Last week I wrote about my longstanding relationship with Relient K, the way many of their songs have explained my life so well since my middle school days. On Friday, they dropped a new album, their first since 2013’s Collapsible Lung.
For many, Collapsible Lung was a disappointment, a departure from their funny pop culture songs, and clean cut Christian band lyrics. I loved that album, though, because it was complicated, like life. It was about relationships that weren’t what you wanted them to be, and the pain of breakups. It was about growing up.
This album also feels like it’s about growing up, right in the middle of it, which works pretty well for my purposes, as I hope for a soundtrack for the next season of my own life.
Musically, it’s catchy and fun, though not terribly cohesive (which reminds me a little bit of Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right But Three Do, or The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek). Every song has it’s own personality, and while some of them sound like they go together, this isn’t a story album like Forget and Not Slow Down.
“Air For Free” might be my favorite song on the album. It feels like a song about depression, but it isn’t depressing. They sing: “If I sink to the darkest depths/Will you be there for me?/To hold my hand while I hold my breath” which is something I ask daily of those around me, and of God. Musically, it’s calming and slightly electronic. I can’t stop singing along with this one.
There are three songs that address faith in a fairly explicit way. One of them is “God” which falls a little flat to me. It’s seems lyrically lazy and theologically vague (the chorus is: I believe in God, I believe in God/Oh, oh, oh-oh-oh, and I believe that I, I believe enough/So help me God/I believe in love and I believe in us/Oh, oh, oh-oh-oh, and I believe the sky was made for me to touch).
“Prodigal” is more interesting, beginning with: “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.”
“Runnin’” is a three-part song, which feels like classic Relient K. The first part reminds me of a more vulnerable version of “Breakdown,” (But I got suspicion in my head/That I’ve got the cure but I’m not so sure that I’ve got the cure) while the second part feels like the storytelling in “Deathbed,” and the third part is rhythmic and strong, bouncy in places, the fun nature of the song belying (or perhaps illustrating) what it is to have to keep running to avoid dark places.
While Relient K has always had love songs, they’ve ranged from mostly very sweet and simple, to break-up songs. There is a stable romantic presence on this album, which is specifically addressed in several songs. “Sleepin’” describes a comfortable domestic scene (You’ll make a butter lettuce salad/With all natural ingredients, except for cottage cheese) still with a little sparkle (Maybe I’ll just slip into the moonlight/And catch a trail of stardust in your eyes…/Maybe I’ll just fall ever more in love with you). “Mountaintop” is sweet, filled with specificity, which I like, it’s cute, but doesn’t capture me (There’s something in your eyes/A secret I must keep/I can’t say how much you mean to me).
Running through the album, there is a thread of longing, which has been present in the last few albums. In “Heartache” the singer asks: “Maybe I never solved the mystery/Is it always gonna have to be so hard? “Flower” is about longing for romantic love, and is almost heartbreakingly lullaby-like. “Empty House” is musically beautiful and lyrically blurred, ending in the middle of a sentence. “Elephant Parade” is clanging and dark, but also feels like a more street-smart version of some of their earlier music, right down to the clever lyrics.
I found myself here, in many of these songs, as I hoped I would. When lead singer Matt Thiessen sings “do you hear wedding bells?/Because I want to love somebody” I’m right there with him (and frankly, a little bit hopeful since he recently married). In “Heartache” he sings “I’m not really sure how my dream found me” and I know how that feels, too, the way the life you want can sneak up on you.
Three years ago, when Collapsible Lung came out, I was working in an unhealthy environment, which was slowing extinguishing my passion. Now, concurrent with this release, I’m thriving, and from the sounds of things, Relient K is, too. There are still questions, a lot of them about faith, and everything doesn’t fit into neat little boxes. Some of the songs don’t feel like they go together, and some feel like attempted returns to another era. I’m having a hard time thinking of a better metaphor for early adulthood with all of it’s turmoil, hope, and new routines.
I’ll sing along with this album for a while, as I wait for them to live and record the next one, smiling every time I make myself a salad with butter lettuce (I have some in my fridge right now). Hopefully I won’t have to wait three years for a new soundtrack this time.