Artist: Matthew Thiessen & the Earthquakes
Album: Wind Up Bird
In Brief: It’s actually not that far of a stylistic leap from some of the mellower material on Relient K’s latest album to their lead singer’s first solo album. While I enjoy the clever indie/baroque pop arrangements and witty wordplay, I have to admit that only a handful of Thiessen’s songs on this album continue to stand out in my mind, beyond the initial novelty of hearing him do an acoustic record.
Matt Thiessen had a solo project gestating for nearly two decades before he finally managed to get Wind Up Bird finished last year. He’s best known as the witty frontman for the pop/punk outfit Relient K, a band that has rotated through genres and members so much over the years that his occasional side project, dubbed Matthew Thiessen & the Earthquakes, never really struck me as a necessary avenue for any of his songwriting in the first place. The side project first saw its debut in 2001, with the track “I Hate Christmas Parties” appearing on a BEC Recordings Christmas compilation, I suppose to differentiate it in tone from the Relient K track appearing on that very same compilation. This track was then absorbed into Relient K’s own Christmas album released a few years later. Apparently the odd Earthquakes track would surface as a one-off single or compilation appearance, with some of them also getting reworked as Relient K songs over the years. The solo project was just something Thiessen worked on in his spare time, at least up until the band took a break after 2016’s Air For Free, a record that was already a stylistic smorgasbord running the gamut from the trusty old Relient K sound to some more acoustic, piano-driven, and even baroque pop-leaning material that truly surprised me as a longtime fan of the band. The timing was just right at that point, with RK down to two members anyway, for Thiessen to make good on his promise to put out a solo album. Earlier in the 2010s, during the era of the disastrous Collapsible Lung, I’d have been profoundly uninterested, and any earlier than that, I might have had a tougher time accepting the radical departure from the band’s sound (though a look back at albums like Five Score and Seven Years Ago and Forget and Not Slow Down reminds me that they were up for a fair bit of experimentation back then, too). When Wind Up Bird finally dropped late last summer, it just felt so right, striking me as the perfect sort of laid-back acoustic album to put on and enjoy a lazy summer morning.
For all of my effusiveness about the mellower instrumentation and the pretty little arrangements, though, I had to admit that this album felt like a bit of a diet snack compared to a magnum opus like Air For Free. At 11 tracks and 35 minutes, a lot of these new songs might seem to have the witty wordplay and the aw-shucks charm we’ve come to expect from Thiessen, but some of them breeze by so quickly that they barely register. My level of interest waxes and wanes rather profoundly over the course of this brief little album, peaking when the vocals of Thiessen and his frequently employed backing vocalists Ellie Schmidly and Robert Gay dovetail beautifully with a light but catchy beat (drums on this album are played by Darren King of former MuteMath fame, if you can believe it) and just the right mix of auxiliary instrumentation to turn an otherwise bare-bones song into a brief burst of kaleidoscopic color. My patience with this record tends to bottom out when Thiessen bases most of a song around just the piano or guitar without as much accompaniment – the “Earthquakes” might function as a part-time band, but it really it seems to be just him and an ad hoc collective of musicians that rotate in and out depending on the song, so I can understand the more introverted approach even if it doesn’t tend to be as engaging. Unfortunately, there’s a handful of several songs right smack in the middle of this album where I feel like a lot of the most half-baked material is sort of clumped together. It starts and ends strong, with songs that easily sink their melodies and their novel little hooks into your brain, but the transition point where I go from thinking, “This album is an underrated work of brilliance!” to “Nah, it’s just OK” is quite noticeable.
I’m also surprised at what an enigmatic songwriter Thiessen turns out to be on this album. I know from past experience that he can write, long meandering stories just as easily as he can write bold, simple anthems about his faith in God, or joke songs that are packed with wall-to-wall puns. Here, while his lyrics are quite playful, humor generally doesn’t seem to be the intent, and where the lyrics appear to hint at personal stories, they’re sometimes buried in a cryptic heap of alliteration and other fun little tongue twisters. I feel like I can recall a lot of the lyrics on this record, but I had to take a long hard look at Genius.com in order to zero in on exactly what several songs were about. That may be intentional, and in fact it may have been the entire impetus behind this record’s existence, rather than saving these songs for the occasional appearance on future Relient K albums. As a solo artist with a much lower profile, he’s freed from the expectation that his songs have to mean something to a fanbase that has projected at least a solid decade’s worth of their own personal experience onto the way that they identify with the band. It’s fun to hear an artist completely freed from his constraints. But given that, I suppose I would have expected something wackier, weirder, a little more ambitious than the morsel of an album we ended up getting. Wind Up Bird is kind of like the island of misfit songs – it’s a fun place to visit, but it’s not quite exotic or surreal enough that it entices you to spend significantly more time there.
