You stopped listening to Relient K after 2004’s Mmhmm. You really only know a handful of songs by them, like “Be My Escape” and “Sadie Hawkins Dance.” They were a cute, early-2000s Christian pop-punk band, but that’s about it. Maybe in 2007 you even gave Five Score and Seven Years Ago a couple spins, enjoyed it, forgot about it, and a few years later started listening to socially credible indie bands like The National, Local Natives, and Wilco.
Listen, I get it. I was in the same boat. My musical tastes graduated too, and I wrote Relient K off with the rest of the world. No one actually expected the kids who wrote “Chapped Lips, Chapped Stick and Things Like Chemistry” and “Mood Rings” and “My Girl’s Ex-Boyfriend” to grow up.
So maybe you missed it in 2009 when they released their fifteen-track break-up album Forget and Not Slow Down, a contemplative and resonant ode to love lost and what it means to move forward graciously in the face of deep regret. Though critically acclaimed across the board, it was largely overlooked by both the broader pop culture they had just broken into and their previously unswerving Christian fan base. So despite the album being a gigantic artistic step forward, Relient K had already become a band that most listeners visited strictly for nostalgic purposes.
Relient K followed FANSD with a regrettable release in 2013 titled Collapsible Lung. It wasn’t a bad album, per say, but most critics saw it as a misstep that lacked depth in both lyrical content and musical taste. While an admirable experiment that brought on new collaborations with producers and songwriters, the result ultimately just sounded like Relient K had been hijacked. Relient K no longer seemed…reliable. At least to me. I knew I’d listen to anything they put out, so deeply had FANSD touched me, but questions still lingered. Where would they go next? Would they continue down the road paved by CL or revisit the deeper waters demonstrated by FANSD?
Last month, Relient K, now only two full-time members (Matt Thiessen and Matt Hoopes), released their answer to that question, Air for Free, to little to no fanfare. Their three singles leading up to the album, “Look on Up,” “Bummin’,” and “Mrs. Hippopotamuses’,” did little to help. A surface level glance at these songs left most listeners underwhelmed. “Look on Up” was like a bland Coldplay b-side, “Bummin’” was fun but unexceptional on its own, and their quirky ode to Ohio “Mrs. Hippopotamus” was maybe too quirky to impress the casual listener. Singles be damned, Air for Free is one of 2016’s best releases.
At sixteen tracks and fifty-nine minutes in length, Air for Free is Relient K’s longest release to date and by far their most confident. I’m not speaking of cocky, swaggering confidence, but the comfortable kind, granted only by adulthood. The kind that lead Matt Thiessen to say in a recent interview “I’ve been feeding birds a lot lately, figuring out which kinds they are and what they sing about.”
Like the title, the album is breezy. Theissen’s lyrics strike a unique tone that is at once rambling, conversational, sometimes goofy, sometimes grave, but always measured. This allows him to sing about serenading a Maine coon cat on his front porch before heading inside to make a butter lettuce salad with all-natural ingredients (except for cottage cheese) in the song “Sleepin’,” and just a few songs later render the listener heartbroken with the song “Flower.” No topic is off limits, and that’s perhaps why the fifty-nine minutes never feel overbearing.
Moreover, Thiessen and Hoopes have been at it since 1998. In their eighteen years as bandmates and best buds they’ve developed a keen understanding of each other that shows in the music. Take “Man,” for instance. Structured like a Broadway show tune, the song is an odd blend of piano-rock and surf guitars that not only directly demonstrates Relient K’s maturation but also their awareness of it. The opening lyrics start six years after the events of FANSD, after Thiessen’s ex-fiancée abruptly called off their wedding:
I spent the last six years
Like Hoffman in a swimming pool, and I’ve
Been lost at sea inside a house off Driftwood Avenue, and I
I made a mess out of the life that lay ahead of me, oh
The clock is ticking faster now
And I’m too old to be growing up
These aren’t lyrics which provide a solution to Thiessen’s heartache, but rather they point to a realization that after all these years something is still wrong. And more potent that Thiessen’s call to himself “Wake up, wake up, it’s time to be a man” is Hoopes’ somber presence on guitar. The chords he strikes throughout “Man” are dissonant and ethereal; they reverberate like a long inhale of breath, lingering on each note before wandering to the next. By the end of “Man,” Relient K is made new.
“Flower” is another song where Relient K’s powers are in full force. Beginning with just Theissen’s removed falsetto, as if echoing out of a secluded chamber, he sings “I picked a flower and I named her… she withered away.” It is as tense as it is soft. And then the song opens up like—forgive me here—a flower blooming. Hoope’s guitar wails lightly over Theissen’s piano, their notes falling down together.
Oh, I don’t know
God, I don’t know
Just that I want to love somebody, somebody, somebody, somebody
I will never kiss your wonderful lips
I’ll never tire of dreaming of it
As I drift off to sleep
As song swells like grief, Theissen asks “do you hear wedding bells?” and off in the distance you hear them: bells ringing with each note of the piano, drowned out in a cacophony of mourning. I believe this song is about Matt Hoopes’ recent divorce, which becomes all the more heartbreaking if go back and listen to the short and sweet song from 2008, “You’ll Always Be My Best Friend,” one of the few Relient K songs written and sung by Hoopes.
In true Will Montei fashion I’ve dwelled on the most emotionally fraught songs. The truth about Air for Free is how not fraught it is. Most of it is crafted with a kind of casual mastery—like “Local Construction,” a piano heavy song that’s carried forward by airy tones and breezy lyrics. Or “Marigold,” a loving ode to Thiessen’s mom. Or “Mountaintop,” where Thiessen sings about his wife (with lyrics that oddly recall Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly”). They didn’t write these songs to impress, which is part of what makes it all so impressive. Somewhere in their eighteen years together, Matt and Matt grew up, transitioning from pop-punkers to musicians. They’re not doing it for the money. They know it’s not 2004 anymore. They’re still around because they love music.
The journey from beginning to end of Air for Free is a life-giving one, one that feels like a gift. Like a couple bird-watchers inviting you to sit by their side, pointing out their favorites, abiding with no expectations of you or themselves. They don’t care if you don’t listen to a word they say, but you’ll certainly find the conversation pleasurable if you do.
Suggested tracks: “Bummin’,” “Local Construction,” “Man,” “Mountaintop,” “Sleepin’,” “Flower,” “Marigold,” “Heartache”