This is part 4 of the Relient K retrospective
Rating: 4 and a half stars (out of 5)
The success and quality of Two Lefts caught the eye of Columbia Records who signed the band to major deal. The ensuing album, Mmhmm, is lean and muscular. Capitol Records effectively focused the band towards heavy-hitting sound and serious lyrics.
Song for song, Mmhmm is Relient K’s strongest album to date. “Be My Escape” is a microcosm of almost everything great about Relient K: an emotional honesty, a prayerful edge, propulsive guitar, and tight melodies. If they ever compile a greatest hits album, “Be My Escape” should be the leadoff.
The close runner-up is “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been,” with some of the band’s best hooks and an opening lyric that deserves to join the pantheon of opening lines: “I watched the proverbial sunrise coming over the Pacific.” Six years and three albums later, “Be My Escape” and “Who I Am” are still the band’s two crowning jewels.
With a big budget studio polishing the band’s performances, the sound is more colorful and evocative than ever before. Even songs that seem designed as throwaways — “My Girl’s Ex-Boyfriend” or the wordy “The Only Thing Worse Than Beating a Dead Horse is Betting on It” — have a sparkle that makes them worth revisiting again and again.
Along with the new sound comes a slightly different attitude: These tracks are darker and sharper than the playful sprawl on previous discs. This is, in part, because Thiessen was dealing with a tough breakup; he had just ended a long relationship with Katy Perry.
The backbone of the album is the two-part suite, “Which to Bury, Us or the Hatchet?” and “Let it All Out” which show two different takes on a breakup: angst and ache, respectively. “Hatchet” sears with suffocating drums and pained background wails. “Let it All Out” simmers quietly with piano and wood block. The latter also throws in a brilliant and brief harmonica part that works well enough in the song that I wish there was more of it.
For all the great music and writing — and every track is lyrically astute — there is something detectable missing. A lot of the band’s appeal from their early days was a sense of humor and playful observation, and most of that is gone. I’m glad Relient K decided to deepen and expand their artistic scope, but the overall product is not quite as charming as Two Lefts. The wit is not entirely gone — probably five or six songs have smile-worthy wordplay — but it’s been pushed to the side in the name of improved craft.
Ultimately, Mmhmm is an important step in the band’s development. Thiessen and co. showed hints of becoming more sophisticated musicians with Two Lefts, but they fully embrace their maturity on Mmhmm. The cover of Mmhmm shows a flower in bloom, and it’s around this time that Relient K the musicians began blossoming into Relient K the artists.