I have vivid memories of my first summer as a Relient K fan. I was at camp, which I did not enjoy, and I was sometimes considered “cool,” for a moment or two, because I could sing “Sadie Hawkins Dance” all the way through, word perfect. It’s the little things in high school.
I’ve grown up a lot since then, and so has the band, all of us sharing the same generation, as we do. The last original music Relient K produced was in the form of a classic “break-up album” called Forget and Not Slow Down, four years ago. I was in college when it came out, about a year past a painful break-up of my own. That album resonated with me because it was about hope, and moving forward, and, yes, pain.
Last week, a new, highly anticipated album, Collapsible Lung, released.
When it came in the mail, I set aside my other plans, and a friend and I placed it on the turntable, letting the tracks play in order. When it was over, she asked if we could play it again.
Since then, I’ve read a lot of reviews, most of them negative. They argue that this album is straight pop with no substance, that it’s about casual sex, that God is not present.
This is not what I hear.
Big picture, I hear a collection of songs about what happens when you “forget and not slow down.” The first song, “Don’t Blink” begins with the words: “don’t know where to go from here.” In many ways, it picks right up where Forget left off. Though the opening words express uncertainly, the rest of the song describes attempts to find the way back to where the speaker wants to be.
Many of these songs were more relatable than I wanted them to be. The pop sounds, which draw such criticism, also mask a certain vulnerable sadness and challenge to the idea that it’s better to have loved and lost than never loved at all. “Gloria,” for example, is a perfect picture of a manipulative relationship, while “Boomerang” describes the habitual returning to a relationship which isn’t healthy, but convenient. “Sweeter,” a gentle, seemingly peaceful ballad, explores the idea that relationships that seem wonderful at first, or on the outside, might be toxic and bitter at heart. “When You Were My Baby,” mentions the way a relationship has changed the speaker, and it doesn’t sound like a good thing.
I know what it is to have unhealthy relationships, and I know many people, Christians included, who struggle with these very same situations. There is a sadness which lingers around the center of this album. These are not proud moments, but the brokenness of them makes the songs all the more needed, though not always enjoyable to dwell on. Christians are not exempt from regret, whether or not we want to be.
Another unintended consequence of unhealthy relationships crops up in “Disaster” arguably, one of the most complex songs on the album. It is a love song in a way the others are not, describing how past relationships, and the knowledge of all that can go wrong, can be crippling to a good relationship. “It could be disaster, if I don’t even try.” It’s not the first song to grapple with the idea of maturity either, in fact, it’s almost a response to “PTL”: “I never meant to be your part-time lover/then again I’d never been a full-time man.” Disaster says: “you can pull out the wires/make a man out of me.”
The itunes bonus track is a collaboration with Owl City, which can only be described as clever. It’s a love song to the music of the summer of ’99, with references to many bands and songs which will be familiar to anyone who listened to radio during that time. I didn’t get all of the references until I looked up the lyrics, since some of them are rather sneaky, but when I did, it made me chuckle and smile. The smooth pep of this track makes it a perfect summer anthem.
The album ends with the title track, “Collapsible Lung.” In my opinion, the first and last songs provide a wonderful framework for reading this album, relatable to those who have ever gotten off-track, or might be there now. I heard echoes of Forget and Not Slow Down in: “I stumbled into the great unknown/and found that time won’t slow down.” Collapsible Lung pulses with longing for what is next, and more than what is. Far from being a departure from faith (or, better, faithfulness), this album feels like the beginnings of a return, sadder, but with perspective which can only be gained from experience.
The album begins with “don’t know where to go from here” and ends with “take a breath then take it in, to think of places I’ll go I haven’t been.” From seeking direction, to inspiration.