Humanity in Death: Twenty One Pilots and Yeats

September 26, 2021, Denver, Colorado (look at me finally publishing articles over a year after I write them):

You know the drill: Twenty One Pilots is touring again, which means that my borderline unhealthy obsession with Tyler Joseph as an artist has come back with force and vigor. For whatever reason, nothing gets me going more than a Twenty One Pilots live show, so here I am at 7:30 in the morning, inside Union Station in Denver, Colorado, after their show at the Ball Arena, writing about these boys yet again. For what it’s worth, I did initially want to write this essay back when their new album, Scaled and Icy came out back in May, but I couldn’t quite formulate the complete idea and shelved it for a while, but seeing them live helped to fill in the gaps that I couldn’t on my own.

The new Twenty One Pilots album, Scaled and Icy, dropped back in May to some confused responses and mixed results (though I do personally love it quite a bit), but one song struck me more than the rest: “Redecorate”. The final track on the album, “Redecorate” takes several steps away from the rest of the album’s style and brings in a simpler, perhaps more “traditional” Twenty One Pilots sound, coming closer to spoken word than song at most points, and has a generally darker tone than the rest of the album. Most of the other songs are intentionally made more upbeat than a standard Twenty One Pilots affair, but the final two tracks, “No Chances” and “Redecorate” return to the sounds of the previous albums, like Trench and Blurryface.

Speaking of “Redecorate” specifically, it centers around three verses, each one highlighting a different person who seems to face, on one level or another, the end of their life. The first subject pretty clearly seems close to death, with the speaker claiming that he sees “snapshots chronologically in line”, clearly referencing someone having their life flash before their eyes when close to death, but the other two admittedly seem a little more metaphorically close to the end of their lives. The second subject is a woman who covers all of her mirrors with blankets to avoid her reflection, but eventually, she removes the blankets to face herself, appearing to have an epiphany that leads her to change the way she lives, lest her life end with her cowering in darkness. We get arguably the least information on the third subject, though the speaker does tell us that “he’s fairly sedated most days of the week”. Each subject’s verse ends with them exclaiming, “I don’t want to go like this//At least let me let me clean my room”, suggesting slightly different things for each subject but generally it conveys to us each person’s dissatisfaction with their life and desire to improve it before it’s gone forever.

The song is very interesting, but what drew me to is, and get this, that it’s, at least on the surface, very similar to the poem “All Souls’ Night” by William Butler Yeats. Okay, I know. I get it. I know three things: the Mariners, Twenty One Pilots, and Yeats. It’s true, but that’s not going to stop me from writing this essay, so just let me have my moment. Anyways, to briefly cover the immediate similarities, in “All Souls’ Night”, the speaker describes three people, shortly before they died. First, they describe a man whose life centered around his wife, and he could not stand to live after she died. Next, they describe a woman who moved away from her home, uncomfortable with how her face had started to show age, and lastly, they describe another man, one who suffered from mental health issues and loneliness caused by his disinterest in other people and preference for, as the speaker says, “unknown thought” (74).

Clearly, the two poems aren’t a 1-to-1, though if they were we would have a pretty strong plagiarism case on our hands. Instead, these two poems explore much the same idea in very similar ways. I would love to claim that “Redecorate” intentionally alludes to or responds to “All Souls’ Night” because that would be a wonderful meeting up of my two passions, but I don’t think the similarities are enough to say that conclusively. Because the two poems address such similar ideas though, we can still explore the two poems in reference to each other. Just a note, from here on out, I will refer to “Redecorate” as a poem and song interchangeably, because I am mostly talking about just the lyrics of the song and not other elements.

As I mentioned earlier, I had all of these ideas formulated back in May, when the song came out, but I struggled to articulate what I thought made the relationship between these two poems so interesting. Luckily for me though, “Redecorate” is a song, which means that I can see it live, and seeing it live helped me to figure it all out. See, about halfway through their new show, Tyler Joseph, the band’s frontman, rushes off to a small stage at the back of the pit, fitted out with a piano and a simple percussion setup. Joseph proceeds to start playing out a simple loop on the drums (and a well-placed kitchen pot), and then the stage rises up in the air and he performs the song by himself, without Josh Dun, the drummer, or any of the touring band. That’s all very cool, but what helped me was being around all of the other people also at the show. This might sound silly, but the other people at the show care about the song. Listening to everyone cheer and sing alongside me left me with the distinct sensation that the song actually helped people beyond me, and truly spoke to them. Obviously, on some level, I knew this already. I’ve seen this band enough times to know that people care about their music on an emotional level, but not seeing a show for two straight years left me to think about their music on my own, and that element didn’t impact my perception of the band, and especially their new music, as much as it has in the past. Getting to really, genuinely feel the other people connecting with the song helped me realize the song has a strong sense of humanity to it that “All Souls’ Night” lacks.

