Five Score and Seven Years Ago
- reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2007 3 Mar
- Plead the Fifth
- Come Right Out and Say It
- I Need You
- The Best Thing
- Must Have Done Something Right
- Devastation and Reform
- I'm Taking You With Me
- Faking My Own Suicide
- Crayons Can Melt on Us for All I Care
- Bite My Tongue
- Up and Up
Success has come easily to Relient K. Three of their first four albums have gone Gold, and the band has gained mainstream exposure with late-night TV appearances and high-profile tours. Yet frontman Matt Thiessen almost seems pessimistic in the way he regularly notes that the band won't last forever.
Forever is a long time, fair enough. And the band's days would certainly be numbered if they were content to rest on their laurels. But judging by their fifth album Five Score and Seven Years Ago, Relient K isn't leaving us any time soon, growing stronger with age while showing potential to break bigger.
Their new album isn't really a departure, remaining true to the power pop and punk rock that they do so well. Most of their hallmarks are here, due largely to Thiessen's gift for irresistible melodies and clever lyrics. But the band sounds even tighter with a new bassist and guitarist since 2004's mmHmm, and now all the members contribute to the vocal harmonies. Their sound also benefits from Howard Benson (The All-American Rejects, Less Than Jake), Relient K's first new producer since Mark Townsend all this time. Benson doesn't change the sound so much as provide it with more punch and polish, elevating it to that of any comparable mainstream band.
If anything's missing, Relient K has matured to the point where silly songs are more a quirky afterthought than an integral part of the album. Five Score begins with "Plead the Fifth," using a cappella Beach Boy harmonies and vocal percussion for a brief theory about Lincoln's assassination. And "Crayons" is answering machine fodder, providing a quick guffaw. But beyond that, don't look for much humor aside from occasional lines here and there. Frankly, Relient K is all the better for it—especially if they want to further develop from youth group mainstay to first-rate rock band. Let someone else rise up as the new class clown of Christian punk.
Here, Relient K relies mostly on relationship songs, and they impressively avoid making them repetitive or cliché d. Punk is full of brokenhearted rants, but rarely will you find a band that upholds virtue in saving a relationship. "Come Right Out and Say It" asks for openness and honesty, even when the truth hurts, while "Bite My Tongue" is about refraining from saying something regrettable. A countrified "Faking My Own Suicide" (previously released as a lounge-styled Thiessen demo) cleverly fantasizes about using desperate measures to spark appreciation.
Sunnier love songs like "The Best Thing" and "I'm Taking You with Me" are fun, if not more predictable. But Thiessen knows it—in the undeniably charming "Must Have Done Something Right," he says, "I'm racking my brain for a new, improved way to let you know you're more to me than what I know how to say." "Give" is also great pop with its expression of unconditional love: "Sometimes it seems like all I ever do is ask for things until I ask too much of you/But that is not the way I want to live … I'll just give until there's nothing else."
Just one example that shows Relient K hasn't let success cloud their Christian roots. "I Need You" is a desperate plea for answered prayer and restoration, while "Up and Up" looks to leave the past behind and improve because of the love of another (probably God). The soaring piano-laced pop/rock of "Forgiven" uses "damned" in the truest sense to also reflect our need for grace. With the harder rocking "Devastation and Reform," Thiessen gains perspective on fears and insecurities concerning sinful nature: "Thank you, God, for giving me the insight so I might make these wrongs right/If and when there ever is a next time, cause failure is a blessing in disguise."
Which brings us to "Deathbed," Five Score's epic 11-minute finale and highlight, demonstrating the same sort of inspired creativity that took Green Day to the next level with American Idiot. Reminiscent of Ben Folds Five, it's a redemptive tale about a man reviewing his life in his last few moments—regrets of a broken home and failed marriage, leading to true love and acceptance found in Christ. It's clever, poignant, ambitious, expertly executed, and even has Jon Foreman (Switchfoot) as the voice of Jesus at the end.
Exceptional tracks like "Deathbed" tell me that Relient K is destined for greater things. The other tracks are pretty much equal to the band's previous work, but still proving that they operate with quality superior to most. Relient K isn't going to last 107 years, but they may be around a score before it's over.