Five records in and you would think that twenty one pilots’ Tyler Joseph would have gotten into a comfortable groove by now. You know, kick back and reap the rewards of all his and Josh Dun’s hard work. Spend some money. Sleep in until 3 p.m. And when he does descend into his home studio, maybe he can lighten up and write songs about how hard it is to be in a successful band.
Of course, anyone who’s been paying attention knows that Joseph’s art is fueled by his psychic quest for answers, reasons and possibilities about the travails of modern living. It was only a matter of time until Joseph would delve further into his psyche, examining a central core of his life.
“Leave The City,” the closing track from the recently released Trench connects the singer’s story of Trench to his Christian belief system in a way that is solemn and poignant. Packing the emotional devastation of a lullaby sung in a war-torn country and the deliberation of rebuilding a life after irreversible trauma, the song lays many of Joseph’s questions about God, existentialism and his place in the universe for everyone to see…er…feel. There’s not a song in TOP’s oeuvre that will bore into a listener’s heart the way “Leave The City” does.
“I really thought it was a great way to close the record,” he says. “Once I started creating [the song], I knew that I [wasn’t] going to name the place I’m going: I’m talking about the world I’m from; I’m talking about the world I’m traveling through, but I never really reach the place I’m trying to get to. It’s not because I’m holding on to some secret: You’re looking at someone who is still trying to figure out where that place is.
“[The song is] definitely about losing faith, which I’ve been working through on this record. It’s something that may have moved the needle for me during the last record and touring cycle. —Tyler Joseph
“[The song is] definitely about losing faith, which I’ve been working through on this record,” Joseph explains. “It’s something that may have moved the needle for me during the last record and touring cycle. Trench, is like, saying I found the sense that I was there. But [actually saying], ‘Guys, I know where it is, follow me,’ and you’re going to come to our show and I’ll tell you about it? I don’t have that yet. But at the very end of [the song], it says, ‘These faces facing me, they know what I mean.’ That’s me onstage, looking at them, maybe—at least for the record—that was the place I was trying to get to all along.
“I still think I am going to answer that question, and I’m going to know, and when I know for sure…what’s the end goal? Where am I going? Is there heaven? Is there hell? Is there a God? And the process I’ve been on [for] this record is the closest I’ve been to…” he pauses for a brief moment. “Entertaining a world where there isn’t a God. And that’s total transparency. And that is hard to say. It’s a new struggle for me. But I really want to own it.”
Joseph’s inner dialogue regarding matters of belief isn’t as controversial as, say, those belonging to some members of Underoath, whose personal experiences changed their spiritual points of view. There are both scholars and followers who openly admit that a crisis of faith is sometimes necessary in order to re-examine your relationship with a higher power. But Joseph’s raison d’etre has never been served by making ordinary armchair gestures. Which makes “Leave The City” even more poignant.
“I still believe in God,” he acknowledges. “I still want to call myself a Christian—because I am a Christian. I don’t know how to talk to people about it yet.
“I still believe in God,” he acknowledges. “I still want to call myself a Christian—because I am a Christian. I don’t know how to talk to people about it yet. And if I can’t talk to other people about it yet or if I don’t know exactly why I should talk to other people about it, does it really mean anything to me, then? If I don’t truly have the answer, shouldn’t I just be talking about that? But I have to get there first.”
Because Joseph has built a career out of eloquent articulation—as opposed to shock and transgression—both his profession of faith as well as its perceived shortcomings come off as a quest for knowledge and understanding. Bob Dylan’s 1964 classic “With God On Our Side” discusses how cultures claim exclusivity to a higher power to rationalize war. Tyler Joseph doesn’t draw a line in the sand either way. He’s wondering if there’s a deity to lay claim to in the first place.
“Because hey, the days I don’t think about Him, I’m fine. It’s not like supernatural things are happening at every turn, and I think, ‘Well, I can’t describe that other than “it’s God,”’ and that didn’t happen the whole album cycle.”
“It’s a completely necessary part of making this my faith,” he continues. “But I can’t totally see it—it’s just a stop along the way. Because hey, the days I don’t think about Him, I’m fine. It’s not like supernatural things are happening at every turn, and I think, ‘Well, I can’t describe that other than “it’s God,”’ and that didn’t happen the whole album cycle. We just got up and worked and created and moved on.”
While songwriters can reflect on a myriad of thoughts, stories, edicts and manifestos through their art, it does takes a patient soul to process possibilities that have the propensity to negate previously held values. This is not something Joseph will ever stop pursuing, regardless of whatever by-products of success he interacts with. Like he sings, “In time, I will leave the city/For now, I will stay alive.”
“Seeing the success in Blurryface: Is that something that changed in me?” he wonders aloud. “I can’t see it as a stop, because I have to fully believe I just might have to stay there. But once I live here more, when I make it out of Trench and I get to where I’m going and I know what the name is, I wonder then if I’ll be more bold in my faith and what our purpose is being here.”