This is part 8 of the Relient K retrospective
(I wrote a review of Forget and Not Slow Down about a week ago. Since then, I’ve been doing some research on the album’s origins, and I believe the results make it much more interesting.)
I generally like to keep my nose out of other people’s business, but because Forget and Not Slow Down is such an emotional album, I figured it could be valuable to try and figure out what events caused these emotions to better relate to its often abstruse lyrics. My poking around was not in vain. Here’s the story, as I understand it, but feel free to disagree with my speculation and assessment. I’ve linked to all the sources I used in reaching my conclusions.
Matt Thiessen is generally known as one of the nicest dudes in music. He takes his Christianity seriously. Everyone was thrilled when he proposed in a most adorable way to radio host Shannon Murphy. She used her blog to keep her friends, and the world, updated on their engagement. But a few months later, she revealed that the two had split after she discovered “a few things about Matt that I just simply could not handle,” though she noted that she still believes he has an “amazingly huge heart.”
The break-up went down pretty quietly until Murphy got a new gig and started talking about an ex-boyfriend who cheated on her. Though she declined to use a name and vocation to identify who she was referring to, people made the connection.
Towards the end of the next year, Relient K’s sixth studio album came out. Thiessen says he wrote it when we went to a cabin in the woods for a couple of months to do nothing but reflect and pray and write. Forget and not Slow Down was the result, and it came out to pretty strong critical acclaim, with few media sources rating it worse than 4 out of 5 or the equivalent.
On the morning of the release on Shannon’s radio show, she directly implicated [edit: this link is dead, I’m looking for another version of it, because this is the crucial piece of the puzzle] him as a cheater, although she noticeably avoids saying anything else negative about him. She also reveals some tidbits that add some serious poignancy to the album: the couple always used to travel to Savannah, GA — and there’s a song on the album called “Savannah.” Perhaps craziest of all, “Baby,” a 40-second outro to Savannah, was the song Thiessen originally wrote for Murphy to play to her at their wedding.
Over the next few weeks in interviews, Thiessen frequently expanded on the album’s meaning, though he declined to delve into specific details regarding his personal situation. Of course, some fangirls refuse to believe Murphy is telling the truth because Matt is, like, so amazing. Others have taken a more reasonable view that neither of them are perfect people, and it’s pretty clear Matt betrayed her trust in some way, and they were not the best match anyways.
I suppose it’s theoretically possible that she’s completely BS’ing and slandering Thiessen, but he’s never really disputed her claims of adultery, and a few passages in the album more or less confirm her claims, so it seems like it’s at least somewhat true.
So how does this information affect the listener?
More than anything else, these details of Thiessen and Murphy’s break-up make Forget and Not Slow Down a personal and powerful album. My initial reading of the album was as a broad, over-arching look at the concept of saying goodbye and pressing on. But, after hearing Murphy talk about the album, I think there’s a lot of value in the album as a reflection on their specific relationship, and Matt’s response to his betrayal.
If Thiessen in fact perfidiously caused the end of his relationship, then the words of the album carry much more weight. Think about it: he had a saintly public image before the scandal broke out. Then, this.
I think there’s something poignant and ironic about the leader of the most spiritual and positive of bands committing an act of great betrayal, then having to deal with the consequences. It gives the album very high emotional stakes and some genuine substance.
Other great RK albums have been reflective and regretful, but on smaller levels. Forget and Not Slow Down is paradigm-smashing for the band in its gravity. This was evident to a certain extent when the I interpreted the album broadly, its songs as abstractions. But, with this new back-story, it’s clear that never before has Relient K been so acute, specific, and painful. The album works strongly as a look at Thiessen’s response to his own, very real, shame, regret, and recoverys.
A few of the most telling passages:
A lion on his side, was it the lying or his pride which brought him down?
Once the king of beasts, but now they feast on the thoughts beneath his vacant crown
Trying to decide, was it the lying or the pride which brought it down?
To be alone, to be dethroned, believe me I know all about it now
This passage works as a general image of pride and sin (and Jesus), but works especially well considering the scandal and isolation surrounding Thiessen’s life. As the king of Christian rock (in terms of both quality and mainstream success), and one album removed from his biggest and happiest album, he sank to his lowest, and he’s still not sure if it was “lying or his pride which brought him down.”
It’s all that I can do to
Cause every time you wrapped those arms around me
I felt I was home cause
Everything made sense when you were with me
from “Baby (Outro)”
Tossed off as an outro, I dismissed “Baby” as generic post-breakup pining until I learned the song’s origin as the song Thiessen wrote for Murphy to play at their wedding. What a harrowing inversion of the song’s initial concept: a bitter farewell at the abrupt conclusion of their relationship instead of at the beginning of their marriage. Thiessen has said in interviews that recording this album was a positive experience, but I can’t imagine that was true for “Baby.”
I’d rather forget and not slow down
Than gather regret for the things I can’t change now
If I become what I can’t accept
Resurrect the saint from within the wretch
Pour over me and wash my hands
Pour over me and wash my hands
from “Forget and Not Slow Down”
“Resurrect the saint from within the wretch” is the key line of the album, I think. It best sums up the album’s tone: regretful and defeated, but still looking for the right way to respond. He doesn’t shy away from the fact that he did something wrong, but he considers that the most therapeutic option is to move on rather than linger on his guilt. There’s also some nice imagery of absolution there (“Pour over me and wash my hands”) which reflects a lot of passages in the Bible.
I met the devil and I stared her in the eyes
Her hair had scales like silver serpents
I, a statue, stood there mesmerized
I took the fire escape and made it out alive
Yeah I still burn from time to time
But I’ve a healing hand against my side
Blisters on my feet I crawled back home
Frozen from the sleet, burned sand and stones
Nourished back to life by life alone
With one shake of the mane regain the throne
from “(If You Want It)”
These are the closing lyrics of the album, and they’re most beautiful Thiessen’s ever written, in my opinion.
That first stanza is about as poetic and archetypal as any admission of guilt (though it is curious he places the blame on “the devil” and not himself), and he follows it up not only with a re-affirmation of faith and healing (second stanza) but that dazzling coda.
Those last four lines call back the lion image from “Sahara.” They also present an idea unusual in the modern rock-and-roll landscape, which tends towards angst and longing: That the very act of living, even in misery, is valuable.
That’s how Forget and Not Slow Down is still a distinctly Relient K album, even as it confronts a major transgression by the band’s leader: It stays rooted in optimism and a love for life more unquenchable than ever.
Revised rating: 4 and half stars (out of 5)