Artist: Relient K
Album: Air For Free
In Brief: Relient K dodges the expectations created by both their pop/punk heyday and their abysmal attempt at pop crossover on Collapsible Lung, and comes up with their best album yet in the process. It’s less guitar-oriented and more piano and arrangement-heavy than classic RK, at times feeling like a spiritual successor to Forget and Not Slow Down. But the hints that RK had an album like this inside them somewhere have really been there since the beginning.
I honestly can’t think of the last time when my expectations of an album were so far from reality, and the reality was significantly better than what I was expecting. I can definitely think of bands that have let me down with one record, only to make a strong comeback with the next, but I’m usually not the type to respond with such massive negativity as a band’s fanbase usually responds to a change in sound, so for most of bands I follow, the gap between their good stuff and bad stuff isn’t that huge to begin with. But Relient K broke the scale on this one. Their 2013 album, Collapsible Lung, seemed so out of character for them that while I didn’t expect their next record to repeat all of its mistakes, I had lost enough faith in them that I figured even a mediocre follow-up would be an improvement.
So imagine my surprise when three years later, they come out with Air For Free, a record which is not only their longest and most instrumentally diverse, but also one that turns out to be the most consistent song-for-song in their entire discography. I realize I’m probably breaking with a good chunk of their fanbase by saying that, because I was never a huge fan of the pop/punk style that the group started out with, finding myself instead drawn to the massive pop hooks, strong vocal harmonies, and witty/punny lyrics that gave the group a unique character despite their chosen genre not being one that really excited me. Air For Free doesn’t completely abandon that style – a few tracks still have the electric guitars roaring and the drums pounding, and serve up strong hooks in keeping with their classic material. But I’d say a good chunk of the record is more acoustic guitar and/or piano based, with some of it even qualifying as “baroque pop”. I think it’s a sound that fans of their 2009 album Forget and Not Slow Down will appreciate (though that record as a whole is still more aggressive than this one), and also if you liked more complex and contemplative highlights like “Let It All Out”, “When I Go Down”, or “Deathbed” from their earlier albums, you’ll probably find a lot to like here as well. Out of 16 tracks and a lot of stylistic changes, both between the songs and sometimes abruptly in the middle of a song itself, I’m surprised that not only are each of them complete, self-contained songs (no interludes or “conjoined twin” tracks like the ones that made listening to Forget and Not Slow Down on shuffle a bad idea), but that there’s also not a single dud in the bunch. For a group that skated by with a few lame jokes and forgettable filler tracks even on their best albums prior to this one, that’s saying a heck of a lot.
The reason I think this album draws obvious comparisons to Forget and Not Slow Down is due to the more introspective/relational nature of the lyrics. Forget was very much a breakup album, written in the wake of lead singer Matt Theissen‘s called-off engagement, and you could easily listen to several of these new tracks and think they were written during the same time period, or else during a similar situation in a more recent relationship. However, guitarist and only other remaining member Matt Hoopes also went through a divorce while this album was in the works, so a number of the more bittersweet relationship songs could be from his perspective. This all probably sounds quite depressing, but I’ve always felt that while the bad breakup songs are the ones that just wallow in defeat and bitterness, the good breakup songs are the post-mortems that try to get to the bottom of what went wrong and how a person can learn from the pain. Just due to Relient K’s nature, being influenced both by the pop/punk bands they loved in their youth, some of the indie pop that’s tickled the fancy of listeners like me who grew out of simply expecting everything to rawk all the time, and more classic fare like The Beach Boys, there’s a whimsical overtone to a lot of the music they make even when the lyrics are melancholy. And there are a few upbeat songs that continue to affirm their Christian faith, and even one that’s apparently just there for silliness’ sake, like in the old days. Pretty much everything I’ve ever liked about Relient K happens on this record, plus a lot of things I never thought I’d hear on an RK record that still totally fit their personality.
As surprising as the stylistic shifts may be to someone who just expects another Mmhmm (which was a pretty expansive record in and of itself, based on what the group had done before it), there’s never a moment – aside from perhaps the ill-advised use of AutoTune on one track – where it feels like they’re aping a popular trend or writing something untrue to themselves. That was the biggest problem I had with Collapsible Lung – it just felt like a botched attempt to bait a crossover audience that ultimately didn’t bite. Air For Free isn’t out to prove anything to the masses. It’s just two guys following their muse, and given that, I’m quite pleasantly surprised that it manages to throw so many curveballs while remaining so instantly likeable throughout. This album is far and away my favorite thing released in 2016 to date, and that’s quite a shock coming from a band that landed itself on my “Dishonorable Mentions” list a mere three years ago.
