Dear Matt Thiessen (of Relient K)

Dear Matt Thiessen,

I am not your core audience.  I’m probably not the guy you’re targeting when you make an album.  I’m 36, I’ve a wife and a kid, and I live in England.  Most people think of Relient K as a band for teenagers, semi-angsty Christian kids–people like that.

And perhaps you started out that way.  You were, after all, only in high school when your band first started performing.  And your first sort of breakthrough album featured songs about cell phones and mood rings.  Teenager stuff.

But I hadn’t heard you at that point, aside from one track on a 5 Minute Walk sampler.

Then I went back to being a high school teacher, and dang if my kids didn’t love them some Relient K.  I’m a music junkie, and I like using music to connect and relate, so one year, just before going on a trip with some students to New York City, I bought your newest album.  It was on sale, I figured I’d like it some and be able to make some connections with some kids through that.

That album was the Five Score and Seven Years Ago album.  It was pretty good.  I digested small bits of it on the plane ride  and on the subways.

Then, while exploring the Natural History museum by myself–all the kids had scattered throughout the building–I decided to finish off the album.  And in this one hall where the fake Easter Island statue is (like the one in Night at the Museum), “Deathbed” came on.  Clocking in at 11 minutes, the song is a 1st person account of a man’s life story as he lies on his deathbed and encounters Jesus.  And it is amazing, musically, lyrically, emotionally.  Your vocal performance on that song is powerful, and the instrumentation complements each section beautifully.  I was hooked.

Next came the Christmas album, which fights Sufjan Stevens every Christmas for prominence in my CD player.  It’s so good, and “I Celebrate the Day” gets me every time I hear it.  It’s the one Christmas song I continue to listen to throughout the year.

So, wow, I thought, I kind of like these Relient K guys.  So I went back, got the aforementioned record with “Mood Rings” on it.  And, well….it’s okay.  Clearly you’ve grown in many ways.  Then I bought, again on sale, the cleverly named collection The Birds and The B-Sides, including The Nashville Tennis EP. Listened to it a few times, put it on the shelf.

A year goes by.  Christmas 2009 hits.  The Christmas album is on constant rotation.  New Years comes along, and I feel bad for keeping it in, but I’m still in this Relient K mood, so I decide to play the Birds album until I know it well enough to make a better call on it.

And then I can’t stop listening to it.  It is, particularly the first half, brilliant.  It is a new style for the band.  Much of the pop punk is gone, replaced by acoustic and alternative songs with all mixture of influences and melodies.

Well, Matt, you ask, what of our new album?  What of Forget and Not Slow Down, the album of tracks you wrote while isolated in some cabin somewhere during the period of time after a broken engagement?

Well, did I mention I live in England?  New music of the Christian-related variety isn’t always easy to come by, and when it is, it’s expensive.  So I asked for the CD for Christmas.  Could’ve downloaded, but with some bands I like the hard copy.  And our Christmas presents didn’t come till mid-January, by which point the Birds album had been in constant rotation.

So it came.  I listened to it.  And I heard your suffering, your process of working through the pain of this broken engagement, the desire to understand and honour the other person in that equation while still being honest with all the feelings and confusion.

It’s nearly a masterpiece.  I hope you continue to top yourself, Matt, but if you retire with this as your best album, you’ve done more than many bands.  Out of your suffering came some art.  Rob Bell would be proud.

I know it’s new for you and a lot of your old fans may have a hard time adjusting.  But you’re not a teenager anymore, and this album shows a maturity and depth.  It’s got the best lyrics you’ve ever written.  And I read about the production, how you, for the first time, weren’t using electronic tricks like loops–everything is recorded in a very organic way, and it shows on the album’s sound.

Granted, it takes a little while to get going.  As you know, since you recorded the album, there are really only 10 songs here, even though there are 15 tracks.  The extra five belong mostly to outros, usually slowing down the previous song or expanding on its theme.  And none of these are stinkers–no fillers.  This is a lean album.

That being said, most of the strongest tunes are in the latter half.  The first two songs are very good, but not great–the title track, and “I Don’t Need a Soul”, both fitting nicely into your pop-punk repertoire.   I’m not sure if you meant the double entendre in that latter title, but it had never occurred to me that there are two possible meanings to that phrase until I heard this song.