I usually find the whole gimmick of starting a record off at conspicuously low volume, then suddenly blasting the listener with a sudden burst of energy at full volume, to be cliched and irritating. Especially when there are lyrics during the quiet part. But Thiessen pulls that off with enough clever self-awareness in the opening verse of this song that I have to admit I’m amused. “This one’s for the boys/Don’t turn it up, don’t turn it up.” See, he’s advising us not to adjust those volume dials because the problem will sort itself out soon enough! (Well, I thought it was funny at least.) It helps that attaining “full volume” after a verse or so of this doesn’t suddenly assault the listener with a wall of sound – this one’s mostly just a bit of nimble acoustic guitar picking, and some light backing vocals that gradually help it to reach a modest crescendo. And the song is more than just a cutesy gimmick – as much of a throwaway as you might expect a song called “Dude” to be, there’s some underlying insecurity apparent in the lyrics, which express a feeling of being “locked in a cage” and needing help, perhaps due to feeling like he still hasn’t attained true adulthood after all this time. It’s a comparable feeling to the one he expressed in Relient K’s “Man”, though that song was more resolved to just wake up and get it done anyway, where as this song seems a little more like the result of unfiltered nervousness and self-doubt. I chuckle at the wink and the nudge here, but I also feel some of his pain.
2. Man of Stone
There’s probably a lot more to this album’s lead single than I’m ever going to unearth. It’s the catchiest song on the record by far, while also being one if its densest in the lyrics department. Once again I appreciate how the song is built around an acoustic arpeggio, not just a riff made up of simple chords, and there’s a more prominent backbeat once the song gets going than what you’ll hear on most of the album. Thiessen a curiously confessional tone as he hints that he just might not have been the squeaky-clean role model that the prying eyes of the Christian music industry might have expected him to be all these years: “You got your ink, but you think you might have taken it/Too far before forsaking it, you covered up your nakedness/Now all you own is curtain clothes/It’s not a sin when your skin is telling everything/How could you ever lie about the girls that you were trying out?” But enough of this song is cryptic that it’s hard for me to say for sure that he’s coming to a specific conclusion about any of these romantic or sexual dalliances, or even what’s real and what’s fictional. This is all stuff that just seemed to have been swirling around in his head, and that I’m assuming didn’t need the baggage of being released on a Relient K album and pored over by listeners with more of a perceived agenda for what their music is supposed to be about. By the time he throws a bit of the Boy Scout motto, “On my honor, I will do my best/To do my duty to God and my country” into the bridge, I’ve given up on making much sense of it, but this song sure is an intoxicating mixture of odd images and fun sounds.
Even by Thiessen’s standards, this cute little song about Robin Hood and Little John seems a bit random. Did you ever see the Disney adaptation with the cartoon animals? Apparently this song was written as a prequel to the “Oo-De-Lally, Golly What a Day” song from that movie. And it has the audacity to feature the line “Robin Hood and Little John were rockin’ in the forest”, while not doing anything even remotely resembling rocking. This is a twee pop song no matter how you slice it, with its humble acoustic origins and its cutesy whistling gradually getting overtaken by a faux-jazzy horn section, complete with glaringly out of place saxophone. It’s a deliberate mixed bag of sounds just for the fun of it, on a song that doesn’t seem to have much in terms of lyrical implications beyond just two buddies meeting up in the woods and deciding to be lifelong friends while one of them helps the other to eventually meet his Maid Marian. It could be an allegory about someone who was important in Thiessen’s life, but he’s so firmly embedded in this little cartoon world he’s decided to flesh out a bit of the backstory to, that he’s not really giving us much of a real-life roadmap. I will say that Thiessen, Schmidly, and Gay all trade off vocals quite effectively here, so at least they’ve managed to nail the light-hearted sense of camaraderie depicted in the song.