The reminders of Forget and Not Slow Down are right there at the outset, due to how this record kicks off in a similar matter to their 2009 album’s title track, not wasting any time, just jumping right in with a straight ahead rocker about being heartbroken and resolving to work past it. This one’s more about how the heart deals with a low point in life than how the head deals with it, and event though Thiessen is honest about being pretty bummed out here, the song is every bit an upbeat anthem despite that, refusing to wallow in the misery any longer than necessary, more concerned with giving over what little he feels he has left of his sad sack life to something/someone greater than himself (which longtime fans will interpret to be God, no doubt). The two Matt’s vocals are on point in the chorus here, making it instantly catchy even the lyrics aren’t the most singable thing in the band’s catalog (“Broken downtown on Wedgewood & 8th” is not a phrase you’re likely to hear clearly, or understand at first even if you do), and the guitars strike a good balance between serviceable power chords and an actual melodic lead, making this one of the better entries in the increasingly rare category of straight-ahead Relient K rockers.
2. Local Construction
This song almost immediately launched itself into the upper echelons of my all-time favorite Relient K songs list. I wouldn’t have expected it at first, due to the somewhat circus-y rhythm of it, but it’s an instrumental smorgasbord of nearly everything Relient K does well, from the rolling piano melodies to the pop/punk beat defiantly taking over in triple time as the song reaches a climax. The analogy of never-ending construction jamming up traffic in Matt’s neighborhood reminding him of the things that constantly need fixing in his own life and are “never done” is admittedly a bit silly, but I like the light-hearted, self-deprecating approach – he doesn’t take himself too seriously here, but he’s 100% sincere about understanding he’s a constant work in progress. This song works for me on every level – I love the eclectic instrumentation and also the moments where it “rocks” in the more traditional sense, I love the deeper meaning that the band is driving at, and I’m especially enamored with the little bits of wordplay, e.g. “I’m watching the tenements increase by increments.” Pretty much everything here is an aspect of Relient K wearing their musical personality loud and proud – if you need any convincing that the band has fully shed the ill-fitting sound of Collapsible Lung that played against most of their strengths, this should be sufficient proof.
3. Mrs. Hippopotamuses’
I almost want to put this bouncy piano rock anthem in the “silly songs” category, because it’s easily the most lighthearted thing on the album and it’s largely collection of references to things the two Matts enjoy about their home state of Ohio, up to and including a chant for the Cleveland Browns (which ought to annoy anyone who ever cared about a rival sports team, or who just grimaced at the timing of a song referencing Cleveland coming out right when the Republican National Convention was going on). Personally, I love this. I’ve never been to Ohio, so I don’t have firsthand experience with half the places they’re referencing, but I tend to love songs that are about hometown pride and what gives a musician a special attachment to the place they grew up. I’ve said before that there are about a billion songs about L.A. and New York, so I enjoy hearing a singer paint a musical picture of a place not as many of us know about, even if it involves living out in the sticks or referencing a river that literally once caught on fire (that would be the Cuyahoga – which incidentally, R.E.M. wrote a song about too). The main thesis of the song could well be a mission statement for the entire album – “There’s nothing better than knowing where you come from.” About the only thing I can’t figure out is the title. Google’s given me no hits on that one that aren’t related to the song. And it’s a mouthful to pronounce, as well as a bit of a grammar headache. Is there more than one Mrs. Hippopotamus, is it just talking about something she owns, or both?
The beginning of this song, with its oddball percussion and what sounds like a toy piano, sounds like the kind of thing the band might do if they appeared in one of those “Classroom Instruments” segments with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots. I like the playful vibe, but this probably sounds the most like B-side material out of anything from the album (and with 16 tracks, I’m relieved to not find myself saying this more often). It turns into a piano and guitar-driven power pop number like most of the album soon enough, with an almost obnoxiously catchy chorus hook, which is a good sing-along moment even if it feels slightly forced. The lyrics seem to describe a period of renaissance in a man’s life as a cat entering into the next of its nine lives, vowing to spend this one a little more in “crazy cat” mode than “lazy cat” mode. The song’s not really long enough to do this analogy justice, but I appreciate the big, goofy fun of it all.
