In Brief: Musically, it ain’t Relient K’s best, but lyrically, it’s probably their most focused and mature record so far.
I’m having difficulty recalling the last time I felt frustrated with Relient K. While their pop/punk style and their goofy, sometimes adolescent humor took a few tries to win me over in their earlier days, they’ve been one of my favorite bands since about 2004’s Mmhmm. Even while I may have trouble listening to their self-titled debut and the good-but-inconsistent Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right… But Three Do these days when I know what they’re capable of now, I’ve always felt like the band was on a steady upward curve, coming their closest to achieving solid, 5-star goodness (but not quite yet) with their two “mainstream” albums (the aforementioned Mmhmm and 2007’s Five Score and Seven Years Ago). Some fans may disagree, feeling like the band was better off sticking to the goofy mixture of just-for-yuks odes to silly puns and clever-but-serious evangelical anthems, rather than trying to “mature” and alienating the younger segment of their audience. But I feel like I’ve grown with the band, and I’ve found their music to be much more layered and intriguing with the addition of Matt Theissen‘s piano and some of the assorted instruments that the addition of Jon Schneck brought to the table – and shoot, the tasty vocal harmonies have been there from album one. I’ve also admired them for being able to do light-hearted love songs one minute and earnest songs of faith (but not blunt and tactless – see The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek) the next, bringing thse elements together unashamedly on albums released for mainstream consumption. So I figured their next piece of work would probably involve the band going farther afield than some of the experiments attempted on Five Score, perhaps covering unexpected subject matter in the process.
Instead, this year the band trimmed the fat a bit and came up with Forget and Not Slow Down, which in addition to having an awkward and un-punny title, seems at first glance to renege on some of the things that Relient K is best at. It’s a breakup album at its core – not one that forgets to rock or neglects the joy of unexpected left turns in the instrumentation – but definitely one that backs off a bit from the ambition of the band’s last two albums. I’m presuming that this was an attempt to keep themselves focused, and to perhaps explore honestly what Matt Theissen had been through (having been engaged only to have it suddenly broken off less than a month before the wedding – OUCH.) The album feels less polished without being rough, necessarily – there just aren’t as many studio tricks to gloss up the music this time around. Driving guitars and rolling piano still dominate, but on this album I’m finding that most of the hooks don’t sink in as easily, that the sound a few songs is old hat for the band, and that basically more content is promised than delivered.
I should probably explain that last claim. See how the track listing on the back of the CD skips numbers? There are 15 tracks, but only 11 songs advertised, which is generally pretty honest, leaving a few outros and interludes unnamed until you stick the disc into your computer and everything has to have a name of some sort. One big problem with this approach is that it takes what is usually the coda to the previous song and makes it a separate track, which can really break up the flow of the music if you play the CD out of order or extract individual tracks. As a continuous listening experience, this is a non-issue, and if that’s how they designed it, that’s fine. But the separate naming of the final two tracks is a bit misleading – there are only truly 10 songs on this project, and since I’ve come to see that as a “bare minimum” for a full length album (and since it’s shorter than any other Relient K album by at least three songs), it puts a lot of pressure on each song to be awesome. I can’t name any bad ones, honestly – Forget may be their most consistent album yet. But there are also few songs that truly stand out to me, and there’s some musical variation, this is largely the fault of the subject matter. Forget isn’t a total downer, but emotionally speaking, it struggles to rise above merely coping for most of its run.
The silver lining is that the songwriting may be some of Matt Thiessen’s best yet. Where he once used lyrics as a way to show off his knack for witty puns (some truly clever and some real groaners), he’s managed to keep the wordplay quotient high while mixing in metaphors, double meanings, and connected themes between songs in a way that I think is satisfying for those listen closely. These tricks are often subtle, but I’ve been consistently impressed as I’ve noticed more and more of these playful twists on the English language. They add a touch of lightheartedness to an album that could otherwise get bogged down with its themes of growing older and wiser and learning to deal with loneliness. With a little more content and variation, the songwriting could have been the element that finally broken Relient K through the 4-star ceiling, but alas, I’ll just have to settle for saying they did a pretty good job again.
1. Forget and Not Slow Down
We take off running with a song that is in a way the album’s most hopeful, but that is also rather vanilla by Relient K standards. I don’t dislike the straight-ahead, driven guitar rock with its brief acoustic breaks and the bouyancy of Matt’s piano, and the melody is above average on the “catchiness” scale, but I also can’t shake the feeling that Relient K’s written similar songs in their sleep on past albums. Thematically, the idea of forgiving oneself instead of dwelling on mistakes that can’t be undone, to keep moving forward and “resurrect the saint from within the wretch” is encouraging and a good sentiment to take away from a failed relationship. But this, too, is ground that Relient K has covered on past songs – the band has written fairly extensively about mistakes, consequences, and forgiveness over the years. This all adds up to a title track that is serviceable, but not as instantly memorable as most of the band’s album kick-offs.
