In Brief: I believe Relient K could make an excellent pop album. Unfortunately, this is not that album. Collapsible Lung is easily the band’s worst so far.
I have a long and complicated history with Relient K. I’ve followed the band ever since their humble beginnings as basically a sanitized Christian rock alternative to Blink 182, through their gradual maturing which led their albums to focus less on goofy humor and more on witty observations about relationships and the life of a Christian, as well as a sharper focus on the compositional aspects of their music that made a song arrangement stand out from what your typical pop/punk band would normally deliver. Many have slagged the band for straying from their simple origins and becoming more mainstream, less guitar-heavy, less explicitly Christian… there’s a different criticism of this band for every day of the week. But up through 2009’s Forget and Not Slow Down, I’ve found a lot to enjoy about all of their albums (save for their first, a purchase which I hang on to for nostalgia’s sake more than anything else), and I’ve been willing to defend them when others gave up on the band due to their stylistic meanderings. You’d think that I’d be ready to do the same with Collapsible Lung, their first album of original songs in nearly four years. But the band has finally reached that “bridge too far” for me – not necessarily by selling out in a musical sense (though I am hearing some of that), but rather by making an album that just doesn’t seem true to the personality they’ve established throughout their career, and that doesn’t play to most of their strengths.
When we last left Relient K at the end of Forget and Not Slow Down, the band’s frontman Matt Thiessen was still reeling from a broken engagement, and the sorrow from that disappointment permeated the album, but also gave way to some interesting reflections on heartbreak and the ability of the human spirit to look past it and see the potential for healing, forgiveness, reconciliation. Even in some of the band’s most depressing – or even seemingly superficial – moments, there’s usually been a bit of wit and wisdom behind it. In the ensuing years, we didn’t really hear much of anything personal from Thiessen as a songwriter. The band got lost in a bit of corporate reshuffling at their old label, leaving a bit of a window open for self-reinvention, since it was pretty clear they weren’t still riding the heights of mainstream exposure that they’d found with 2004’s Mmhmm. But the only new recorded material we got from them during that time was the album Is For Karaoke, a compilation of two EPs that they had put together by covering songs requested by their fans, with the source material ranging from Tom Petty to Justin Bieber. It was an interesting way to “crowd-source” the inspiration for an album, and some of the covers were a lot of fun, while others were carbon copies of the originals to the point where I wondered if they served any purpose beyond causing their hardcore fans to geek out over the musical role-playing. Anyway, I bring up the “karaoke” album because it’s that same mindset that led to the band to the supposedly “original” material heard on Collapsible Lung.
Why do I put “original” in quotes, you ask? It’s largely because, for the first time, the group sought material from a lot of outside songwriters, aiming to record their first “pop” album. Plenty of their material has leaned more heavily on pop than punk in the past, and I sort of enjoy hearing mainstream pop genres as filtered through rock instrumentation, which is part of what made some of their cover songs so much fun. But when this approach is applied to songs none of us have heard before, the results are extremely mixed. Without liner notes in front of me, I honestly can’t tell you which songwriters they worked with specifically, but it sounds like the focus was largely on creating simplistic rhythms and melodies to hook the ear of the casual mallrat, with little regard for anything original in the lyrics department beyond simplistic songs about hooking up and breaking up. Whatever wisdom and personal pathos the band might have injected into these subjects before is almost completely disregarded by the hired help, leading to tired and trite lyrics that easily rank among the band’s worst. At first, some of these new elements seem cute and enjoyable enough – a bit of drum programming here, a bit of synth there, certainly nothing that should be terribly foreign to fans given the covers and 80s homages, etc., that they’ve attempted before. But when an album that fans have been waiting 4 years to hear comes across as little more than covers of other artists’ rejected song ideas, you almost have to wonder if the band was suffering from such severe writer’s block that they did this out of desperation just to keep a current revenue source on retail shelves. The fan response hasn’t been pretty. They still have their supporters – and I still expect that the band will bounce back overall. But this is definitely the darkest period in their history so far. Collapsible Lung only runs a lean, mean 35 minutes, but since its strongest material is all piled up at the beginning, it becomes tedious and tiresome once it passes the length of what could have been a decent EP. You know it’s bad when I’d take their often cringe-worthy self-titled debut over their new album.
