin on the floor”. It’s good advice, and Joseph sells it with a sort of casualness that avoids his occasionally preachy delivery.
It really is Joseph’s show, as it’s always been. Dun is able to shine in concert, but his contributions to the band’s records have always been hard to detect, if not completely absent. ‘Shy Away’ is no exception, as the programmed drums have clearly replaced his own playing. Dun always seemed like a guy who wanted to be in a more traditional rock band but hung with Joseph either out of a sense of loyalty or because the band had reached a level of success that’s hard to walk away from. Either way, I don’t hear much of him on most of the Pilots’ work, and I don’t hear him here.
But the upside is that the programmed drums and swirling synths all serve the song well. They create a propulsive energy that gets you moving, and Joseph really has a knack for creating memorable lines that stick in your noggin. Without the exaggerated histrionics of his previous lyrical content, this is, to my ears, the most enjoyable version of Twenty One Pilots. Here’s hoping the parent album, Scaled and Icy, continues those trends.
Check out the video for ‘Shy Away’ down below. Scaled and Icy is set for a May 21st release.