After the polarizing Collapsible Lung, how did Relient K do with their latest album? All I can say is, “Welcome back, boys” – here’s my Air For Free review.
Relient K was a band I grew up with. During my teenage years I got introduced to the 5 man band, and they were an instant fit. It seemed like for anything going on at any season of your life, Relient K had a song for it. Needing some extra energy to keep going? Pressing On. Dealing with some decisions? For The Moments I Feel Faint. Big difficult issues in your life you need to process? Let It All Out. Need a deep theological joruney? You could look at Be My Escape, Devastation and Reform, Deathbed, In Like A Lion… lots of their songs fit that category very well. On top of that, pretty much any song they ever wrote was a standout, thanks in large part to Matt Thiessen’s excellent skills as a true wordsmith, and some great musicality. The album Forget and Not Slow Down was a masterpiece that could only be listened in its entirety, not just with single songs, simply because of the excellent musical and emotional journey the album took you on. Anything less was missing out on the full experience. Their Christmas album is on rotation on my music players literally the whole year long.
Following some excellent karaoke albums (pretty much glorified cover albums, with some of the best covers you’d ever hear of Motorcycle Drive By, Everybody Wants to Rule the World and the unforgettable harmonies on Africa), the boys at Relient K released the polarizing Collapsible Lung. Some people loved it, and some people absolutely hated it. Personally, I enjoyed about half the album, with the other half of the songs marking a severe shift in themes and what some reviewers called a shift in morality throwing me off regularly listening to the remainder. Something I did value about it was the honesty the guys had on the album, obviously now charting some of their experiences as men getting more advanced in years. We can’t stay at the Sadie Hawkins Dance forever, and some of the lyrics clearly reflected some of the well chronicled issues the boys have faced, namely divorce, depression and life on the road. I think the lyrics of the title song reflected exactly where things stood – “Between the miles of open road, I lost sight of what might matter the most, traveled into the great unknown and found time can’t slow down”. After this time, a bunch of the band members left for whatever reason, and it was once again back down the two originals, Matt Thiessen and Matt Hoopes.
And so here comes their most recent album, Air For Free. How does this one hold up? Let’s find out. First I’ll start with my overall thoughts on the album, then move to a track by track Air For Free review.
A return to form
My first thought after buying and listening to the entirety of Air For Free was, “Welcome back, boys”. This is definitely a return to form in terms of many of the issues people had with the previous album. That’s not to say it isn’t honest or that it fails to capture the raw aspects of life – quite the opposite actually. While the sound initially sounds much more light hearted, the songs of Air For Free cover a whole breadth of topics. At 16 songs, it’s a pretty ambitious album, and they continue to hammer life’s big issues in a relatable way.
Definitely pop meets alternative
I think much to the chagrin of a number of members of the original Relient K fanbase, Relient K definitely isn’t a pop punk band any more. Gone is the grungy earthy feel of songs like Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been or I Need You, but in truth I think that shift happened as early as Forget and Not Slow Down. And it’s a good thing. These guys have evolved very well in my opinion. This album definitely feels like a very natural progression musically from Collapsible Lung, blending their signature alternative feel with a much more pop driven sound. A lot of people who’ve reviewed the album so far have said the album feels like it all sounds the same, but I don’t think they do. Every song feels distinct to me, with their own signature hook and progression.
And one thing I do really enjoy on this album is just how much these songs all feel like they take you on a musical journey, with shifts in musical tone perfectly reflecting the shift in the focus of the lyrics. Thiessen and Hoopes have always been excellent at writing music, and this is probably their best album musically by quite a bit, and, with the excellent track record of Relient K, that’s saying a lot.
Track By Track
So here we go, let’s have a look at each of these songs. I’ve included the song Look On Up on here which was a single released shortly before the Air For Free album was released, and grouped it in here as an honourable mention type deal. Plus it’s great.
Bummin’ – The fun “welcome to the album” song. For the fans of the punk roots of Relient K, this is the throwback track musically, dominated with some grungy electric guitar pieces, but complimented by the much higher singing style of the new Relient K. An opening track about making mistakes and trying to get things right.
Local Construction – As soon as this song was done, I realised that this album would once again feature the excellent writing skills Thiessen is known for. A piano funk sound that charts the feelings of personal growth. Like local construction, it feels like it’s never done. An excellent analogy.
