Why on earth would a remarkably talented songwriter bring in other “professionals” for help writing songs? I was left asking that question when I listened to Owl City’s The Midsummer Station a year ago, and now I’m asking that very question about Relient K after hearing their new record, Collapsible Lung. The band has been clear that this album is a pop record, and it definitely delivers the goods in terms of catchy, summery sounds; however, like most other albums in the genre, it’s definitely lacking in quality songwriting and impactful lyrics.
To be clear, Collapsible Lung is definitely a good pop album (as far as that isn’t an oxymoron in and of itself these days). It’s full of catchy, short, sweet, and summery tunes that should find a home on pop radio and outshine most of the other junk out there to boot. It definitely has sonic variety, with everything from the synth-heavy dance sound of “If I Could Take You Home,” the carefree vibe of “Can’t Complain,” the sheer pop-rock goodness of “Lost Boy,” and the faster, rap-like drive of “Boomerang.” Frontman Matt Thiessen was shooting for catchiness and unpredictability, and in that regard this album is mostly successful.
However, as a Relient K album, Collapsible Lung falls short in many ways. It’s such a jarring change of direction for the band after an album as organic and profound as 2009’s Forget and Not Slow Down that it’s hard to even think of as a Relient K album at first. With that said, I would still say that the change would have been more than welcome if the songs were written any better, and truthfully, it’s not all bad- the record at least starts and ends well. The opener “Don’t Blink” has the liveliness and pop rock sound the band has always nailed, and the closing title track actually sounds like Thiessen’s signature writing (unlike most of the other songs) with its clever wordplay and positive outlook despite the fact that, “Time won’t slow down.” These are the only two songs written by Thiessen and guitarist Matt Hoopes (more on that shortly), and they provide excellent bookends for the album.
Other than those two tracks, the songwriting on the record is so weak that everything in between is disappointing, to varying degrees. It’s a fun album for sure and your foot will be tapping in no time, but the lyrical wit and depth Relient K are capable of are in painfully short supply. The band enlisted the help of writers and producers of other popular artists to help them write eight of the album’s eleven songs, which is probably at least part of the reason why the writing sticks out like a sore thumb. For instance, “Can’t Complain” (written by Thiessen, Brian Lee, and Emily Wright) is dragged down by its trite, shallow lyricism (“Looking at the cop in the rear view mirror / Probably should have stopped but the crosswalk was clear / I’ll just imagine it’s a ticket to a Broadway show” is just one such example), while “Disaster” (written by Thiessen alone, surprisingly) sports the line “Baby, you look so sexy” as just one violator in a sea of other weak lyrics. The content of the lyrics is also a rather unexpected turn for the band, mostly about various relationship situations which are frequently not so good. I’m not sure if this has been Thiessen’s journey over the past few years or where these situations came from, but at least songs like “PTL” express some sense of remorse over the mistakes that were made (“I never meant to be your one night, one mistake”); and with “Collapsible Lung” closing the album out with a fresh determination to live well, hoping he hasn’t “heard the last words from the Holy Ghost,” there seems to be a determination to “take the righteous path” as “Don’t Blink” alludes to. Even if the album is simply an acknowledgement of how things have gone wrong, though, the weak writing and lyricism still stand.
Ultimately, it’s these songwriting and lyrical failures that do the most damage to Collapsible Lung. It’s a blast to listen to most of the time; in fact, because of this album, my incredibly low tolerance for pop music may have gone up a little bit (as my inner hipster screams in agony). The fact that Relient K wanted to try something different is great, but when “different” means style over substance at almost every turn, this fan just isn’t sold.
Standout Tracks: “Collapsible Lung,” “Don’t Blink”