If there’s one thing Fueled By Ramen does well, it’s finding acts that not only have the capacity to be popular, but also deserve to be popular. From well-known acts such as Fall Out Boy and Paramore to fun., last year’s biggest success story, the label takes music of quality and helps it spread like wildfire. With the first release from the label in 2013, Vessel, however, there should be a great deal of credit given first to the duo that makes up Twenty One Pilots, Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun. Without any sort of label support, these guys headlined and sold out a 2,200 capacity venue in Columbus, having grown their fan base the old-fashioned way: by making music they believed in and putting everything they have into every single show, forming connections with fans every step of the way. Older fans of the pair will recognize many of the songs on their Fueled By Ramen debut, but what you’ll hear goes hand in hand with the move to the next stage; the reach is bigger, and so is the sound. New listeners have a lot to look forward to, as the band breaks genre boundaries and shows exactly what can be accomplished by local dreamers who put everything they have into their art. Regardless of who you are or what your tastes are, if you can’t find something to love about Vessel, you probably never even started listening.
The chaotic, yet somehow deliberate opener that is “Ode To Sleep” serves as a sort of overview of what the rest of the record entails. From the dark, atmospheric beat with its accompanying lyrical outpouring to the driving bass, bright, upbeat synths, handclaps, and melodic verse to the soaring chorus, piano sweeps and stripped-down, bleepity-bloop ending, this track shows off a vivid soundscape. If that sounds like a lot for five minutes, well, it is. And, there’s nothing wrong with that at all. As lead single “Holding On To You” picks up where “Ode To Sleep” left off, it sounds like the sort of song that might be a collaboration between an underground rapper and some indie band on the verge of blowing up (which really isn’t all that far off). Hooky, with lots of flow and a style that should make it massive across a wide range of listeners, this is a wonderful monster of a song. Blending catchy melodies with lyrics that include both “tie a noose around your mind, loose enough to breathe fine and tie it to a tree, tell it ‘you belong to me, this ain’t a noose, this is a leash, and I have news for you, you must obey me'” and “it ain’t the speakers that bump hearts, it’s our hearts that make the beat,” the song is broad enough to attract surface-level listeners and deep enough to keep active listeners engaged for a long time. In short, this is one of the best singles released in a long time, by anyone.
“Migraine,” the first truly new track on the record, features a great organic beat and a pulsing piano part that provide ample room for Joseph’s flowing, slightly insane verses and make for a great set-up for choruses that are almost reminiscent of a less “rock” Foxy Shazam. The ukelele-driven “House Of Gold” drops the rapping entirely, embraces a more traditional song structure, and shows that Twenty One Pilots is more than capable of writing a nice little pop song. “Car Radio” is an album standout, opening with a spacious keyboard part and introspective rapping that’s soon joined by Dun’s drumming and, eventually, a club-ready pulsing synth line. The lyrics focus on the foil of a stolen radio that leaves Joseph alone with his thoughts and, as he screams “and now I just sit in silence” toward the end of the song, it brings to mind the line “sometimes, quiet is violent” from earlier in the track. The song comes full circle as it ends with a restrained coda, shaking off the huge sound that had developed in between beginning and close. “Semi-Automatic” keeps the streak of quality tracks unbroken with some fantastic programming and perhaps the catchiest chorus on the record.
Opening with a sparse piano intro and a matching beat and developing into an anthem, “Screen” is one of my personal favorite tracks on Vessel. Every time I listen to the record, this song draws me in more strongly. The lyrics “while you’re doing fine, there’s some people and I who have a really tough time getting through this life, so excuse us while we sing to the sky” caught my ear powerfully from the very first listen, and the repeating “we’re broken people” feels all-inclusive and perfectly suited for a live show. “The Run and Go” has an undeniable pop sensibility about it, with punchy drums and piano chords that propel everything forward and sections that simply allow for the melody to stand on its own without lyrics. “Fake You Out” is part Passion Pit, part The Darkness, a heaping portion of hook, momentary injections of synth-pop and sharp rapping, sprinkles of record scratches and screams, and 100% uniqueness. I could compare it to a number of other things, but you get the point. There’s a lot of influence packed in, but it’s not imitation of anything in particular. Instead, it’s a true culmination of the artists, synthesizing a variety of inputs and outputting something individually expressive.
Second single “Guns For Hands” features a great beat, rich layers of synthesized instrumentation and a massive chorus. The tom drums in the second verse are a fantastic touch, and the breakdown middle section is pulled off masterfully (there’s a sound in there I like to think of as an equivalent of the word “swerve” as it appears on G.O.O.D. Music‘s Cruel Summer). I could see this song being wrongly politicized and losing potential popularity as a result. Just don’t let that happen for you and everything will be alright. Cool? Cool. The opening of “Trees” is a bit understated but still richly layered, the sort of mid-tempo work that finds a perfect home near the end of records. As it seamlessly picks up its pace and spreads back out, there are times it sounds a bit like Coldplay, and others where newer My Chemical Romance is the better comparison, all the while maintaining its unique flair. Closer “Truce” is a short piece of piano balladry, a letter from Joseph to himself. The most natural-sounding track on the record, there’s a true feeling of intimacy about it, and it’s brilliant to end such an expansive, chaotic album on a highly personal note like this.
In terms of things in my listening rotation right now, this is my favorite pop record, my favorite rap record, my favorite rock record, and my favorite record overall. Twenty One Pilots labels its genre as “Schizoid Pop” on its Facebook page, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more perfect match. There’s a lot going on in these songs, but it all somehow makes sense in context. At the most basic level, this record stems from a deep well of creativity and, at the most in-depth level, it showcases a high level of sophistication in making all of the creativity come across coherently. I’ve seen a lot of questioning as to whether this record lives up to the hype and if Fueled By Ramen has another huge success on their hands, and I couldn’t answer more strongly in the affirmative. With the right push, this could be a tremendous mainstream hit, but I think that would be the lesser achievement here. With Vessel, Twenty One Pilots has created something that has the capacity for mass appeal, without cheapening their message or compromising who they are in any way. It’s a test of what a larger audience might accept and, if there’s any indication from what’s found popularity in the past year or two, this is the sort of album that’s going to build to a strong embrace from a wide range of people. This is one of the most refreshing records I’ve heard in quite some time, and I strongly suggest a listen with an open mind. And open wide, because Twenty One Pilots has a lot of stuff they want to put in there.