Relient K’s golden years as tongue-in-cheek pop-punk paramounts are long gone. However, they’ve made mixed attempts at moving forward. In 2009, frontman Matt Thiessen spent several weeks in a secluded Tennessee cabin to reflect on a breakup, and thus came a rich, mature effort in Forget and Not Slow Down. Four years later came a much less inspired and more pop-oriented record, Collapsible Lung. Emphasis was on the term “collapsible”, as the group showed their mortality when Thiessen and longtime guitarist Matt Hoopes eventually ended up as the only two full-time members by 2015. But that hasn’t stopped them, as their eighth full-length, Air for Free, shows that reliance on two original members can yield a strong musical product.
First single “Bummin’” coats the band’s rock roots with modern touches, as punchy guitars meet keyboards and layers of spirited vocals. Thiessen shouts the song title throughout the opener’s chorus, with bouncy melodies showcasing energy not seen from the Ohioans since 2007’s Five Score and Seven Years Ago. However, the focus is more on leanness than edge, and it mirrors musicians now in their mid-30s rather than their angsty young adult selves. Power chords are scarce, and the band instead places guitars with greater consciousness. Thiessen relies on piano throughout much of the album, but in a way that drives the songs — and in a more articulate manner too. “Local Construction” and “Man” are sentimental pop-rock at its best. In stripping down to keys, acoustic guitar, and synth elements, the title track proves its worth as a well-executed departure from the full-band barrage.
Much of the reason why Air for Free is so much better than Collapsible Lung is that — though it’s still pop-oriented — it sounds much more like Relient K. Thiessen explicitly said the band won’t make another record like their 2013 release, which shows that going out of your comfort zone doesn’t always work. The album saw the band give away a lot of their personality in exchange for standard pop songwriting with hooks, and their packing of lighthearted lyrics and a diverse musical atmosphere into the follow-up’s hour runtime makes for a much more homely, resonant listen. While being contemplative at its core, Air for Free often finds the members coating their songs with whim and cleverness to make a connection. Nostalgic reflections of growing up in Ohio are aplenty in obvious standout “Mrs. Hippopotamuses’”, though you’d think they’d trade out those mentions of the Browns for the recently crowned Cavaliers.
All jokes aside, the band does take a few keen steps forward. “Elephant Parade” finds its delivery change from a bubbly and slow-moving to faster and darker-tinged by its end. “Runnin’” rummages through a variety of rock vibes, bouncing its way through chants and guitar solos until it hits silence. Then, in true Relient K fashion, the outfit moves in a completely different direction, with a hidden track-like piano anthem taking off as if a Sara Bareilles song. These moments are a bit jarring, and that’s surely the intention of the duo. The most left-field approach comes in “Empty House”, where Thiessen’s vocals are autotuned in order to hit the listener harder. With an abundance of songs featuring the frontman singing in front of piano, the moments where the band tries something new are welcome, and they add some rawness and emotional vulnerability to the record. Though some of its catchiness is sacrificed, Air for Free arguably the most depthful effort of Relient K’s career.
Though it’s been over a decade since the group has sung about mood rings, bloody knees, and 75-degree days, Relient K shows that their charm hasn’t gone anywhere. However, even with all the elements that made the band a hit among youth groups and heart-on-sleeve teens, their newest effort doesn’t force itself to be like anything they’ve done in the past. Instead, it brings back the charisma missing from their past few efforts and uses astute songwriting and a modern eclectic pop-rock sound to back it. Not only is Air for Free one of Relient K’s strongest studio releases, but it’s also one of the year’s most endearing and altogether pleasing listens.
In addition to picking up the record, be sure to check out Relient K when they tour with their good friends Switchfoot this fall!
Pop-Rock | Mono vs. Stereo