This song was apparently intended as a sequel to “This Is the End (If You Want It)”, the two-parter that closed out to Forget and Not Slow Down, and I can see some similarities, though this one’s piano driven all the way through and ramps up the intensity in its second half rather than its first. Thiessen lays a Peter Pan analogy on rather thick here, noting that an adult man with real responsibilities can only hide away in his house on the beach in the middle of nowhere for so long before resolving to face the real world again. “Wake up, wake up, it’s time to be a man”, goes the main chorus hook, first to a playful, syncopated beat, and then rather to a much faster rhythm, the song seeming to gain momentum as it catapults towards its conclusion. This feels like the sort of thing that could have concluded an album, so it’s interesting to see it so early on in the tracklisting, possibly as a deliberate contrast to “Cat” – it can’t be a coincidence that these two songs with three-word titles referring to different species are back-to-back.
6. Air For Free
I didn’t think much of this one at first – it’s an appropriately “airy” electropop song with a light but peppy emphasis on the guitar downstroke, almost as if you sped up a reggae beat but it wasn’t at all syncopated or fast enough to be ska, and… you know what, I’m doing a terrible job of explaining this, but suffice to say, it’s a stylistic curveball for Relient K and not necessarily an accurate representation of what the rest of the record is like, despite it being the title track. The easy-going pace of it seems to clash with Thiessen’s lyrics about being so despondent that he barely has the energy to get out of bed and go outside. However, his question, “If I sink to the darkest depths, will you be there for me?” reminds me very much of Psalm 139, so I see this as a very personal song about God meeting him right where he was at when despair seemed to have a stranglehold on his life. It’s an honest and somewhat comforting song that I think Christians who have been through depression will relate to.
Though they’re not musically linked in anyway, I see this song as the end of a trilogy started by “Cat” and “Man”, with “God” being the superior three-letter being in the equation, and this being a surprisingly simple yet effective song that acknowledges after all this dude’s been through, he still believes in God and that God has a better purpose for his life to serve than what he could have dreamed up. Several years ago, I might have taken a song like this as pandering to Christian radio – and I still have no doubt that Christian radio would play the heck out of it if given the chance. But at this juncture in their career, and with so much lyrical ground being covered on this record, I don’t see that as a negative thing. There’s just enough in the little details that I never feel like Relient K is coloring completely within the lines on this one – I like how the chorus skips a beat as if to say it’s only going to be an upbeat religious anthem on its own turns, and it’s still going to do a little something to challenge how the casual listener expects a pop song to go. I made the case once for the Jars of Clay track “Sing” on Who We Are Instead, which some fans had written off as a rather simplistic praise anthem, explaining that I found it to carry more weight as a response to their deeply confessional song “Jealous Kind”. Though these two songs don’t quite hit me as hard as classic Jars tunes often did, I do think this one benefits from its positioning after the title track – the depths a man’s been rescued from make the heights more worth singing about.
8. Elephant Parade
Remember how I said that “Local Construction” seemed a bit “circus-y” at first? This song’s got to be doing that deliberately, what with its references to elements and other animals. This time the rhythm is even jauntier and there’s a trombone in the mix, so the wackiness has got to be intentional. The song’s almost got a bitter mood to it, with the refrain of “Hip hip hooray for the elephants on parade” sounding anything but happy. There’s a reference to “airin’ out your dirty laundry on a weather vane” that makes me wonder if the song is about awkward or uncomfortable details of the band members’ personal lives being put on public display – the elephant in the room, as it were – and them having to navigate a PR nightmare in situations where the rest of us could at least work out our issues privately. Much like “Man”, this song turns a corner midway through, with the piano chords steadily coming to a rolling boil, bringing the song to a very different climax from what we’d have expected given its opening verses. And once again, I love the wordplay here. Any band that thinks to rhyme “jackrabbit” with “dang nabbit” is OK in my book!