This song is interesting for many reasons. It’s faster-paced and I love the sound and texture of it, but it’s also very light on its feet, with the lyrics almost feeling like a whispered lullaby in places, coaxing a nervous child into falling asleep in the race car bed he had spent most of his childhood dreaming about owning. That desire for something a young kid would find awesome, but that an older child might find an embarrassing link to his past if he were to visit home and still have to sleep in it, seems like a symbol for the same sort of conflict between becoming a man and staying stuck in boyhood that drives a few of the tracks on this record. And then there’s that title. Wow, where do I even begin with that one. The lyrics seem to make Oedipus the title character of this bittersweet song about childhood, even though they never draw an explicit connection to the tragic Greek tale of a man who was foretold a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Knowing the implications behind that name certain adds a layer of uneasiness to an otherwise delicate and pretty song. And don’t get me wrong – I rather like that Thiessen did this without choosing to explain it. It turns this song into one of those where you could debate interpretations for days, and not even be 100% sure that you want to know what it’s really about. I sure do want to be lulled to sleep when those gorgeous horns and strings come in, though – especially at the tail end, when the soothing outro reminds me of something that might have happened in the margins during Air For Free‘s back half.
Here’s where the album seems to fall off of that cliff that I alluded to earlier. It’s not like the songs suddenly become awful or anything. I just notice after those first four tracks, three of which were pretty good and one of which was silly but at least musically memorable, that I don’t really care what’s going on for most of this next stretch. In a few songs like this one, it’s because Thiessen gets off on the wrong foot by leading with a rather anemic version of the song’s chorus, and the song seems to build awkwardly from there, kind of ruining the climactic effect of having that chorus show up later. It’s weird that I remember this one as mostly a bunch of dry strumming and Thiessen reaching for high notes that his slightly scratchy voice doesn’t always hit, because he does bring in percussion and backing vocalists and I think even an electric guitar later. It just seems like too little, too late at this point – the record has lost its light but nimble momentum and it’s gonna have a hard time getting it back. I can hear a lot of wrestling with self-inflicted wounds in the lyrics, which is something Thiessen’s generally been good at when he considers personal conflict and his own role in those messed-up relationships: “Start speaking the truth and stop abusing those that give you love/Thrashing about and slashing out until you scar it up/Relationships need not be pressed to the limits that you test them to/What if they abandon you.” Those lyrics are quite telling. I’m just not feeling much of anything about most of the rest of the lyrics, which make the act of slowly inching up a steep incline sound just about as enjoyable as it actually is.
6. Mother’s Triumph
I’m just now noticing that Todd Gummermann plays the organ on this song (and one or two others as well). What is this record, a place of refuge and sanctuary for people who have been unceremoniously kicked out of MuteMath? You’d think the results would be far more interesting, with that being the case. This is one of those songs where I’d say it is a 100% typical example of the sound of this record as a whole, yet try as I might, this is probably the one I remember the least about. It’s up-tempo. It’s got more pleasant guitar picking and horns and stuff. It’s got some nice lyrics about Thiessen going to his in-laws’ house in Connecticut and gallivanting off into the forest with his wife and carving their names into a tree trunk and stuff. But when I think about what this all means to me, or even how listening to this song makes me feel, there’s no there there. I’m just sort of blank-faced… it’s nice, but I’ve got no real reaction, and before you know it, we’re already on to the next track anyway.
7. Higher Power
While the center of this album is populated by lesser songs that don’t live up to the potential in its first and last few songs, this is the only one that actively irritates me. I feel like I should like this. It’s a piano ballad similar to “Flower” from Air For Free, a track that slowly grew to become one of my favorites on that album despite its inauspicious beginnings. This one just isn’t growing. I hate how Thiessen shoves the chorus right up front once again – it’s trying way too hard to be all cutesy and dramatic and maybe even a little Ben Folds-y, and I just sort of want to smack him and yell, “Earn it!” I can appreciate how this is really just a humble prayer that God will give him strength, and he’s trying to express that creatively in his own words instead of falling back on CCM cliches (and I can safely say that this record dodges that bullet entirely). But he’s clearly more in love with the goofy wordplay here than he is with his later attempts to say something meaningful: “Golly-gee willickers, I got the heebie-jeeb/Bone chillin’ feely brrrs right up my spiny sleeve.” That nonsense kind of undercuts his later struggle with how much to take on himself and what to leave up to God: “Don’t know if I believe it could be up to you/Clearly it’s up to me to be happy and loving and gracious/And kind to the people and good to the places/Where I could live whole-hearted days full of sweet, sweet joy.” Other than a brief aside from Ellie, there’s no real second verse – the tongue-twisting first verse repeats itself, bringing the whole song to a state of arrested development amidst the forced drama Thiessen is trying to wring out of each weirdly placed high note. I don’t like being tempted to skip songs on an album this short, but this is where I come the closest.
