If you liked The Force Awakens you should thoroughly enjoy Relient K’s latest record, Air For Free. Both have a hearty dose of nostalgia to welcome you back to the artistic world you originally fell in love with, whether that’s a galaxy far, far away or a playful, punk band from Ohio. Yet there’s enough growth and promising new direction present that the new endeavor’s success doesn’t rely on nostalgia alone. It’s a delicate balance few releases are able to achieve, but the Relient K you know and love came through with flying colors (specifically red, blue, and yellow) on Air For Free.
Relient K & Star Wars are both long-running, beloved franchises. However, the last few installments in both franchises have been a little rocky. Much like the prequels, Relient K’s last two releases, K Is For Karaoke and Collapsible Lung, advanced the band’s overall story but were lacking in execution. Fans of both sagas felt distanced from the art they had grown up with. Now three years after their last release, Matt Thiessen and Matt Hoopes have triumphantly returned to form with the album fans have been waiting for.
Everything is back in place with Air For Free. The witty, heartfelt and often comedic lyrics of Matt Thiessen occupy all sixteen songs on this hour-long opus. He’s back behind the piano with Hoopes loyally accompanying him on guitar. It’s the slimmest line-up for an album in Relient K’s history, but studio contributions from Mark Lee Townsend, Dave Douglas, and Tom Breyfogle expertly fill out the rest of the album. The result is a completed work that feels familiar and new at the same time.
“Bummin’” boldly kicks off the record, and it’s heavily reminiscent of RK’s punk roots. RK kicked around the idea of recording a punk album after Collapsible Lung, but don’t let “Bummin’” fool you into thinking they actually did. “Local Construction” quickly puts those thoughts to rest, and it sets the stage for the piano to lead the rest of the record. Both songs feature comically contemplative lyrics that delightfully hearken back to Matt Thiessen’s witty way of dealing with his flaws in the same way he has on songs like “Forward Motion” and “This Week the Trend”.
Lyrically, Air For Free has shades of every emotion shown on past releases. RK’s light-hearted, humorous side reemerges on “Mrs. Hippopotamuses’” and “Cat”. The rest of the record has songs about the bubbly side of love, views of God, and some of the more vulnerable aspects of Matt’s shortcomings. Heartache is a theme carried throughout the album. It’s mentioned in “Bummin’”, “Man”, “Empty House”, and the closing track where it’s addressed in a direct, inspiring fashion. In this resolve to deal with these emotional struggles, we see the heart and soul of Relient K returning to the joyful group they’ve been for so many years.
Air For Free is just as musically varied as it is lyrically. The record is perhaps the most piano-driven of any RK release. With the piano taking center stage, Hoopes is able to play in the pocket and become the silent hero of the record. His surfy guitar lines are expertly crafted to perfectly complement Thiessen’s lead. Every time I listen to the record, I find something new that sticks out to me. The Matts have struck “14-karat gold” in this simple balance of piano and guitar, and the music feels fresh and honest.
Throughout the scope of the record, Relient K explores a few new directions with their music. The title track features a heavy use of programmed music. “Sleepin’” introduces the ukulele into Relient K’s immense catalogue. “Empty House” is a polarizing song with its use of autotune on Matt’s vocals. While it makes some of the lyrics hard to discern, it reinforces to the remorseful emotion of the song. The biggest experimentation on Air For Free occurs in completely altering the song structure at any point during a particular song. The alterations range from simple tempo changes to morphing into an almost completely new song. RK has explored this in the past in “I Am Understood”, “When I Go Down”, and “Deathbed”, but Air For Free proudly boasts this experimentation, notably in “Elephant Parade”, “Marigold”, “Runnin’”, and “Heartache”. The victorious transformation in the last half of “Marigold” is a key example of the experimentation in song structure, and it may be the best thing Relient K has ever done in its accomplished career. The changes never feel forced, and they prevent the record from dragging amidst its robust track list.
If you put Relient K’s music from 2000-2009 in a time capsule, let it age, and opened it up in 2016 the result would be Air For Free. Despite the varied nature of the songs, they all seem to fit into one cohesive unit. It’s certainly in the running for the best album in their catalogue, which speaks for itself. Much like The Force Awakens, Air For Free successfully begins the third part of the saga that is Relient K. The Matts are back, and Air For Free is highly recommended if you enjoy long-running franchises returning to form, a balanced mix of innovation and nostalgia, and lens flares.