2. I Don’t Need a Soul
The echo of rolling piano segues nicely from the first song into the second, and it’s hard not to be reminded of “The Best Thing” at first, but this ain’t no love song. It’s a song about things that have died or that have been left behind. Matt’s picking up the pieces after a tough separation – there’s talk of a trip to the hospital and some sad news being conveyed, and it’s left to interpretation whether he lost a loved one to sickness or whether this diagnosis was just a catalyst for the breakup. He maintains the resolve that “I don’t need a soul to hold” and notes that “You and life remain beautiful”, and while these aren’t among the band’s more astute observations, they’re convincing enough – he’s just accepting what’s meant to be and not blaming her. Some of the attempts at cleverness seem at odds with the subject matter (particularly the awkward lines that lead into chorus: “‘Cause if you close your eyes and listen close/You can hear the chapter close/And it’s all rebound with better clothes/If you like the way the story goes”), and I also get the hint of a recycled melody (Five Score‘s “Up and Up” comes to mind during the pre-chorus), so I’m left feeling like this track, for all of its good intentions, could have been stronger.
Here’s something a little more playful and witty. It’s all clean, chimey guitars, and a syncopated beat that trots along at a quick pace, getting a slight bit jerkier as it leads into the chorus. What sounds like it might be a playful love song at first is actually a dig at a woman who is well aware of her ability to turn heads, which is amusing in a sarcastic sort of way, since if you weren’t paying attention, it would seem sweet to describe her as a burning candle, until you notice the whole thing about the guys constantly drooling over her being described as moths fluttering into the flame. This gives way to a lot of cheesy puns involving light and fire, but since Relient K doesn’t really do out-and-out comedy songs these days, it’s nice to get something lighthearted but still sharp-tongued like this on a record that is mostly serious.
The outro to “Candlelight” basically slows the melody to halftime and brings in a toy piano and makes the mood a little dreamier for a minute or so. It’s a great way to end the song, and it should have been left as part of the same track.
5. Part of It
Try as I might, I can’t seem to differentiate Matt Hoopes‘ guitar intro and the choppy riffing of this song from a number of other Relient K tracks from days gone by. Thiessen’s attempt to examine why a relationship fell apart despite his best attempts is honest enough, and rife with plays on almost-rhymes and similar-sounding words as he leads up to the revelation that “It’s not the end of the world, just you and me”. There’s an amusing analogy buried in the bridge when he remarks “I’m the Cusack of the lawn of your heart”, which any fan of romantic comedies from the 80’s will immediately catch as a reference to Say Anything, and which apparently means Matt had the hopes of winning his girl back when he wrote this one. Wanting back what you just lost is a natural part of the “getting over it” process, I guess.
A little bit of guitar delay and a half-timed drum beat from the band’s newest member Ethan Luck round out the coda to “Part of It”, which features some overlapping vocals that intertwine Thiessen’s final verse with the repetition of a line from the song’s chorus: “When a nightmare finally does unfold, perspective is a lovely hand to hold.”
Are we already at the center of the album? Wow, that happened fast. Another dose of rolling piano – this time the instrument is right up at the forefront with the drums instead of being used for support – takes us into a reflective (but still upbeat and rock-oriented) track that aims to make the most out of unwanted solitude. Theissen notes that “you won’t take my calls, and that makes God the only one who’s left here listening” – a subtle hint that his faith will get him through the loneliness without hitting listeners over the head with it. It’s clearly not a situation that he wants to be in, but there’s a sense that maybe the time alone will be good for him all the same.
8. Over It
The songs where Relient K shows a little restraint on this album tend to stand out the most – I can’t say that this mid-tempo ballad is necessarily one of my favorites, but I like the mellow, keyboard-based vibe and the subtle irony behind a set of lyrics which seem to contradict themslves: “I’ll protect your universe/Or make a mess to make it worse/TIme will only tell you and no one else so.” Say what now? It all goes hand-in-hand with the central thesis, Matt telling her that he’s over it, but proving by the effort he’s going to in order to convince her of this that he’s really not over it at all. It’s a wry but sad moment, brilliantly fading away into the last lingering notes of a saxophone as the song fades out.
The album’s mellowest moment segues into its edgiest – I’d be hard pressed to call anything on this album “hard rock”, but the scratchy riffs of this song and the feeling of hanging onto life by the fingernails are certainly a wake-up call after the sleepy resignation of the previous track. This is the low point of Matt’s dry spell – the days that left him feeling like a pariah wandering through the desert, dying of thirst. The two Matts come up with a killer guitar attack for this one, and it’s good to hear stronger hints of the boys’ haromies here – a weapon which goes largely underused on this album. Pay close attention to Matt’s analogy of himself as a dethroned lion here – in addition to the clever pun, “Was it the lion or his pride that brought him down?”, it’s a theme that will get revisited again at the end of the album. The combination of mature, confessional lyrics and one of the band’s most edgy compositions make “Sahara” a winner – it stands out quite well on its own while also being the first act in a miniature trilogy of sorts.
