I’ve been following Relient K since shortly after the commercial hit, Mmhmm, landed on the shelves of music stores worldwide. The momentum gained from that album carried over to the band’s next album, Five Score and Seven Years Ago, after which the band’s sound shifted gears to the more carefully crafted Forget and Not Slow Down. Little did I, and many other fans, expect was for Relient K to shift gears yet again to something dramatically more poppy: 2013’s Collapsible Lung. Three years later, how does the latest Relient K effort, Air for Free, stack up?
Bands with a career as long as Relient K’s generally have a hard time reconciling their increasing age, ever-evolving music preferences, and what they want to present to their fans. The results are cringeworthy at worst and lukewarm on average. However, Relient K has reached something that most bands with that kind of longevity could only hope to reach: an album with a sound that has matured appropriately with the band, showcasing a culmination of experience and talent, compressed into an absolute pleasure of a listen. Air for Free is everything a Relient K fan would want from the band that has grown considerably since the first album dropped 16 years ago.
Before even playing the first track, we’re presented with one of this year’s more aesthetically pleasing album covers: a photo of Matt Thiessen and Matt Hoopes (the band’s two full-time members) watching the sun rise over a gorgeous green landscape. You couldn’t ask for a better visual representation of the album’s contents: warm tones and a general feeling of awe and happiness. There really is no better way to describe the album other than, “Warm and happy.”
The album starts off with its opening track and first single, “Bummin’,“ which spends no time easing us in to the journey that is Air for Free. It hits hard and fast, and has one of the album’s more driving choruses. On the surface, “Bummin'” presents the album as if it were harder, louder, and closer to earlier Relient K material. The quick transition to “Local Construction” makes Air for Free’s true nature very clear, bringing in the first of many whimsical and free-spirited tunes sprinkled throughout the album. From this point on, the album takes us through several moods, themes, and styles.
From the fun songs like “Mrs. Hippopotamuses” (the band members’ love letter to their home state of Ohio), to more immersive, reflective songs like “Flower,” Relient K masterfully conveys deeper themes of introspection and discovery while using music as a tool to evoke different feelings. When I listen to “Empty House,” I can feel the sorrow that’s embedded in those lyrics. When I listen to “Sleepin’,” I can feel the playful joy of romance with each ukulele strum.
The album does have a few points I’d argue are weaker than the rest of the album, most notably “God” and “Prodigal”. These are two of the album’s simpler songs, with “God” having a heavier focus on the chorus without having elaborate verses, and “Prodigal” being more toned down and minimalist in its musical approach. They are not, however, without utility. “God” provides the intro to the second ‘movement’ of the album, easing us into the loud fanfare of “Elephant Parade,” and “Prodigal” serves as the perfect segue between the high motion “Runnin'” and the album’s closer, “Heartache.”
It’s to the credit of this level of artistry that I can listen to the album in its entirety without it feeling too long. Each song has its place, serving as narratives, bridges, or interludes. Clocking in at a whopping 59 minutes and 16 seconds, this album exceeds run times of most albums that are released these days. But, with the smooth transitions between the album’s various movements, and natural flow and pacing of each song, you wouldn’t notice it unless you were watching the time.
What makes this album great for long-time fans is how it weaves sounds and techniques from previous albums. The piano (which wasn’t quite as present in Collapsible Lung) is back and louder than ever. The beginning of “Cat” is cut from the same cloth as “Can’t Complain” (also from Collapsible Lung). The horns in “Elephant Parade” could have been straight from the band’s cover of “Doctor Worm” from the Is for Karaoke cover album. The sharp-witted lyrics that have been present in every Relient K album are just as prevalent as they’ve ever been.
But, more than anything else, this album is the spiritual successor to Forget and Not Slow Down. The amount of care and crafting put into this album, as well as the tone and moods presented through each song, really reflects a natural growth from the Relient K of 2009. Forget and Not Slow Down carries the same warmth as Air for Free (though not necessarily the same happiness), and when listened side-by-side, the two albums feel like two sides of the same coin.
Relient K has presented us with a work that respects the concept of an album as an art form, as well as the band’s experience gained over its long tenure. While the songs may not be radio-friendly, they each harness a level of mastery that impacts the listener on a deeper level. The result: an album that fans can hold as a masterpiece from a band that continues to surprise us.