Review Summary: A competent blend of old and new, Air For Free is a thoroughly satisfying return to form.
Fall 2009 was an uneasy time, a confusing jumble of hope and disappointment. I was an exchange student in Japan, and in the middle of discovering that the change of scenery wasn’t an instant fix for my aspirations and discontent - and that there was no clear path between where I was and where I wanted to be.
In the midst of this, Relient K’s album Forget And Not Slow Down was released, and instantly became an essential piece of my soundtrack during my months in Japan. It represented a crucial progression for the band that first caught my ear with the immediately lovable and surprisingly profound Mmhmm, as they transcended their pop-punk roots. With a style more akin to indie rock, Forget was defined by heartache, resulting in a diverse and compelling album that’s been a favorite ever since.
From train rides toward Nara’s autumnal wonders to nighttime runs through the park, Forget’s sentiments paralleled my own. Here in 2016, we’re both in a much better place. Air For Free is a proper successor to Forget And Not Slow Down, after 2013’s underwhelming and forgettable Collapsible Lung. Relient K has jettisoned Lung’s slick pop in favor of a style that’s an organic progression from that of Forget.
Despite the pleasantly intricate sounds of Air For Free, this is Relient K’s slimmest incarnation yet, in which frontman Matt Theissen and guitarist Matt Hoopes are the only official members of the band (and fittingly so, since they’re the only constants in the group’s sixteen year career.) Sometimes, in order to progress, you have to give something up; I let go of Japan and found myself better off for it. But things are rarely so straightforward: Theissen found love and got married (a major factor in the sound and themes of the album, I’m sure), while Hoopes suffered a divorce. Life is rarely the straight upward trajectory we desire.
The best thing about Air For Free, though, is just how enjoyable the whole thing is. The band is having a blast, from start to finish. Opening track “Bummin’” is a summer-soaked slab of pop rock that works better than anything on Collapsible Lung, while “Local Construction” is a bouncy song that shows Relient K’s knack for capturing the energy of pop punk in a more intricate and dynamic style. On occasion a song like "Runnin'" evokes the group's pop punk past, but more often songs like the delightfully chaotic "Elephant Parade" push the band beyond anywhere they've been before.
Much of Air For Free’s sound is actually descended from a specific song: “Deathbed,” which closed out the otherwise by-the-numbers pop-punk of 2007’s Five Score And Seven Years Ago. It was easily the most ambitious song Theissen and company had ever attempted, a piano-driven odyssey of spectacular songwriting. About half the songs on Air For Free are written in this style, guided by Theissen’s piano, while Hoopes’ electric guitar paints color in his wake. Speaking of Hoopes, his guitar playing has never sounded better, with Air For Free being perhaps the first album that's really allowed him unrestrained creativity.
The group's growth is evident in “Man,” one of the album’s best songs, as it morphs from bouncy pop into punchy rock with unexpected dynamics. On top of that, it captures where the Matts are for much of this album: learning what it means to really grow up and push into maturity. One reason Collapsible Lung wasn’t well-received is because Relient K is a very honest band, and that record didn’t feel honest; fortunately, Air For Free skillfully fixes that problem. Songs like “Cat”, “God”, and “Marigold” successfully combine the playful spirit of the group’s earlier albums with where they’re at now.
The poppier songs on Air For Free work well and have a heart behind them that’s consistent with the rest of the album: like the title track, an enjoyable electronica-styled song that blends the group’s carefree impulses with the undercurrent of Christian spiritually that has always flowed through their music. “Mountaintop” is an album highlight that balances its joyful melodies with Hoopes’ creative guitar playing that gives the song the extra edge it needs. The only time Air For Free stumbles as Collapsible Lung did might be on “Empty House,” a beautiful song that suffers a bit from completely unnecessary autotune on Theissen’s vocals.
What might be most impressive about Air For Free is how it blends fresh, new sounds with older ones: for every ambitious track like “Elephant Parade” or “Runnin’”. there’s a song like “Sleepin’” or “Flower,” which are expansions of Forget And Not Slow Down’s most pensive moments. As good as the album is, especially considering its impressive size, there are a few missteps: the aforementioned autotune on “Empty House,” the musically awkward “Prodigal,” or “Cat” (which is a good song, but not as good as others on the album in this same style.) Fortunately, the variety of Air For Free contributes to an album that never lags in its hour-long runtime.
On Air For Free, the two Matts bring a fine balance of joy and melancholy borne from their experiences. The excellent “Heartache” closes out the album, a music and lyrical encapsulation of everything they’ve learned, as Theissen sings “Trying to find my own way / What if forever is better than never" / And maybe it's a sign / That I found my own way / I will not let my heart ache.” With its summery warmth and an impressive collection of diverse, well-crafted songs, Air For Free is a serious contender for Relient K’s best album. It's sure to delight long-time fans and likely attract a lot of new ones as well.