No matter how long and convoluted a record gets, since I became a music aficionado in the era of cassettes, I still think of most albums as having “sides” to this day. That term would be meaningless to someone who grew up on CDs, or the younger folks nowadays who probably just consume everything in digital format – I guess vinyl has sides, but oftne the track order has to get rearranged to make everything fit on a vinyl. The point of my incoherent rambling about music formats is that it still makes me super happy when a band comes up with a killer “Side B” opener, even if it wasn’t intentionally placed as such. This bouncy, jangly bit of guitar pop goodness most certainly fits the bill, putting a smile on my face immediately with its cheerful opening riff, and the whole thing feels like a delightful fanfare to the simple days when a young couple was in love and didn’t have to overthink it. The little details are what help to set it apart from other nostalgic love songs of its ilk – the mountaintop vista overlooking dark blue sea, the blueberry picking somewhere in the deep forests of Maine, the young lovers’ families meeting for the first time, etc. Even something acknowledged as “it wasn’t the slightest bit romantic” as recklessly driving in the rain ends up being a good memory when viewed through that nostalgic filter. The central theme of the song is “I can’t say how much you mean to me”, and while this sounds sweet, it may be the first hint at some underlying problems, as if he literally couldn’t say it and she ended up doubting that she really meant all that much to him over time, due to his lack of saying it. So in between all the apparent frivolity, the fun guitar and trumpet solos and so forth, there’s a hidden message in there, reminding us “old lovers” out there that we can’t take saying these things for granted just because we think it’s implicit in the mere existence of the relationship.
The intro for this track is just gorgeous. the soothing horns and what I’m assuming is the plucking of ukulele strings paint a unique portrait of what I’m imagining is a beautiful excursion somewhere deep into the wilderness. It almost sounds like what you’d get if Sleeping at Last had collaborated with Relient K (and no, I’m not just saying that because of the title). Then it falls silent after only 30 seconds or so, and I’m bummed, thinking the track is over. Much to my surprise, that wasn’t just an interlude. The song itself is much more upbeat, keeping the ukulele and proving to be a brilliant little acoustic pop gem in its own right. It isn’t until the end when things come full circle and I understand how the slow, majestic intro fits into the rest of the song, when it’s reprised in an offbeat manner reminiscent of “Savannah”, my absolute favorite track on Forget and Not Slow Down. The lyrics could be read as upbeat pop fluff or a sad recollection of bygone memories, depending on what lens you look at it through. Whether a man sitting on his porch, pondering the night sky and the view of the majestic lake or ocean or whatever behind his house, is doing so in the company of a lover he’s invited over for the evening, or simply suffering from a sleepless night caused by the memory of that lover, is a matter of interpretation. A lot of the details in this song are downright silly – especially the bit about the butter lettuce salad in the second verse. It’s so oddly specific and seems to have nothing to do with anything. But it’s the innocuous little things that can trigger memories from years past, be it the taste of a certain brand of cottage cheese or the sight of a Maine coon cat. Despite those oddball elements, this song is downright magical, and though it’s a bit unpredictable on first listen, everything seems to pull together so perfectly once you get used to it. This is the best example of a song that, stylistically speaking, feels almost nothing like the Relient K of old, and yet the playful and sorta melancholy mood of it make perfect sense to someone who’s been following them all these years.
11. Empty House
This is the song with the aforementioned ill-advised use of AutoTune. I might as well just get that out of the way because that’s what pretty much everyone who hears it is going to remember it for. It’s one of those little musical tricks that might have been amusing in an ironic way if we hadn’t been subject to years upon years of everyone from Bon Iver to Kanye West to fun. using and abusing AutoTune as an artistic tool rather than one meant for correcting imperfections. Matt Thiessen’s a confident enough singer that I know its use here, in an otherwise very stark song that’s mostly just him and a piano, isn’t meant to cover up a sketchy vocal performance. He just liked the cold, robotic sound of it. I actually think it could have worked if the digitizing effect had been brought on gradually rather than using it from the get-go, but despite thinking this is a major drawback, I do still enjoy the song. Whatever whimsy a man might have found in his solitude, on a houseboat out in Middle-of-Nowhere, Maine in the previous songs has all given way to pure melancholy, as he now ponders the vast emptiness he feels as he realizes she’s only ever going to be a memory from this point on. The tragedy here is genuinely felt. I might disagree with the creative choices made in producing this song, but at its core it’s a good song, and an important emotional turning point in a record that’s had its fair share of ups and downs already.
My first, honest, unfiltered thought at hearing the delicate piano and dainty vocal melody at the start of this song, as Matt sang of picking a flower and naming it, was “This is gonna suck.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. This may be the most gut-wrenching track on the album, and it does it by way of achingly beautiful vocal harmonies and a fair amount of rhythmic and dynamic shifts that keep an otherwise very sad song sounding fresh throughout. The flower is a metaphor for a relationship that was once vibrant and alive, but has since withered, and the man left alone in the wake of it, still hearing wedding bells in his mind and still wanting very much to love someone, seems to have this as the last thought in his mind each night when he goes to sleep. While both Matts have been through their share of heartbreak, it’s at least good to know that Thiessen did in fact get married last year, though I believe the song (and most of the album) was already written before that point.