1. Don’t Blink
The opening track is incredibly misleading, in that it’s an absolutely solid rock anthem, one that makes it easy to believe no time has passed whatsoever since the Forget and Not Slow Down era. (That isn’t even one of my favorite RK albums, but this album sure makes me appreciate it more.) It’s a slight bit more arena-ready than the usual RK fare, helped by a shout-along chorus that urges a man reeling from old wounds to get over himself and learn to take risks again. Thiessen finds empowerment even in heartbreak here, as he acknowledges the hard truth and tries to reinvent himself in its wake: “Been making plans and drawing maps/I plan to take the righteous path/And hope and pray it leads me back/To all the happiness I had/Been making lists and crossing off/Every kiss that wasn’t love/And every word that stretched the truth/Like when she said she loved me.” With a strong guitar lead, a confident rhythm section, and killer group vocals, this is the song most likely to be a silver lining for otherwise disgruntled Relient K fans who can’t stand the rest of the album.
An equally strong, and dangerously bouncy, breakup tune is up next, and I could tell this one was gonna be polarizing from the prominent drum programming that gleefully pops and snaps all the way through the song. Personally, I love it. Paired with Thiessen’s palm muting, some rather insistent synthesizers, and a raw-throated vocal lead, it’s got just the right mix of angry and grimy, and squeaky clean and plain old fun. Plus the rhyming of “ain’t no thang” with “boomerang” in the chorus gives me a big silly grin. The premise here is that an ex who dumped him is like a haunting memory he can’t get rid of – he’s still got some of her stuff, she shows up at all of his favorite hangouts, etc. Compare this with the single of the same name by Barenaked Ladies that came out mere weeks before this one – both songs use the exact same metaphor for a relationship that just won’t give up the ghost, but where the BNL’s song is maddeningly bland, RK manages to mix together some of the oldest tricks in the book and come up with an unusual new recipe. So far, this album’s batting a thousand. But it’s a slippery slope from here on out.
3. Lost Boy
There’s enough of the fun-loving Relient K spirit in the boyish whistling and the trouble-making bass line that lead off this track, that I’m almost willing to forgive it for cramming in a faux-urban drum track where it really doesn’t belong. Thiessen almost sounds like he wants to be Cee-Lo Green with some of the falsetto that he pulls out here, and while I appreciate the stylistic malleability, he’s already tried on the Cee-Lo hat in the bands cover of “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley, and it’s a little too soon to be going back to that well. Despite being a weird stylistic hodgepodge, this does end up being a rather enjoyable song about a hapless young man who doesn’t have the first clue what a meaningful relationship is until a young girl with a chaotic life of her own meets up with him, and then the sparks fly. Love songs that declare the other person to be one’s metaphorical savior are a dime a dozen, so this isn’t a brilliant bit of lyricism, but thus far, I’m still agreeable to the genre experiments that the band has been throwing my way.
4. If I Could Take You Home
Now we’re slipping from “good” into “merely above average” territory. RK indulges their inner techno-pop muse here, with a song that admits, in no uncertain terms, that a guy who met a hot girl in the club would love nothing more than to take her home even though he knows he doesn’t deserve for her to even give him the time of day. I actually like the bass line and the synthpop feel of this one… but it’s more Owl City than Relient K, and the transparently superficial intent of the song also doesn’t help matters. I could be charitable and assume he wants to take her home for keeps, but even then, he’s well aware of the string of broken hearts that came before him, so the song’s kind of anemic as a result, as if the poor sap knows not to expect much beyond a one-night stand. I just don’t buy Matt Thiessen being the kind of guy who would let himself get so beat down that he’s willing to beg for scraps. I can buy him getting beaten down, but the language of picking up a drink and a cheap date to numb the pain that permeates this album just doesn’t sound authentic coming from his mouth. What makes it weirder is that I can’t blame any outside writers for this one, since Thiessen co-wrote it with fellow Relient K founder Matt Hoopes. What’s the deal with you two Matts, anyway?
5. Can’t Complain
Didn’t like RK as a rave-ready synthpop band? Then hey, maybe you’ll like ’em as a ukulele-wielding, Jack Johnson and Jason Mraz-impersonating acoustic band! I normally enjoy it when electric-driven rock bands try to unplug for a song, at least when they put the same amount of instrumental skill into it that they do into their more rockin’ numbers. But here, it sounds like Thiessen never read a rule of radio-friendly acoustic pop music that he didn’t like, so we get an extremely bland, unimaginative meditation on how “life is gonna suck some days”, but you just have to suck it up and smile, because it could be worse! This sort of armchair philosophizing gets annoying from the aforementioned coffeehouse and cruise ship mainstays, but it’s especially frustrating coming from a man who has ruminated on life’s ups and downs with much more profundity in the past. You could take this as lighthearted humor, I guess, but even his attempts to describe life’s little mishaps are lacking in imagination and comedic potential. In the very first lines of the songs, a cop pulls him over and he tries to cheer himself up by imagining it’s a ticket to a Broadway show. Really, Matt? That’s what you (or the hack writer who wrote this song for you, I should say) took away from that experience? I’d hate to see your DMV record, that’s for sure.
