Famed for being pop punk demigods since 1998, Relient K has become a household name in playing pop laced, contemporary rock that has invaded the airwaves of many a summer camp, radio stations, festivals, and churches. With nine studio albums, a gargantuan collection of EP’s and B sides under their belts, Relient K has proved their staying power in the industry.
This band plays its own game of thrones with bands like Explosions In the Sky for the crown my all time favorite. Relient K has been a band that I’ve grown up with at camp, which is where I was fist exposed. I admittedly shelved them for a few years between high school and the beginning of college, until I bought Forget and Not Slow Down. My passion was rekindled. Forget and Not Slow Down’s synthesis of 90’s rock and their pop punk roots made for a memorable, beautifully crafted emotional roller coaster. As I began to put the vehicle in reverse and go back into their earlier records, I began to re-appreciate some of their first records like Anatomy of Tongue In Cheek and Mmhmm. They’ve stayed with me for this long because they write music that is simultaneously honest and fun. I have a good friend of mine from back home who said something about Five Score and Seven Years Ago – that it’s the amalgamation of all their old material with the most grit out of anything they had written.
I think he’s right. He and I agree that album hit this peak that was followed up by an album (Forget and Not Slow Down) that took a left at the musical fork in a different direction. I was beyond pumped to hear how this new album would follow in lineage of good albums. So, here it is. Collapsible Lung.
This album takes the road less traveled by Relient K. With the exception of this band’s predecessor, most of their discography retains some level of pop in the delivery. A lot of their albums are a pretty equal balance between gritty and sweet. This album leans heavily on the sweeter (see what I did there) side to their musical inclinations. I actually refused to believe it until I looked this up, but Relient K actually tag teamed with co-writers who’ve worked with Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars for select songs on this album. I normally wouldn’t have that much of an issue with this if those songs especially didn’t feel like rudimentary corporately engineered pop like they do on this record. To me, it seemed weird. This band has amazing an ability to write catchy and original sounding material on their own. Consequently, this eliminates the need for certain members of the band because they’ve been absorbed by midi instrumentation and drum machines. I feel as if a lot of this record doesn’t showcase the band’s aptitude. It substitutes an aesthetic for substance.
I know that I’ve given this album a bit of a beating so far, but there are great moments on Collapsible Lung that deserve to be credited. For example, the opening track, Don’t Blink, is the perfect way to begin this record. In a previous post I wrote about summer anthems, I said that this track is a diamond in the rough. It’s supercharged with summertime-esque guitar tones, a driving percussion section, and an infectious chorus from lead singer, Matt Thiessen. Sweeter is a despondent ballad that is wrapped in a warm blanket of grand piano and a bright guitar tone. Disaster sounds like a song inspired by records like Over and Over by The 88 with symphonic alt rock instrumentation. This track includes a horns section and some circus sounding percussion accompaniment that sets it apart as one of the most unique tracks on this album. Lost Boy is a sugary, bass heavy, clap beat driven entrée, garnished with some of the catchiest hooks on this record. I can’t help but sing along to it when I hear it.
Stay with me on this one. Matt Thiessen isn’t the most eloquent person in interviews, but trust me – this guy a wordsmith. He has this unparalleled ability to take familiar lyrical topics concerning young love, disappointment, teenage awkwardness, and faith, and make it lighthearted. His lyrics have always been this harmonious balance of sentimental, funny, serious, and honest. They take turns of phrase, are decorated with clever, memorable wordplay, and add a lot of value to already well-written music. At face value, Collapsible Lung is frustratingly tangled with lyrics that have the emotional depth and topicality of a modern day Disney channel show.
It’s a bummer. Songs like If I Could Take You Home and Gloria epitomize how far gone this album feels when it compares to the superiority of its predecessors. The title track is the glimmer of lyrical honesty and somberness reflected in Matt Thiessen’s point of life where he has reached this spiritual, emotional, mental, and even physical crossroad. It’s the Matt Thiessen I wished had showed up for the other 32 minutes of this album. Now, with all of that said, I know you’re wondering… if this album is so lyrically lackluster, why did you name your blog after it? The title track. In fact, I stumbled upon a Facebook post that defended the lyrical presentation of this entire record. This fan argues that Collapsible Lung is where Matt Thiessen narrates a collection of vignettes that illustrate times in his life where he has been at his lowest. By the end of the record, the title track looks back on all those songs in retrospect only to come to the conclusion that Thiessen wishes he was farther along and could shake the remorse of bad decisions. When it’s put like that, this album takes a significant stride in search of meaning, because that’s where it ultimately lies… in the subtlety. One of the reasons I named my blog after this song/record is because life isn’t static. It’s a journey that has its highs and lows to learn from. So, while I can’t say I’m a fan of most of the lyrics on this album, I am confident in saying that I understand the big picture in how they culminate into this pseudo biopic narrative.
This album doesn’t deviate too far from the typical production qualities of pop rock-lots of gushy sounding guitar tones. At times, the bass takes a driver’s seat for songs like Lost Boy, but over all, the meat lies in the former. Relient K’s lineup has always been robust. There have been five members on the previous three albums and you heard all of their contributions in the core sound. Some of them feel non-essential on songs like Gloria, PTL, and Disaster. As I’ve said throughout this review, there are some moments of sunshine that eclipse the shadows of this record, such as the title track. The introduction on it has this nimble acoustic guitar that includes the sounds of drumsticks being picked up and an electric guitar being plugged into the amplifier.
It gives the song a level of authenticity…. My point is that my opinions about the merit of these songs are shelved when I listen to the production quality. They’re good for what they are.
I usually don’t write reviews about albums I don’t like because I’m not in the business as a writer of trashing other people’s work. There are some highlights on this album – it has really good production quality, the good songs on this record are excellent, and it has subtle lyrical resonance (that took me a while to understand). I just think that at many points Collapsible Lung is a surprisingly boring release that is overshadowed by greater, previous albums from this band. A lot of the quality that comes towards the finish line of this record is too little, too late. Being one of my favorite bands, I have strong opinions about this record because I know what Relient K is capable of doing. If there’s any advice I can give to fans of anything – sports, music, film, etc. is that you don’t have to like everything an artist, athlete, or actor does. But don’t let something that you believe to be inferior to not appreciate the artist. I still consider Relient K to be an all time favorite, despite my reservations about Collapsible Lung. For what it’s worth, if you’re into pop rock, I’d give this album a listen.