The collapsibility of one’s lungs…

Posted: July 7, 2013 in Uncategorized

I’ll admit that it took me a long while to jump on the Relient K bandwagon, which is saying something considering it was an easy train to hop back in the late 90’s/early 00’s when I was working my way through high school and youth groups. RK was a witty alternative to most of the CCM bands wandering around the circuit at the time, a step into the secular without straying too far. I mean, they had a song about Marilyn Manson for goodness sake (even if this song was a cautionary tale about the dangers of said singer’s music), the lyrics were peppered with copious pop culture references and witticisms, it was a Christian teenager’s dream. I, at the ever-astute age of 17, however, was less than impressed with the silliness of The Anatomy of Tongue in Cheek, an album I now appreciate as a huge part of the band’s growth–but we’ll get to that.

At any rate, the band grew on me as I grew older. Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right…But Three Do started to see Relient K dialing down the silly and honing in some real maturity; but it took about thirty seconds of Mmhmm for me to realize that this was a band with musical talent in spades and suddenly I was hooked. It was a solid pop-punk album release at the peak of the genre’s popularity, a fact furthered by the hugeness of “Be My Escape” and “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been,” the album’s two mega-singles. The lyrics were still clever, but they didn’t seem forced anymore. Finally, it seemed the band was growing up.

Five Score and Seven Years Ago followed suit on the growth, even though in hindsight the album now feels a little bit like a band searching for its identity. It dabbles in heavier moments (“I Need You” and “Devastation and Reform”), a folk side (“Faking My Own Suicide”) and even a story song (the truly epic finale “Deathbed”), but on the whole it seems to me now to be uneven. The Bird and the Bee Sides followed, and the newer tracks here (mostly on The Nashville Tennis EP section of the double EP), suggesting the band was settling in. What followed proved this experiment to be true.

While I doubt it is far from a definitive fact, I consider Forget and Not Slow Down to be Relient K’s best album. Frankly, I don’t even think it’s close. The album is the weightiest material the band has released to date, and functions as a bit of a concept album, as it feels like how most of us have felt post-break-up (the ebb and flow of the songs has sparked some debate, but I honestly think this is part of what the album does so well–everyone goes through those “I’m better off…no, wait, I miss you” moments in the wake of a relationship). The album strays a bit from the signature sound, moving from a strict pop-punk sound to a more rounded adult alternative feel, although this is not an album easily pigeon-holed. One of the most brilliant aspects of Forget and Not Slow Down is the way it breathes. There are several tracks that are shorter intro or outro tracks to the songs, and it never feels like the album is rushing to get to its end. It allows the listener to settle in and just enjoy the album’s presence. And while the content is difficult (the pain is especially visible on tracks like “Sahara” and “Savannah”), there is a positivity to the songs that you don’t often hear on an album that is decidedly a break-up record. It seemed that the band had finally found a way to create a sound that was very much theirs, while creating honest, thoughtful songs along the way.

Then comes this, Collapsible Lung, the most recent LP from Relient K. Released nearly four full years after Forget and Not Slow Down, there is a marked change on Lung that at first appears unexpected and, for some, downright painful to take. It is not an album that can be understood fully upon first listen, however, and having worked through it repeatedly since its release last week, I have arrived at a theory behind the change.

It should be mentioned that in between Forget and Lung came a series of cover EP’s that the band dubbed Relient K is for Karaoke. Released first as two separate EP’s and then as a full length cover LP, the songs are just as the title suggests: karaoke tunes. There is very little originality to the versions here (Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” could be a slight exception, although the RK version feels a lot like other rock covers of the tune), and it feels like a karaoke band at one of those fancy karaoke bars where they have a live band. The songs are well executed, but the purpose behind them feels lost in the last of translation. Fun, but nothing new.

That being said–and having heard what followed in Collapsible Lung–I do think it makes perfect sense for the band to do what they did. As I said, Forget and Not Slow Down is the heaviest album the band has released so far (content/theme-wise, not sonically speaking), and I can only suspect that the weight of it was something that singer/lyricist Matt Thiessen wrestled with throughout the recording of the album, and probably has, in his own way, since. For a Relient K album, it is pretty brutal, but as a songwriter myself, I know that there was probably a lot of emotion left in the recording studio, emotion that was deemed too personal for the record. I can only imagine that the last thing Thiessen wanted to do was to launch back into the kind of emotion.

Hence K is for Karaoke, a lighthearted romp through the band’s favorite songs that required little to no emotional connection for Thiessen and Co. And while there is some emotion present on Collapsible Lung, it feels less complicated, more detached; less stressful and decisively more fun. The first track, “Don’t Blink,” feels like a Forget b-side, while “Boomerang” sounds like a radio hit waiting to happen. On the whole, that’s what this album is. It’s another breather album, another chance at experimentation, as the bulk of it was co-written with various friends of the band. It is most certainly a pop album, and unabashedly so, with Thiessen going on record as saying that he recognizes the pop values of the album. It is definitely a confusing album for fans and critics, too, which some seeing it as a fun pop album and many seeing it as a disappointment. The band itself feels a lot more detached from this album more than others, as even Thiessen’s own thoughts on it were that it “needed to be made,” cementing the confusion deeper still.

All in all, it’s an odd little collection of songs that doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere in the band’s catalog. At least at their silliest, the album still rocked pretty hard within the band’s sonic wheelhouse; here, the lyrics don’t feel as important. There is some honesty here, but it’s few and far between. But I do understand the reason this was made, and I think the weight of all that’s happened to the band since Forget and Not Slow Down came out can shed some light on it. Band members have come and gone, and there was clearly some emotional turmoil for Thiessen along the way. While this may seem like a rationalization of a weaker effort from a band that appeared to be on the cusp of greatness, I believe there’s something to be said for allowing a band to do its thing. If nothing else, this is another stretching out of the musical muscles, an opportunity to take a chance and see what sticks. And even if the majority of this doesn’t work (for me at least half of it is working so far–for the record, tracks 1-5, then 9 and 11 are the standouts), the band made the album they felt they needed to make. It just so happens that when you are a well-known touring band that you get to exercise your demons–personal and musical–out in public. Personally, it makes me excited to see what might be coming next.

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