The faint, mellow echo of strings and a few low voices singing “Savannah” lead us into the next segment of our little safari.
This is my favorite track on the album by a long shot – the plucking of strings and the click-clack of wooden blocks set up an addictive rhythm (if you know me even remotely well, you know I’m a sucker for inventive percussion). The mood changes from acoustic guitars and strings to the heavy thumping of drums to straight-ahead driving electric guitars, and yet never loses that addictive beat. Suddenly the barren, sun-drenched landscape of “Sahara” gives way to wide open green pastures with exotic animals romaning the panoramic landscape… this is all happening in my imagination, of course, since “Savannah” has a double meaning and Matt is reminiscing on good times spent with his former lover down in Georgia. This one seems to contain strains of a love song written while he was still with her, but seems to also acknowledge the painful separation as if it were temporary insanity on both of their parts, as Matt pines, “We will both know by tonight if we’re normal again, but until then…”, that last thought never quite getting completed.
The sudden crunch of electric guitars and the slow, dirge-like feel of this coda are a cruel awakening after the brilliance of “Savannah”, taking the same melody and dragging it out bitterly, as if to trash the very image of the song that was just performed. It’s kind of a bummer, and it’s the one point on the album where I don’t mind a song being separated from its outro in the track listing.
13. If You Believe Me
This comparatively more straightforward rocker is a break in what I’m calling “the trilogy”, once again bringing piano and Ethan Luck’s tricky drum work to the forefront, this time for a game of his word against hers, as Matt insists in the forceful chorus (nicely supported by his fellow Matt on background vocals) “We could stand the test of time like no one else” while noting in in other half of the same couplet that “It means you’d have to disbelieve yourself”. Clearly she was the one who broke it off, and he wants to do what he can to remain in her thoughts until she can’t stand the idea of what she left behind any more and she reconsiders. But as the song trails off into the slow meanderings of Matt’s piano, it seems that this hope of her return needs to be laid to rest.
14. This Is the End
The last part of the “trilogy” opens with another rolling piano verse – the way Matt plays the instrument from song to song can sound alike, but I do like the general sound of it – and then takes off like a sprinting cheetah with one of Relient K’s trademark pop-punk rhythms – probably the liveliest I’ve heard from them since “I Need You” or “The One I’ve Been Waiting For”. It’s a curious fusion of the band’s more youthful side and their more “mature” side, with most of the rockier stuff crammed into the two minutes and change that really only constitute the first half of the final song. As the shouts of “This is the end if you want it!” get hoarser and hoarser and the band seems to be catapulting toward the grand finale, suddenly the track changes and we’re back in mellow-ville.
15. (If You Want It)
Aw come on, that’s cheating! It’s the same song, you just split it into two tracks and left the laid-back piano coda (which is pretty much all piano and strings) take up the final track (which I should note is over a minute longer than the first half was). Taken together, tracks 14 and 15 are a fairly brilliant song about finding worth on one’s own, facing the apparition of a lover and staring it down and saying “I’m not afraid of you any more”, and trusting that healing is possible even without a true reconciliation. A few verses from the first part of the song are repeated here, perhaps slightly manipulated, but interesting when recast into a completely different genre of music than the first time they were presented. And Matt’s lion theme from “Sahara” come full circle here when he caps the album off with this clever couplet: “Nourished back to life by life alone/With one shake of the mane, regain the throne.”
So yeah, even though Forget and Not Slow Down can be a bit of a downer, there’s something to be said for extracting a good lesson out of a tough breakup. It’s a story of survival, of a man learning to forgive himself and let go of the follies he can’t undo and the people he can’t change. It’s a thematically solid album that will probably resonate more closely with those whose relationships are on the outs, even if it hurts to admit this. I might prefer the sunnier and more spiritual side of the band as heard on Five Score and Mmhmm, but those records are not without their accounts of mistakes and pleas for penance. So while Forget and Not Slow Down may be the sound of a battered and bruised Matt Thiessen, it’s also the sound of an older and wiser one, and it’s worth hearing for that reason.
All the same, I hope for Matt’s sake that the next time he finds “The Best Thing”, it sticks!
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Forget and Not Slow Down $1.50
I Don’t Need a Soul $1
Part of It/Outro $1
Over It $1
If You Believe Me $1.50
This Is the End/(If You Want It) $1.50
Matt Thiessen: Lead vocals, guitars, piano
Matt Hoopes: Guitars, backing vocals
John Warne: Bass, backing vocals
Jon Schneck: Guitars, keyboards, backing vocals, other random instruments
Ethan Luck: Drums, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.