Relient K: MmHmm
Sound/Style: Aggressive, but not alienating, pop/rock that is lyrically Gospel-centered but cliché-free
By Steve Morley
(UMCom)—Seemingly, there’ll always be controversy in Christian circles over pop artists who don’t clearly spell out where they stand on the much-dreaded sacred/secular line. In youthfully confident (dare we suggest rebellious?) fashion, though, Relient K of Canton, Ohio, occupies the gray area between Christian rock and punk-pop, and are doing quite nicely nestled in that nook.
Their previous disc—Two Lefts Don’t Make A Right, But Three Do—netted a Dove award and a Grammy nomination and long-jumped to No. 38 on the Billboard charts upon its release. While it can be odious to watch a lukewarm singer/songwriter remain spiritually vague in order to maximize his or her commercial acceptance, it’s commendable, not to mention gutsy, to stick to one’s artistic and personal guns in a music scene that often rewards easy categorization.
Relient K are no nominal, wishy-washy believers— at least, not if you buy the recurring themes of humbly (sometimes desperately) confessed weakness, the low ceiling of world-based comforts and solutions and the need for spiritual intervention contained on MmHmm.
Matthew Thiessen’s songs reveal astute insight on the state of being human, especially for those humans between the ages of 13 and 30. Thiessen, who nails down the angst, insecurity and emotional turmoil of the teenage and post-adolescent set, manages this authenticity while avoiding the dour negativity and hopelessness so typical of music aimed at this market segment.
Thiessen’s puns and wordplay, while humorous, display an increasing maturity and a keen eye for truths many prefer to overlook. "Opinions," he says, "are immunity to being told you’re wrong" on the unorthodox "The Only Thing Worse Than Beating A Dead Horse Is Betting On It." At 1:10, the song is almost shorter than its title (which never appears in the song itself, breaking the cardinal rule of commercial songwriting).
In "This Week The Trend," Thiessen’s protagonist tries vainly to justify a shallow life and poorly considered choices: "This week the trend was to crash and burn and then return again/to practice the life that I pretend provides enough to get me through the weekend." By the song’s end, the singer’s analogy, like his frustration, turns violent: "I just want to get mugged at knifepoint/to get cut enough to wake me up/’cause I know that I don’t want to die/sitting around watching my life go by."
He addresses western culture’s short attention span and attention deficit fixation on "Maintain Consciousness," hilariously questioning whether he can even expect anyone to hold interest in the song itself. Anger—both stubborn and righteous—gives way to repentance in "I So Hate Consequences," a modern retelling of the prodigal’s tale. Guitars thrash like heads against a brick wall until grace appears, represented by a suddenly meditative musical turn. Thiessen also uses this technique of high contrast in "Life After Death And Taxes," offering relief from a bludgeoning riff in the track’s swaying final section.
While Relient K dwell partially under the "punk" banner, this is a misnomer on at least two counts. For starters, the ultimately hopeful nature of their lyrics is hardly a punk-rock hallmark, while their impressive execution of intelligent (and not always head-banging) musical arrangements distances the band from many of their alternative peers.
If the noise they make on MmHmm doesn’t always seem joyful, it nonetheless makes God’s love and grace real without sacrificing reality to do it.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.