Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
I’ve listened to this album about a dozen times through (my favorite tracks more than double that), and I still can’t quite parse Relient K’s vision for their seventh album. And I think that’s the problem with Collapsible Lung: when you scratch away the surface, there is no vibrant, amber center. No vision. Just a whole bunch of nothing.
For starters, most of the tracks are co-written. Thiessen has said as much in several articles, including this one from Merge:
“This time around, we wanted to have a collection of songs that surprised even us,” states frontman Matt Thiessen. “To do that, we teamed up with several other writers in LA, Nashville, and New York City. This ensured that the new LP would be unpredictable. Each song includes a different combination of authors, yet there is an underlying thread that ties the tunes together thematically. We took an experimental approach creating the album, and we couldn’t be more pleased with the result.”
Well, I could be more pleased, Matt. What I’ve always admired about Relient K is how they’ve made sure each album was better — or at least more interesting — than the last. As Thiessen’s songwriting became more complex, the band’s music became more personal and unique.
That’s what has always stood out about Relient K: Though the music was always accessible, it was increasingly thoughtful. In fact, the defining element of Forget and Not Slow Down‘s creation wasn’t the breakup it chronicled but the intense thought Thiessen put into its songs and structure. He literally moved to a cabin for a few weeks and did nothing but think and reflect and write the album.
Nobody would mistake Collapsible Lung for that kind of full-hearted expression. Instead, it cobbles together a fine track here, a good line there, into something that’s less than the sum of its parts. By focusing so much on collaboration with pop producers and artists, the album sounds like it came from a kitchen with a dozen cooks and no recipe books.
The problem isn’t that the album is a different style from the band’s norm. It’s that most of the songs are not very interesting. A bunch of the tracks work on a pop level: I’ll be listening to the smooth, sweet “Don’t Blink” for the next ten years; “Boomerang” has a nice hook; and “Can’t Complain” marries a breezy melody with a handful of good lines.
But even the best of these pop-styled songs don’t have much depth to them. “Gloria” and “PTL” aren’t developed enough lyrically to pay off on the inversions of their titles (each has a title typically used to praise God, here used to describe romantic flings). Most of the songs address some faceless woman with little or no personality. This isn’t the kind of song Relient K does well.
The last couple tracks show what this album could and should have been. “Sweeter” is a wonderfully-written ballad about a cheating lover. Too bad the tune lacks any energy.
The real standout is the closer. “Collapsible Lung,” the title track, almost redeems the rest of the album by itself. It’s frankly one of Relient K’s best (and simplest) tracks ever. It underscores the emotional vacancy of the album that precedes it: “I’m like a ladder with a missing rung / And it’s a slow climb headed back to the sky.”
I haven’t even touched on the member turnover that has plagued the band in the months since Collapsible Lung‘s release. The album’s aloof nature may partially reflect a divergence of the different band members, or it may be a coincidence. At least the personnel change is another data point to suggest that the band was not fully engaged in its music as they assembled this album.
Maybe Relient K is done. Maybe they have five great albums left. The truth is probably somewhere in between. Regardless, Collapsible Lung fails to pay off on its four-year incubation (and fantastic album title). It’s not Relient K’s worst album, but it’s their most disappointing by a big margin. It’s the least “Relient K” Relient K album, and that’s a very bad thing.