A booming, cut-and-pasted bass drum starts this one off – it’s sampled up the wazoo, but it probably came from an organic moment of Ethan Luck fumbling around on his drum kit and deciding to loop himself for the sheer fun of it. The song definitely has a freewheeling mood to it, and it finds Thiessen attempting a little bit of swagger as he half-speaks, half-sings his way through a sarcastic song that asks a woman to teach him how to love when the treatment he’s getting from her sounds like anything but love. The idea of this song is a solid place to start, but unfortunately, the outside writing sabotages the group once again, resulting in embarrassingly bad rhymes like this doozy in the chorus: “Why don’t you teach me how to love/Why don’t you show me what’s up/I got the shakes and you’re my drug.” Shudder. The energy of the song is also dulled somewhat by grating, repetitive chords and a rather tinny guitar sound, where there should be something much more high-energy going on. No amount of cutesy production tricks can save an inherently painful lyric, so I’m not sure if this even matters all that much.
A stomping and crunching pop beat once again replaces most of the live drumming, coupled with some anemic guitar picking, and at this point the over-reliance on sampling and looping is really starting to wear thin, because they haven’t done much of anything interesting with it since track 2. Quite hilariously, an acronym that ends up standing for “Part-Time Lover” will be most easily recognized by a good chunk of RK’s rapidly dwindling Christian audience as “Praise the Lord”. I’m not sure if this was an intentional troll on the band’s part or not, but the watchdogs over at Plugged In Magazine sure fell for it, and were predictably disappointed with the results. To be fair, I can’t really see much use for a song that plays the innocent fool and claims a guy never meant to be someone else’s one-night stand. It’s a weak song idea t best, unless you’re going to intentionally playup the jerkwad aspects of such an outrageous claim and intentionally make yourself out to be the bad guy for the sake of humor. Thiessen (who co-wrote the song and apparently didn’t have the good sense to realize what dreck he was participating it) comes across as to hapless to play that role intentionally, so the song just makes him sound dim-witted instead. I can’t really find much of anything to like about this one. It’s just plain immature, and not in the awkwardly charming way that Relient K used to be immature. (I’m not saying by any means that “Praise the Lord” would have been a better song choice for these guys. Unless of course it was a sarcastic takedown of TBN. Then I suppose I might have been interested.)
This song wants to be either a big, guitar-driven power pop anthem or a showtune. It’s got the big stabs of bouncy electric guitar, but something about its rhythm isn’t quite confident enough to go for broke, and as fun as the horn section is when it chimes in, it’s a bit wasted on a song that once again, doesn’t know whether to mine an awkward situation for humor or play it for drama. The end result lands somewhere in the neighborhood of cute, but not as cute as it thinks it is – which would actually make it a good candidate for that subpar Barenaked Ladies album I alluded to earlier. The premise is that falling in love with someone can only end terribly, because eventually something is going to happen to upset their happy life together (his horoscope said this, so it must be true!), and this preoccupies Matt despite the fact that they’re apparently far enough along to have a kid and be functioning as a family unit. Did I mention he wrote this one all by himself? It sure makes the second verse seem like an out-of-body experience, because check out this awkward trainwreck of a lyric: “Baby, you look so sexy so what do I do when/We get home from church and the baby Is in her room sleeping or watching a movie/You get closer to me/Oh, this has disaster written all over it.” If that wasn’t bad enough, every time a verse ends in “written all over it”, the rhythm does this awkward skip that just throws off the timing of the song. It’s a hackneyed attempt at what should have been a fun and wacky pop song. I feel really embarrassed for these guys now.
