Relient K is a difficult band to summarize in a few sentences. In the eighteen years that these Christian punks have been rocking and writing, they’ve changed, evolved and matured with each new release. When the wave of punk-pop began to recede in the ocean of Christian contemporary music and many of the bands that were once at the forefront of the movement began to fade into obscurity, Relient K remained, continuing to change and experiment while staying true to their original creative spirit. Not many of their contemporaries can claim as much.
When Relient K first got their feet off the ground with the help of Toby Mckeehan, I’m not sure anyone was entirely prepared for what their first few albums would bring to the table of Christian music. What the industry gained were songs about Marilyn Manson, Matt Theissen’s fictional crush on Nancy Drew, comparisons between a car and mental breakdown, college life and, as the band would later title their debut book, The Complex Infrastructure Known as the Female Mind…Oh, yeah, not to mention Jesus and church and stuff.
While their songs were goofy, ridiculous and reminiscent of nineties punk-pop acts such as blink-182, the brutal honesty of their lyrics and catchy melodies caught the attention of many listeners early on. Over time, their lyrics continued to mature, and with their gradual changes in sound and style the band begin to tackle bigger, more philosophical questions in their lyrics, climaxing in their albums Mmhmm and Five Score and Seven Years Ago, with tracks such as “When I Go Down”, “Devastation and Reform”, “Let it All Out”, and the eleven minute epic, “Deathbed”. However, after their 2013 album Collapsible Lung, a conceptual pop album about growing old and reminiscing in which Theissen brought in a team of mainstream songwriters, many fans were concerned about the future of Relient K, some going so far as to say that they had “sold out” to the mainsteam music industry. Three years later, Matt Theissen and Matt Hoopes, the two original and remaining members of the band, announced that they were working on their eighth studio album, Air For Free. Right now, I want to try to flush out some of the core themes and ideas behind this album by analytically examining the lyrical and musical content. Let’s do this.
Relient K often does far more than write songs: they tell stories. Sometimes these stories are poetic, sometimes they are shockingly straightforward. Sometimes they center around a single person, and other times address a much broader audience. While Collapsible Lung tells one continuous story, Air For Free tells a collection of much smaller stories. What I found interesting after listening to this album a few times is that these stories are not at all large scale and spectacular. They aren’t Deathbeds or Collapsible Lungs or When I Go Downs. Even one of the longest and most impressive tracks on the record, “Runnin’”, doesn’t conclude with fanfare, thematic appeal, or deep, philosophical points to make. Air For Free, in some ways, is a very simple album.
That’s not to say that it’s void of introspection, questioning and depth. It definitely has its profound moments on tracks like “Local Construction”, “Prodigal”, “God” and “Man”. In fact, in terms of quantity, this album is easily more thoughtful and introspective than Collapsible Lung. However, in its own way, Air For Free tells simple stories that describe events, emotions and questions that everyone has to face at some point. They’re little snippets of life that don’t end in a philosophically dense, existential finale. Instead, they conclude with the realization and understanding that life goes on and the exhortation to make the most of each moment.
To give a few examples, “Bummin” is about understanding our weaknesses, inability to cure ourselves from our vices, and our need for help. “Man” is about coming of age and maturity. “God” is about deciding and coming to terms with what we believe in. “Empty House” is about feelings of loneliness in the absence of loved ones. “Sleepin’” reflects on individual moments, the little things in everyday life. Even “Runnin’”, a story about an orphan who, in the wake of losing his father, was encouraged to give his life to God, ends on a peaceful, simple, yet completely satisfying note about how that orphan, even with his tragedy and pain, was able to still gain everything he could ever ask for and continues to live life to the fullest (he keeps on “running”). These are just the tracks that stick out to me lyrically. Every song on this album is impactful and important in its own right. Each tells a simple story, fused with raw emotion, meaning and depth.
The album ends with “Heartache”, a song that reflects on the past and asks questions about the future. Matt Theissen asks himself if he’s truly found his way, then reflects on how he found his purpose in life. He then asks the question “Is it gonna always have to be this hard?” He comes out on the other side of his questioning with new confidence and hope, determined not to lose heart. Even though he has questions, he finds comfort in holding onto hope, admitting that it’s “all I know”. In the bridge he sings, “Up and at ’em/Bright as the start of a brand new day/There’s a magic to it, never let it go/It’s the time when you awake/Something holy to it only you could know.”
While in concept this album is relatively simple, lighthearted, and, as one of my friends put it, “chilled out”, musically that is definitely not the case. Being some of the most prominent punk rockers in the Christian industry, Relient K has always had a reputation known for pushing boundaries and trying new things. That being said, this album takes Relient K’s musical creativity to a new level, the likes of which they haven’t attempted for a long time, if ever. Musically, Air For Free can be broken down into three sections, each of which carries different sounds, tones and structures that are each individually unique yet consistent with the others to form a cohesive whole. The landmarks for these three sections are “Bummin’”, “Elephant Parade”, and “Marigold”.