Let’s not beat around the bush here: Yeats, at best, struggled to understand this idea of “humanity”. He himself even admitted to a friend of his mere months before he died that he had only just recently begun to actual emotions and not just performative ones (Pruitt 149), and somehow he seemed to have struggled with the whole “caring about other people” even more in the time when he wrote “All Souls’ Night”. Yeats initially released the poem as the epilogue to his book A Vision, which—and I’ve mentioned in other pieces I’ve written, but I’ll reiterate it here—is an insane book for insane people, but Yeats also made it the last poem in his collection The Tower, which released a couple of years after A Vision. The Tower grapples with a dizzying amount of topics (all incredibly well, I should add), but one core topic, prevalent especially in the opener, “Sailing to Byzantium”, and the closer, “All Souls’ Night”, is the speaker’s obsession with death. The most succinct way to describe the speaker’s complex relationship with death is that the speaker wants to die, but not in a suicidal way. The whole collection is, at its core, a lamentation of the speaker’s growing age, at times writing about how they relate more to the dead than the living, and, at least to some extent, wish to die as a means of progressing themself as an artist, or a thinker. (Again, the poem came hot off the heels of A Vision, a batshit insane “philosophy” book that Yeats allegedly wrote based on conversations with ghosts his wife channeled while automatic writing, so just roll with it for now.)

Because of this obsession, the speaker often seems to speak of the dead more in relation to themself than as their own persons, a theme extremely than prevalent in “All Souls’ Night”. To begin with, essentially the whole reason the speaker talks to the spirits (oh did I mention that they’re talking to these spirits) is so they can write about how cool dead people are and how they wish that they could be that cool, but even past that, the way the speaker writes about the subjects directly reveals how little they actually care about them as people. The best example of this comes from how they write about the second subject, Florence Emory. Florence, as noted before, moves away from her home and becomes a school teacher, unable to stand the age beginning to show in her face. Hopefully, when I said it the first time you noticed the problem here: the speaker could not have written a more stereotypical, one-dimensional woman. Sure in the second stanza on Florence, the speaker talks about her intelligence, but the speaker tells us about her alleged vanity before anything else.

The speaker in “Redecorate” twists this immediately by telling us that their second subject is “not afraid of her reflection//But of what she might see behind it”. The literal first thing we learn of her is that her image scares her, but not because of her vanity, rather it reminds her of something much deeper within her, that she cannot escape except to hide in the dark. Interestingly, the verse goes on to imply that the subject is a trans and/or non-binary person, because this, along with the later detail that “She had plans to change her name…//Just not the traditional way”, suggests that she has some degree of body/gender dysphoria and struggles to see herself as she wants to. See, already I have considerably more to say on this than “All Souls’ Night” because the speaker actually takes care to tell us about the woman as a person, not as a ghost that they think is super cool. “Redecorate” plays on “All Souls’ Night”’s depiction of women by discussing the second subject’s dissatisfaction with her appearance as a manifestation of deeper issues, rooted in her own identity. It challenges us as an audience to think beyond vanity and see these subjects as people with complex perceptions of themselves.

Contrary to this subject-centric approach, “All Souls’ Night” obsesses over how the speaker relates to each person, only describing each person just enough to explain why the speaker cares about them, and not why we should care about them. That’s not to say that the approach is wrong (“All Souls’ Night” is actually one of my favorite poems), but it does make “Redecorate” all the more interesting. The difference in approaches creates a shift in focus for the poems; “Redecorate” makes us think about the subjects of the poems and relate to them, but “All Souls’ Night” makes the speaker the focus and wants us to think about them. I know I said that “Redecorate” has a more classic Twenty One Pilots style than the other songs on Scaled and Icy, but that only accurately describes the sound of the song. Its writing style actually makes a very important departure from traditional Twenty One Pilots. Generally, Twenty One Pilots songs consist of the speaker talking about or to themselves, or the speaker addressing a specific person or group directly. Tyler Joseph does not, generally, write songs about other people, directed to no specific person, in the way that “Redecorate” does. In other words, the speaker in “Redecorate” takes a less personal role, acting more like a traditional narrator, telling us the stories of people with no means to tell their own stories. This makes “Redecorate” feel even more like a direct response to “All Souls’ Night” because I struggle to really imagine why Joseph would write a song with this style and content, let alone make it the closer of the album, without intending to challenge the ideas of “All Souls’ Night”, intentionally or not. Scaled and Icy is also no stranger to conversations on age, with songs like “The Outside” directly grappling with the speaker’s inability to remain “cool” and on the cutting edge of pop culture (with a very similar approach to “Too Many Rappers” by the Beastie Boys, in case you were curious), so, intentional or not, I really can’t not pit these poems against each other, as someone deeply familiar with both of them. The Tower is, in my opinion, one of the greatest works ever written, but it has a deep cynicism towards life that I think even Yeats realized it was a little moody as he grew past it, so I really appreciate the way that “Redecorate” challenges the way Yeats talks about death in his collection without disrespecting or discounting the points the speaker tries to make. “Redecorate” doesn’t try to invalidate the feelings the speaker has, or tell us to not identify with their ideas, and instead it goes no further than offering a different perspective on the people in “All Souls’ Night”, reminding us that, no matter how the speaker may portray it, each subject was their own, unique person, struggling without a voice. Each person had stories to tell, but no means to tell them. “All Souls’ Night” ignores this and only tells their story to the extent they can help the speaker, but “Redecorate” steps in to tell us that these people struggled, and even if the speaker knew them, they died holding onto their feelings and fear, taking care to remind us of the value of life.

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