Twenty One Pilots' 'Trench': Decoding the New Album's Hidden Meanings

Brad Heaton


The latest era of Twenty One Pilots started with a trilogy of videos letting us into their interior world, laying out what it’s like to live in the minds of Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun. With the arrival of their fifth album Trench, much of their fervent fan base -- aka, the Skelton Clique --  expected the story to continue unfolding with the introduction of more characters and events. However, the album isn’t as straightforward as this. The narrative has unraveled somewhat; it’s more like a series of fables explaining what life is like inside the band's alternate universe.

Strewn throughout the album are clues for those who care to dedicate far too much time to picking everything apart. So after already deconstructing “Jumpsuit,” “Nico and The Niners” and “Levitate,” let’s jump into Trench.

While the entire album doesn’t tell one conceptual story from beginning to end, we still learn more about the world surrounding DEMA and Trench. Early in the album, one of the key discoveries comes with "Morph," at track three. Here, we learn the identity of Nico, the titular character of “Nico and The Niners” and one of Joseph's key adversaries in this narrative. His full name is Nicolas Bourbaki, which is the collective pseudonym for the scientists who invented the notation for zero or “empty set” -- the Ø used in much of the band’s branding over the years.

Nico is but one of the nine bishops, and fans have theorized that each bishop represents a song from Blurryface, and each song represents a different personality trait of the character of Blurryface. There are no more direct mentions of the Nine throughout the album, so it feels more open-ended to project your own insecurities or negative traits onto the rest of the bishops.

In “Pet Cheetah,” Joseph mentions that his house is the one with the vultures on the roof. Based on what we’ve learned already, this would suggest that his house is DEMA, where the vultures perch on the roof to pick apart their prey.

Other callbacks on the album go back to specific lyrics from 2015's Blurryface and 2013's Vessel. In “My Blood,” Joseph sings, “If you find yourself in a lion’s den, I’ll jump right in and pull my pin.” This harkens back to the old fan favorite “Migraine,” in which he sings about being on a violent island full of suicidal, crazed lions trying to eat him while he collects weapons to fight back. It feels like there are no coincidences in the Twenty One Pilots universe; everything is intentional. If Joseph is so willing to jump in the lion’s den to save a friend, it could be because he previously learned how to fight against the “lions” and now knows how to defeat them. The track “Chlorine” begins with a deep voice asking where he’s been, which seems likely to be Blurryface, based on other uses of pitch-shifted voices.

Other songs like “Smithereens” and “Legend” feel like side quests within the main storyline. Despite being surrounded by this limbo between the swells of depression and achieving positive mental health, there are moments that exist on their own. “Smithereens” is exactly the type of love song I’d expect to find from Twenty One Pilots: It’s fun and quirky, but what sets it apart is how much heart it's got. It’s the perfect way to show that you can be depressed and still have beautiful, happy moments. “Legend” is a touching tribute to Joseph's late grandfather Robert, who graced the cover of Vessel. These moments are part of his life while in Trench, but they can exist as their own memories separate from Trench itself.

But the main story throughout the entirety of Trench is that limbo between being in your darkest moments and making it out the other side. “Morph” explains how Joseph will keep himself distracted and moving forward and keep “morphing” so he doesn’t wallow in isolation. He muses over the ones and zeros that transmit messages to him, pondering if anyone is listening. It feels like he’s acknowledging the coding in the music that only those who’ve faced similar struggles can truly “hear."

It continues from there. “Chlorine” sounds at first listen like a cry for help, but you realize the ingestion of the chemical is less about harming himself and more about cleansing himself of the dark thoughts inside of him. The beat is a chemical, as he says. Creating music is cathartic, but going to that place for too long can be harmful -- much like drinking chlorine. The most telling line comes in the second half when Joseph mentions how his body lives on lead. He lives to create, but his creation now “doubles as a papermaker.” It’s no longer just cathartic and therapeutic; it’s now his main source of income. He relies on tapping in to his depression to support his family, and it makes sense how you could grow to despise the process at times for that.

“Neon Gravestones” is the moment on the album that may redeem the band in the eyes of those who accused them of glamorizing depression in the past. They break down in great detail how our society and the media glorify those that die by suicide, making their entire story about their death as opposed to their life. The “neon” is a fake light, distracting from the person and attracting all the attention towards the death itself. This also ties back to the neon lights in the “Nico and the Niners” video, which may actually finally explain to us what “vialism” is -- the worshipping of the fake light. It tells you what to think, do, and say, but it’s not real, much like the voices in your head when you’re battling with depression. We’ve finally started to break down the stigma around depression, suicide, and mental health, but we’re taking it too far in the opposite direction and glorifying it instead of normalizing it.

The album has two real heart-stoppers near the end. “Bandito” keeps repeating a message throughout the chorus about how one could take the high road but instead he’s “going low.” This could have many meanings, depending on how you read into it. It could be a reference to “I’m lighter when I’m lower, I’m higher when I’m heavy” from “Nico and The Niners.” It could be a reference to choosing to create the album he wants instead of taking the mainstream path and creating something commercially successful. It could also represent him choosing to hide his messages within metaphors and in-jokes, so that only those who relate will understand the message. For instance, "Sahlo Folina" -- a phrase repeated multiple times throughout the song. What happens when you unscramble those letters? You get “all Ohio fans.” It’s all about what’s hidden within the music.

We’re used to Twenty One Pilots ending albums with a piano ballad that ramps up to a crescendo. “Leave the City” never quite reaches that crescendo and leaves you feeling a little incomplete. This perfectly reflects the fact that you never quite reach the end of the battle with mental health. It’s an ongoing struggle that you need to keep working at. Joseph reiterates over the course of the song how hard he’s working to keep the fire burning and keep himself alive, but it’s exhausting to put in so much effort for barely a flicker.

Many parts of this song seem to have double meanings. Leaving the city and for now just staying alive could either mean he’ll someday make it out of his depression and will persevere until then, or one day he’ll die but for now he’ll just remember to live. The repetition of “they know that it’s almost over” could be referencing the bishops knowing the end is near as Joseph regains control over his thoughts. Or, it could be a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that their albums often follow a distinct pattern, and any seasoned listener will already know this is the end of the album before even checking.

Whether or not there’s as much to read into this album as I believe there is, this is the power of Twenty One Pilots. They compel you to dig through their music for its deeper meaning, and you often learn about your own mind in the process. Through the past months of deciphering clues in every piece of media they release, I’ve spent time reckoning with my own feelings on mental health. I’ve thought about the importance of music that allows you to feel like someone else understands your struggle, while not dismissing it or glorifying it. It almost acts as a new jumping off point instead of waiting to hit rock bottom, a new ledge to hang on to as you climb your way out of DEMA. The band has said it time and time again, but it’s not meant to be for everyone. But for those of us that need it, it’s there. In Trench, we're not alone.