Following up on the floral theme, this one finds the man in the relationship feeling like the hapless flower, this time not a wilted one, but one so generic it gets easily overlooked. The first half of this song, with its stomping piano rhythm, isn’t as memorable to me as some of the other musical passages on this record, but the story about him picking flowers for his mom as a kid is cute, being told marigolds are just “a garden variety weed”, but nonetheless the thought still seems to count, and now as an adult, that’s sort of how he sees himself – nothing special by superficial standards, but still able to make his mother smile with a simple gesture showing he was thinking of her. The second half is where this song really takes off, again due to smart use of vocal melodies and speeding up the tempo. When the refrain of “Nothing but the sun in your eyes” comes in, it’s all golden – yes, pun intended – from there until the end.
The album’s most ambitious track, at five and a half minutes, may seem like a drop in the bucket when compared to the now-classic “Deathbed”, which was over ten, but it’s actually got something in common with that song. It really feels like a three-song suite crammed into one track, each section describing an individual who has something to run away from or towards, not necessarily linking them up as a continuous narrative, but comprising one of their most interesting songs nonetheless. The first segment is probably where fans who just want to hear the band rock out will rejoice the most, due to the speedy, punk-inspired drumbeat and the rapid-fire lyrics making it the most urgent thing on the album, but it’s going to be short lived due to how suddenly it makes a turn into the second section. This part, originally known as “The Orphan Song”, was originally intended to fill in a bit of the backstory of the character from “Deathbed” back when Thiessen’s idea was to make an entire concept album around it, but that idea got scrapped and the segment about a young boy losing his parents and ending up in some sort of an orphanage or monastery or whatever ended up here. It’s got the same sort of bouncy piano-based rhythm as a few sections of “Deathbed”, which is a deliberate contrast to a boy coming to the sad realization that “no one loves an orphan”. The third segment, while slower than the beginning of the song, brings back more of a stomping beat, and describes a man moving down south, presumably to be closer to the woman he loves, and taking up running as a hobby, seemingly to make himself a healthier and better man for her. The cascading, overlapping vocal parts as this song comes to a close make me think it’d be a killer encore for their live shows. There’s a nice sense of finality to it as it finally wraps up on a mellow piano coda, that I’m surprised to look at the track listing and discover we’ve still got two songs to go. (It’s also worth noting that this track completes another trilogy of sorts, as the title’s similarity to “Bummin'” and “Sleepin'” can’t be a coincidence. I suppose I should be glad they didn’t name the third track “Hippopotamusin'”.)
This relatively short piano song, with subtle electronic overtones, is probably one of the easiest tracks to overlook on the album, musically speaking, but it also takes some surprising lyrical turns in its opening verse: “Sweet Jesus, I was coming to pray/But all the hip kids sent you running away/You got egg on your face/But the faithful keep washing your feet.” Here Thiessen seems to acknowledge himself as the least deserving of Christ’s love, perhaps even part of the reason others have mocked his followers and turned away. There’s still a genuine solace that he finds in his faith, and it’s nice to hear him communicate that while pointing the microscope of judgment at himself and not at the other people who have misunderstood Christ or lost interest in him.
Though this is definitely a long album that seems like it was building toward a grand finish several times before it actually did, I’m happy to say that I’m still not impatient for it to end at this point, a good 55 minutes into it. The actual ending is another five-minute epic, not quite as progressive in its structure as “Runnin'”, but definitely rounding some sudden corners, and switching the melody and rhythm back and forth a few times as songs like “Man”, “Elephant Parade”, and “Flower” did earlier. Taking action rather than sitting around waiting for something good to happen seems to be the theme here, as in another majestic, piano-and-guitar-driven chorus, Thiessen declares, “I will not let my heart ache.” It brings the album full circle without the song being an obvious musical bookend to “Bummin'” – similar themes were present in that song, but that one seemed more about finding the will just to get through the day with a positive attitude, while this one’s looking forward and actually finding some optimism in the future. Forget and Not Slow Down may have ended with a reference to a heartbroken man reclaiming the the throne, but by the time I get to the end of this song, I feel like he’s actually done it.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Local Construction $2
Mrs. Hippopotamuses’ $1.75
Air For Free $1
Elephant Parade $1.25
Empty House $.75
Matthew Thiessen: Lead vocals, piano, rhythm guitar
Matthew Hoopes: Lead guitar, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: