leaving the city: a crisis of faith in twenty one pilots’ “trench”

For if and when we go above, the question still remains:
Are we still in love, and is it possible we feel the same?
– “Morph”, Twenty One Pilots

If you don’t listen to Twenty One Pilots, you should.

They are masters of blending big questions and doubts about life and faith with genuinely excellent music. While I’m often discouraged by a lack of high-quality Christian art in the mainstream, I’m thankful for a band that uses their incredible talent to talk about the intersections of their faith with mental illness and maintaining a belief in God even in a world as dark and difficult as ours. They make it seem normal for lyrics about suicide, depression, or existential confusion to be backed by upbeat ukulele melodies.

With their recent releases, the duo (Josh Dun on drums, Tyler Joseph on pretty much everything else) has been experimenting with concept albums. TØP’s 2015 album Blurryface dealt with mental illness embodied by a person – Tyler’s dark alter-ego Blurryface – and 2018’s Trench builds on this metaphor. Blurryface is still here in the form of Nico and his Niners, who are bent on terrorizing Clancy (Tyler’s character) and his Banditos. But mental illness is also a place: the city of Dema, where Clancy is trapped. The album focuses on his efforts to escape the city.

Tyler Joseph has been open about both his Christian upbringing and his struggle to stay rooted in the faith. In a recent interview with Alternative Press, Tyler spoke about how the time spent writing this album was the first time he “entertained a world in which there isn’t a God”. The album’s final song, “Leave the City”, offers a meditation on what it feels like to find oneself on the cusp of such a world.

I’m tired of tending to this fire
I’ve used up all I’ve collected
I have singed my hands
Its glowing embers barely showing
Proof of life in the shadows
Dancing on my plans

Here at the start of the song, I get the sense that Clancy is in transit: he’s not in the city anymore, but he’s not somewhere notable, either. Why else would he build a fire unless he was trying to keep warm in the wilderness? Before the final drum solo in “Levitate” (my personal favourite from the album), there’s a period of almost-silence filled with intermittent bass beats. But in the midst of that silence, there is a little bit of noise: nighttime crickets and the crackle of a fire. Even here, in the second song of the album, Clancy’s in the wilderness; following those sounds, we hear a deep voice saying, “Welcome to Trench”. This nowhere place, then, is Trench: the place between mental illness and wholeness, the place between having faith and losing it. Clancy’s literally “in the trenches” as he fights to escape Dema and to gain back some sort of understanding about his faith and his mental state.

If we take the fire metaphor even further, we can see that faith is what’s keeping Clancy going as he leaves Dema, the same way any weary traveler draws strength from the warmth and light of an evening fire. But these lyrics speak to a faith that’s dying. What used to be a raging flame is now “embers barely showing”; plus, the fire has burned Clancy, even in the midst of all his efforts to keep it alive: “I’ve used up all I’ve collected/I have singed my hands”. There are no reserves left to keep his faith going.

They know that it’s almost
They know that it’s almost over
They know that it’s almost
They know that it’s almost over

Perhaps the “they” that Clancy refers to here is the bishops of Dema. Clancy may have gotten away, but the bishops – Blurryface’s henchmen – have eyes on Clancy enough to know that if his fire goes out, they’ll be able to drag him back into their clutches.

Eventually, Clancy’s ruminations wind down to this repetition:

In time, I will leave the city
For now, I will stay alive

These lines are chilling. They start out with just a tinkling piano but then build to a gorgeous, screaming crescendo. Here, Clancy acknowledges that someday he’ll make it out of the city; until then, though, while he’s in Trench, he’ll do what he can to survive. I love how the band makes note that it’s okay to be in a place of stasis; that it’s part of life to have to sit with struggle of trying to understand difficulty and pain.

Aside from “Leave the City”, the song “Morph” also deals with the struggle to believe in God.

Can’t stop thinking about if and when I’d die
For now I see that “if” and “when” are truly different cries
For “if” is purely panic, and “when” is solemn sorrow
And one invades today, while the other spies tomorrow
We’re surrounded and we’re hounded
There’s no above or under or around it
For “above” is blind belief, and “under” is sword to sleeve
And “around” is scientific miracle, let’s pick “above” and see
For if and when we go above, the question still remains
Are we still in love and is it possible we feel the same?
And that’s when going under starts to take my wonder
But until that time, I’ll try to sing this…

To go above is to transcend death by believing in God and what he promises, eventually finding life after death. To go under is to accept death, perhaps a little too readily – literally hurting oneself to die sooner. And, of course, to go around death is impossible and would have to be a scientific miracle.

I especially love these lines:

For if and when we go above, the question still remains
Are we still in love and is it possible we feel the same?

When I first listened to the album, this couplet struck me as peculiar because its romantic connotations seemed so out of place. But then I understood that these lines speak to a crisis of faith: when we choose belief in God – “blind belief”, as Tyler/Clancy puts it – could it be possible that our faith can be more than blind? Does God see me? Can I feel him? Do we feel the same?

Tyler says in his Alternative Press interview that when he makes it out of Trench, “I wonder then if I’ll be more bold in my faith and what our purpose is being here.” I think that he’s unbelievably bold already, and I appreciate so much that he chooses to write music not just about strong faith, but also about weak faith, dying faith, confused and painful faith: all ways in which we experience life with God. Of his desire to speak out about the struggle to believe, he says, “I really want to own it.” I think there’s something valuable there: that even when my faith doesn’t make much sense, I can still make good art, ask lots of questions, and cry out to God, trusting that someday things will get better.

Until then, I’ll do my best to “stay strong. live on. pass on these songs.” |- /

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