9. When You Were My Baby
Remember how I mentioned earlier that the band had covered Justin Bieber? Of course the song in question was “Baby”. And you know what, as dumb as that song is, even I can admit it’s catchy, and RK did a pretty good job with it. But after that, I think the band should have declared a moratorium on using the word “baby” (especially since Forget and Not Slow Down already had a short song by that exact same title), especially in circumstances where the melody of a song was so reminiscent of the Bieber hit that it would come off sounding like plagiarism. I can’t say that this is lawsuit material, but the melodic cadence of it is eerily similar, and honestly that terrible idea of a chorus, with its “whoa”s and whatnot thrown in to fill time in place of any remotely meaningful lyrics, only makes me not want to pay attention to the rest of the song. Despite some production bells and whistles, it’s such a paint-by-numbers pop/rock arrangement that it seems like the band is barely trying any more. I can handle them covering superficial pop songs as a joke, or even to bring out the inherent musicality behind the fluff. It’s not nearly as tolerable when they’re actually originating this kind of crap.
Who the heck is Caleb Owens, anyway? I keep seeing his name as a co-writer, and apparently he was the voice who convinced Thiessen it was OK to record most of the subpar material on this album. Wikipedia tells me he’s the lead singer of a Tooth & Nail band called The Becoming. All I can say is, if their music and/or lyrics are even a quarter as bland as this dreary song that Thiessen and Owens sang together, I’m steering clear. This is the only thing on the album I wouldn’t call “pop” – it’s more like watered-down country, stripped of any musical elements that would actually make it sound country, but going hard after the whole “cry in your beer” mentality that’s won hearts over to many a country ballad. There is absolutely nothing inventive, or even remotely interesting about the slow, methodical rhythm of this song, or the melody, or the lyrics which compare an ex-girlfriend to an awful-tasting beer and claim, “Can’t drink enough to wash her down”. I don’t mind hearing a singer hit emotional rock bottom if he can communicate it articulately. But absolutely none of this feels authentic to Relient K. I could maybe have bought it as a Matthew Thiessen and the Earthquakes song, assuming he’s still even pursuing that little side project of his. It does the band no favors, because it reduces them to mere wallpaper while their leader doesn’t do anything exciting to make up for it. It’s the longest track on the album at four and a half minutes, but since it’s such a speed bump in an album of otherwise up-tempo songs (even if most of them are stupid), it comes across as even more of a nuisance than it otherwise would. Lordy, this thing just seems to drag on forever.
11. Collapsible Lung
At the dead end of an extremely tiresome album, along comes to title track to save us from the dreck, and while it isn’t fantastic, it at least shows a bit of the old RK spark. The lyrics, with their odd metaphors about a man coming alive again despite being so close to death that he had to have certain organs and joints replaced, do come across as being more in line with Thiessen’s usual witty songwriting habits. I can’t say they’re terribly hilarious or profound, but at least I can hear traces of a band I used to love finding their groove again. The opening and closing of the song – which sound like they were patched together from a lo-fi demo recording of Thiessen alone on an acoustic guitar – do it no favors, but the band works their way into a solid power ballad in between. (“Power ballad” may not even be the right terminology, since the tempo’s too fast for that once it gets going, but I don’t know what else to call a song that starts all slow and sparse and grows into something much more anthemic. So “power ballad” it is.) The lyrics here are signposts to Thiessen re-evaluating what matters most, shrugging off the superficial dalliances that have plagued most of the album, and declaring, “I hope haven’t heard the last words from the holy ghost”. It’s probably too little, too late, in terms of what CCM fans all but ready to stomp their CDs into a million tiny pieces would need to appease them, but I’m not one to judge a song or an album by the God-per-minute quotient. I just feel like the opening and closing tracks on this album came from a completely different universe than the rest of it, to the point where those could have bookended a much better album, perhaps a sequel of sorts to Forget and Not Slow Down, with the better “throwaway” pop tracks like “Boomerang” playing the role of occasional fun diversions, rather than dominating the album and making it suffer so horribly as a result. This was probably a case where a band looking to make a comeback should have pulled back, thought through their strategy and what they really wanted to say with their music rather than what was most marketable, and taken another year or two to get it right rather than settling for this turgid mess of a record that only briefly gives us these little glimpses of what could have been.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Don’t Blink $1.75
Lost Boy $1.25
If I Could Take You Home $.75
Can’t Complain $.50
When You Were My Baby -$.75
Collapsible Lung $.75
Matt Thiessen: Lead vocals, guitars, piano, synthesizers, keyboards
Matt Hoopes: Guitars, backing vocals
John Warne: Bass, backing vocals
Jon Schneck: Guitars, banjo, bells, omnichord, nord, backing vocals
Ethan Luck: Drums, backing vocals (left after this album was recorded)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.