8. Clean Sweep
This one’s alright. It’s faster-paced, and while the acoustic guitar strumming seems a bit muted here, I like how the drum rolls help the song pick up momentum as Thiessen gleefully declares that he’s repainting the walls and basically started over with a life he made a mess of before. It’s an understated happy song, and perhaps it suffers slightly for stifling its own central hook, but I like the texture of it – the warm trumpet, the way it picks up energy as the verse turns a corner back into the chorus, that sort of stuff. It’s a good song to listen to in the month of January, I think, as people are typically trying to better organize their lives and make good on their New year’s resolutions (and especially with this whole Marie Kondo craze currently sweeping the nation).
9. I’m Gonna Cry
I probably didn’t give this song a fair shake for a while, due to its positioning on the album, and my patience already being spent by the earlier ballads that set a similar mood. This one finds Thiessen once again crying out for help, as in “Higher Power”, but the lyrics ring a bit truer because they’re not only an admission of needing help from a human friend or loved one he is very close to, but also a confession that he’s hurt that person as a side effect of all the misery he’s put himself through, and he’s trying to heal that relationship by being vulnerable with them instead of lashing out. There’s a lot more to these lyrics than I had initially noticed, which probably has something to do with the fact that the delicate guitar playing here doesn’t do a lot to draw attention to itself, until the bridge, where it gives away to more confident strumming and a wash of pleasant layered vocals, only to be stripped back again and end on a near-whisper. It still isn’t one of my favorites on the album, but I guess I’ve been persuaded to salvage it from the scrap heap I was initially tempted to relegate most of the middle section to.
10. Wind Up Bird
The last two tracks definitely bring this album back up from the doldrums. The title track is definitely one of its most upbeat entries, finding Thiessen in a place where he can more believably mix the wordplay and general silliness with genuine and vulnerable thoughts about whether he can consider himself a true grown-up yet and whether he even wants to feel like one. Admits some of the weirder lyrics which, I kid you not, include an actual attempt at mimicking a bird call in the bridge section (it comes out something like “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O!”, according to Genius.com anyway), he’s actually admitting stuff like “I don’t want to get a real job/I don’t want to take the monthly slap on the wrist”, which is a sentiment I’ve heard from a lot of creative types who make music for a living and don’t have to work “real jobs” like the rest of us (though for anyone working a federal government job right now, being a “starving artist” type probably looks more stable). The reason it works for me in Thiessen’s case is because he’s framed the album as a big question mark concerning his own maturity, and this song kind of turns it into an honest question about whether living the life of a rock star has kept him in a state of arrested development. I like it when an album’s art reflects the mood of its songs, or at the very least its title track, and this arrangement definitely gets the job done, working its way up beautiful from a simple guitar and piano to a brief but exhilarating climax with pounding drums and the aforementioned “bird call” vocals.
The album closes on another one of its shortest tracks (most of them have hovered around the three minute mark, with this one and a handful of others wrapping up not long after two and a half), once again working the twee pop angle, and using Ellie’s vocals prominently enough that this almost feels like the sort of duet Zooey Deschanel would want in on. (Yes, I somehow managed to shoehorn in a reference to her two reviews in a row. I can’t help it; she comes to mind whenever I think of excessively cutesy acoustic pop songs.) This one has a slight skip in its step as Thiessen muses, “Whatever I imagine is gonna happen/So I’m dreaming ’bout you.” It’s a pleasant thought to end the record on, especially as Ellie’s last few lines gradually fade into the last few twinkling piano notes, but given all that’s come before, I have to wonder: Is this a celebration of total bliss in a relationship, or just a man living in his own head, unable to escape the unfulfilled longings of his youth? Taken on its own, there’s no reason to see this one as anything but charming, but taken as the final thought on an album where playfulness often masks emotional turbulence and uncertainty about the future, it plays as mildly tragic. I like that ambiguity. It adds a touch of depth to a record that might otherwise seem to slight and cutesy for its own good.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Man of Stone $1.75
Mother’s Triumph $.50
Higher Power $0
Clean Sweep $1
I’m Gonna Cry $.75
Wind Up Bird $1.50
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