Growing up is a strange and awkward process–especially when you have to do so while under the scrutiny of an audience of thousands. That is exactly the position Relient K’s Matthew Thiessen and Matthew Hoopes have found themselves in over the past 16 years.
When we first met Relient K in 2000’s self-titled debut, their songs were full of the giddy energy and flippant wordplay of highschool boys. The Anatomy of the Tongue In Cheek and Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right would give insights into coming of age and college experience. Mmhmm, Five Score And Seven Years Ago and Forget And Not Slow Down echo the painful relational turmoil and soul-searching that often accompany the 20s. Collapsible Lung, although less personal, began to reflect a place of more stability. Every step of the way, the Matts have used their music to open a door on that process of maturing, catching lyrical snapshots of the internal landscape at that particular moment.
2016’s Air For Free drives home to me more than any other Relient K release that it is this process of growing up and becoming that has shaped the trajectory of the group’s now-legendary discography. And this band’s adulthood is proving to be thoughtful, intentional, spiritual–and still just a little bit whimsical.
Lead single “Bummin'” captures a plea against apathy wrapped in a fuzzy indie rock tune. Referencing his Nashville hometown, Thiessen sings “Broken downtown down on Wedgewood and 8th / And I’m bleeding like a heartache get ready to break / And then on down the road comes another mistake / Try hard as I might, I can’t quite get it right.”
Those frank admissions of flaws have often characterized Relient K’s work, and it’s a vulnerability that makes title track “Air for Free” one of the best on the album (and perhaps in their entire discography). Trembling vocals sing over a mellow piano-based instrumental bed: “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.” These introspective themes carry into frenetic “Runnin'” and even tongue-in-cheek “Local Construction,” a classic Relient K cut with a peppy melody belying the soul-dissecting lyrics.
Relationships get the same thoughtful, slightly melancholy treatment in the regretful “Flower,” a song that aches for lasting love and grieves coming up short. “Empty House” uses tasteful auto tune to play Matt Thiessen’s voice like an instrument, the vocals wandering through a sparse musical space that seems representative of living in the empty space left by a once-significant relationship.
For fans who miss the nonsensical punk slant of Relient K’s roots, “Mrs. Hippopotamus,” a tribute to the band’s place of origin in Ohio, will satisfy their cravings, as will the playful “Cat.” “Elephant Parade” occupies the same niche (and boasts a quirky, fitting use of a horn section), even while playing with the more serious idea of feelings left unsaid as embodied by elephants in the room.
The final element of classic Relient K that is presented in the most mature light yet is the spiritual. “Prodigal” is a ballad that explores some of the tension of faith with the lyrics “I am the champion of wine / You’re the bread on my tongue / I am the last one in line / The prodigal son.” Unabashed “God” plays like a creed or a prayer, declaring over a sweeping sonicscape “I yelled in the wind / He came rolling back to sweep me off my feet / I cried to the rain / He came pouring down to drown my disbelief / Oh, I believe in God, I believe in God.”
Perhaps one of the best ways to sum up the many elements that make up the 16 track Air For Free is that it feels, undeniably, like a Relient K record–perhaps the most genuine set of songs to their identity as people and as a band yet, as if they are becoming increasingly themselves. Listeners from every chapter of Relient K’s history will find moments to resonate with, but far from being a retread of old terrain, Relient K has displayed maturity and artistic integrity in choosing to be who they are right now rather than recapturing adolescence. Even in that process, Thiessen and Hoopes have allowed for just the right dose of auditory nostalgia.
Air For Free has the potential to make you smile, dance, reflect and pray–perhaps all in the same song. It stands as one of the strongest offerings in Relient K’s discography, combining tongue-in-cheek phrasing and spiritual musings in perfect balance with a polished, slightly punk-flavored indie rock sound. If you haven’t listened to Relient K in a while, this album is the perfect chance to revisit them and fall in love with their sound all over again.
Related Artists: Switchfoot, House of Heroes