This is part 5 of the Relient K retrospective
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Sorry, Relient K. Five Score and Seven Years Ago is just an awful title for an album — which, aside from the name, is quite good and another creative leap forward for the band.
The most striking element of Five Score is how diverse its sound is. Mmhmm was marked with a very consistent sound except for a few flourishes; banjos and harmonicas occasionally peeked through the glossy coat of guitar and drums. Five Score draws from a wider variety of sounds (*). There’s some synthesized parts, more keyboard than ever, flirtations with folk influences, extensive use of brass, and more. There’s even an a capella song.
(*) According to the album liner notes, the album features these instruments: guitar, drums, bass, piano, banjo, organ, trumpet, french horn, trombone, baritone horn, bells, toy piano, and penny whistle.
Another distinctive trait of Five Score is how ambitious it is. Dense and disorienting, these fourteen tracks cover a wide variety of themes and structures. From the conspiracy theory about the death of Abraham Lincoln that opens the album (perhaps to justify the bogus album title) to the eleven-minute epic about life and death and Jesus that closes it, there’s a lot happening in Five Score.
One gem is “Forgiven,” which mourns original sin then breaks free from it with a soaring chorus and punchy piano. It’s one of many songs that is challenging both intellectually and spiritually. But the album never eschews accessiblity; lyrical cleverness and sing-a-long choruses keep the music enjoyable. It’s nice to see an album tackle profound themes cogently but not make the mistake of thinking weighty themes require convoluted tunes.
At the same time, the album still has moments of levity. It seems Thiessen listened to a few of the critics and fans who complained that Mmhmm, while a great record, was missing some of the joy of previous albums. Scattered in are a few of the happiest numbers ever recorded by the band. The standout is “Must Have Done Something Right,” the most straightforward boy-girl love song Thiessen has written. It almost sounds like a throwback to Two Lefts.
The album closes with Relient K’s spiritual opus, “Deathbed.” It feels a little bit like a concerto or a rhapsody in that it’s broken down into distinct segments but has a recurring musical theme. It weaves a tale of descent, guilt, suffering, and — ultimately — redemption. For a band whose focus is so pop-oriented with little classical or progressive work, the band skillfully constructs a complex composition that builds to a moving climax. It also reminds us of Relient K’s undying Christian streak and hopefulness.
But even including “Deathbed” and “Must Have Done Something Right,” the best track on the album is “Faking My Own Suicide.” It’s not only one of the darkest songs Thiessen has ever written, but one of the warmest. The band’s official line on the song is that it’s a re-telling of the old black comedy Harold and Maude, purportedly Thiessen’s favorite film. Keen listeners will notice, though, that the tale parallels the death and resurrection of Jesus. The closing line is a classic: “Our love is so alive.”
Of course, there’s another side to the complexity. The music, while still accessible and pop-like in structure, has lost a bit of its immediacy and urgency. The intricate sound has come at the cost of a bit of Relient K’s usual energy. Simply, with the exception of “Must Have Done Something Right,” the songs here just aren’t as catchy as those on other albums, particularly Mmhmm and Two Lefts.
But Five Score is overall a major success and another key step forward in the Relient K’s development. It features a much wider array of sounds and styles that would expand even further in the band’s next studio album.