Mrs. Hippopotamuses’ – Not gonna lie, this is one of my favourites on the album. Nothing super profound here, but a very sports fan heavy song about growing up and remembering your roots, complete with the “Here We Go Brownies” chants. “There’s nothing better than knowing where you’ve come from” is definitely the memorable angle of this track.
Cat – Another well written upbeat track, about living a long life and sometimes being unrecognizable in the decisions we make during growth.
Man – A pretty profound reflection on growing up. Matt has a bit of a look at his last 6 years, and becoming the person you know you already are inside, even if the outside doesn’t always match. “Wave goodbye as I outgrow the shadow of Peter Pan, it’s time to be a man” – brilliant. Also a song with a powerful musical progression, starting a bit more mellow and growing to pick up the pace as the lyrics reflect on how the clock continues to tick by at the same time.
Air For Free – Okay, I’m not a huge fan of this one. Purely because I really don’t ever remember much from it, even after listening to it quite a bit. But, it’s the title track, so there you go.
God – Relient K’s faith journey has been under the spotlight a bit in recent years, but this song is an honest cry about a man who believes in God and love, and still struggles with his belief. It’s an upbeat track that obviously reflects the light re-entering life after some darker times.
Elephant Parade – The parody song. I love it. Such a fun sound. It sounds like a mix of The Jungle Book with Looney Tunes, but it’s another song about taking ownership and love. Another song that has a fantastic musical progression, almost completely changing into a new song about two thirds into the song.
Mountaintop – I was actually listening to this song on top of a mountain yesterday, and it’s great. This is a happy song about love, and how much someone can mean to you. Roadtrip song for days.
Sleepin’ – This song is a way too happy song about insomnia, but it’s another fun one. Easy listening but really well thought out.
Empty House – The autotune song. Lots of people aren’t liking the autotune for some reason. Personally, I think the autotune song in this song just adds to the haunting pain of what this song is trying to convey. “Nothing but an empty house, living without you”. A song about loss and feeling lost as a result.
Flower – Another song about love, with a tinge of loss mingled in. This song is a very real look at the progression and desires of love, and actually quite a moving song that reflects the masculine side of the love journey. This was the song where I realized just how profound the issues this album was covering really were. I have to quote a full verse here:
I think about everything else
And I know that I must love myself
‘Til anyone other than me
Can look and then see what I see
And sense where the harmony dwells…
Do you hear wedding bells?
Marigold – This is my favourite track. It starts with a cute story about how Matt got some flowers from school and brought them home to his mum, who told them they were weeds. Then he compares himself to a weed, and yet he had still been chosen. It’s just way too nice a thought, and actually really beautiful. The build to the bridge is unforgettable, and I literally smile every time it comes on. It sounds like a sunrise, and even has some sort of Christmas/jubilant bell chiming through it.
Runnin’ – This is another song in the vein of Deathbed, and one longtime fans of Relient K will really enjoy. I’m not sure if this is about a fictional character like Deathbed was, but this song hits some very real themes of someone losing their parents and being forced into the “care” of others, but still ending somewhat hopeful and trying to relate to others. Really well done.
Prodigal – This one is a bit of an experimental track. Those looking for a theological Relient K throwback will find it here. A prayer about returning to God even after doing so many wrong things and keeping busy.
Heartache – A recovery song. It describes a painful experience that could turn into something darker, but about pressing forward. “I will not let my heart ache, I won’t be treading water, waiting on a wave”. Once again, another song that feels like multiple songs in one. I really like how the song ends with the holiness of recovery, and finding your way. Great stuff.
Look On Up – As I mentioned above, this isn’t specifically on this album per say, but I’ve grouped it with this album since they came out in related time windows. And this one is a very clever song about not living your life behind a lens. It features a shoutout to Brisbane (I’m a Brisbane boy) and a very clever lyric with suitable ambiguity between whether Matt is talking about technology or his own efforts in living – “It’s time I put down my devices and I start to live my life”.
So, what do I reckon about Air For Free? I love it. I have been telling some of my friends who were turned off by Collapsible Lung to give this one a shot. This is a return to form, a fun album to listen to, musically diverse, and truly brilliant. Go pick it up. Right now. I know this album, like so many other Relient K albums before it, is going to be in my playlists for a long time to come.
What did you think of Air For Free? Did you like it as much as I did, or the songs that I liked the most? Would love to hear your experiences with it.