The album begins with “Bummin’”, a simple song that sets the tone for the rest of its section as being fun, uncomplicated and easy to listen to, yet not without depth. It’s interspersed with upbeat, lighthearted songs with some humor mixed in (“Cat”, “Mrs. Hippopotamus”) and songs that take on a more thoughtful, mature sound (“Local Construction”, “God”, “Air For Free”, “Man”). While “Cat” definitely stands out to me musically for its unique vocal effects, it is “Air For Free” that has some of most creative mixing and effects on the album. In the chorus Matt sings, “Air for free/If I sink to the darkest depths/Will you be there for me?/To hold my hand while I hold my breath.” The production and musical sides of the track compliment the lyrics nicely, making it sound as if the song were being played underwater, a touch that makes this song all the more dynamic and impactful. “God” is another interesting song to take note of, being by far the most religious song on the album (what a surprise) and carrying a more Christian Contemporary sound. It’s difficult for me to associate Relient K with the CCM genre, and while it may be one of the weaker songs on the album musically, it serves its purpose lyrically, introducing the questions of belief and religion to the album.
When you reach “Elephant Parade”, it becomes obvious that things are about to change dramatically. If it wasn’t the introduction of the brass section that tipped you off, the blatant tempo change at the end of the song leaves little doubt. What follows is a collection of four songs in which Relient K plays with some new instruments, styles, progressions, effects and lyrics. ”Mountaintop” takes the transition easy, keeping the brass section alive and featuring the album’s first romantic lyrics. “Sleepin’”and “Flower” both take a slower approach that builds up in energy as they progress. The former introduces the ukulele to the album, and the latter features a piano progression that has a much darker, more dramatic texture. “Empty House”, one of my favorite tracks on the album musically, is a melancholic piano ballad that features a blatant use of auto tune software on Matt’s vocals. Some found this effect to be a distracting put-off, but I thought it fit the creative tone of the album beautifully. If I may indulge myself for a moment, I also believe the effect carries some hidden symbolism. In a song about the pangs of loneliness, the effects give the lyrics an almost drunken sound, or that of someone on the verge of tears attempting to maintain a facade of composure (I may be looking too far into this, but knowing Relient K, it wouldn’t surprise me).
And now we come to the third and final section, beginning with “Marigold”, a song that begins almost too pop oriented and sappy to fit in any of the three sections, but changes suddenly in the bridge when Matt launches into a new set of lyrics, accompanied by another change in tempo and dramatic drum buildup as Matt sings “nothing but the sun in your eyes” with a resounding chorus of background vocals. The change flows together perfectly, and actually gave me goosebumps the first few times I listened to it. This song is an indicator that final section is about to become the most dramatic and thematic of the album. It makes good on its promise right away, launching headfirst into “Runnin’”, the tree-part mini rock epic. The song puts a much heavier emphasis on the guitar, making it the closest track on the record to the old Relient K sound we fell in love with. The dramatic chord progressions, tempo changes and variety of instruments fit the thematic lyrics perfectly and serve to make this one of the most interesting tracks on the album. “Prodigal” slows the section down considerably, but still maintains a thematic sound. Finally, the album concludes with the dramatic finale “Heartbreak”, which, like “Runnin’”, moves in sections, but with a much more relaxed tone that gracefully eases the album into silence.
Relient K has, without a doubt, has left their mark on the Christian music industry. They’ve been among my favorite bands for as long as I can remember. That being said, they’ve truly outdone themselves this time and created something that, while staying true to their roots both lyrically and musically, is unique and original. They’ve reached a whole new level of creativity. It’s astonishing to think that after eighteen years these rockers are still in their prime. In fact, if anything, they’ve improved. They haven’t lost their love for what they do best or for their rebellious tendencies to push boundaries and explore different ways of telling stories through music. While this album is certainly different than any of their past projects, both musically and lyrically, it gives new perspectives on life, death, religion and love that they’ve never explored in this way before.
I have nothing bad to say about this album. It’s good to hear Matt back at the helm of the songwriting, and while I respect their bold and creative spirit in the creation of Collapsible Lung, I was relived to find that for their eighth studio album they had created a much more original sound that, while not the traditional punk rock that sold us on the band in the beginning, has Relient K written all over it. Admittedly, “Mountaintop” and “God” feel like weaker tracks in comparison to the rest of the album, but overall played their role in telling its story. All in all, this album is original, energetic, theatrical, dramatic, heartfelt, honest, and yet somehow surprisingly simple. The boys from Ohio have been rocking for eighteen years and I’m in suspense to see where their imaginations and creativity will take them next.
Overall rating: 10/10