Then comes “Candlelight.”  Doesn’t sound much like anything you’ve done before.  It’s very bouncy–the guitars feel….the only word I can think of is jangly, which isn’t even a word.  It’s not a dance track per se, but never before has a Relient K song made me want to dance.  There is a slight undercurrent of bitterness to the song, though the lyrics seem to be positive.  Well done.  Great tune.

After that we get “Part of It”, with the guitar and bass taking turns backing up the verses.  Another strong but not great song, but I like the line “if the nightmare ever does unfold, perspective is a lovely hand to hold.”  Helpful thoughts for the heartbroken.

Then comes “Therapy.”  Stylistically, there isn’t a ton new in this song, but man, what a song.  Not too surprised it made the concert rounds during the winter tour.  It, in many ways, sums up what this whole album is about–it’s therapy for you.  There is a raw and painful honesty in your vocal performance here, Matt–I think this song is coming from your gut, especially the line, “This is just therapy, cause you won’t take my calls and that means God’s the only one that’s left here listening.”

“Over It” sounds like something from the Nashville EP or even the Christmas album.  It’s vaguely like a ballad, or a piano based pop song, maybe like you’re channeling Ben Folds for a bit.  Not my favourite on the album, but not a bad song–as I said, there aren’t any bad songs here.

And from here until the end it’s all gold, starting with “Sahara”, a haunting, heavy-hitting rocker.  And I love the “Oasis” outro that ends it.  That’s followed by “Savannah”.  I’m not sure what that intro is played on–it could be just an acoustic guitar, but I wouldn’t be shocked to find out it was a cello or some other stringed instrument.  Similar in style to “Candlelight,” this is a “roll down the window and cruise the interstate” song.   Everything here works–the lyrics, the melody, the arrangement.  Strong drumming exploring a range of sounds.  Love, love, love this song.

The “Baby” outro is bittersweet.  Makes me tear up a little…

Then comes “If You Believe Me,” which blends so well with the last song, the double track “This is the End (If You Want It)”.  The intro feels like you’re coming to some sort of conclusion to this whole chapter of your life…you’re beginning to sum up what you want to say to your ex-fiance.  You are exposing your heart at the same time as giving her credit and freedom to be herself.  “If you believe me, we could stand the test of time like no one else/ If you believe me, it means you have to disbelieve yourself.”  I have been in that exact place, Matt.  Really.  I have.  February 1997.  Through…most of the rest of 1997.  Ultimately, she believed herself instead of me.  This is an amazing track.

And it’s followed by that double-tracked closer, which is probably the best song you’ve ever written, and the best singing you’ve ever done.  The thrashing, relentless guitar over the first half, the haunting piano undergirding the same melody on the 2nd half.  The lyrics.  When I listen to this song, I feel like I’m holding my breath all the way through, until the last lines are song and you–whether in experience or by faith–have overcome and come home.

Matt, I’m not entirely sure who this album is for besides yourself.  Maybe for other jilted lovers trying to come to terms.  Almost nothing in it applies to my life as it is right now.  But still, you’ve gotten under my skin with a work of heart and a work of art exploring the suffering you’ve experienced over this past year.  It ends with a note of hard-earned hope.

Thank you.  My thoughts are with you. Thanks for sharing your pain and your journey with us.

I don’t know that you’ll ever read this, but in the aforementioned 1997 incident, weeks after the relationship came crashing down I ran into my pastor.  My pastor is a very driven, very spiritual man–very in touch with God and a man responsible for ministries all over the world.  So I expected something really profound from him when he asked me about the end of this relationship.  He put his hand on my shoulder, looked at me, and said, “Time heals all wounds, if you let it.”  And that was it.  And he was right.

God bless.  Can’t wait for the next album.

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6 responses to “Dear Matt Thiessen (of Relient K)

  1. Hey, I came across this on google somehow when I was looking up Relient K. I read your story and overview of “Forget and Not Slow Down.” I thought it was well-written and thought I should let you know. When I first got the Relient K album last October, I left it in my car for 4 weeks straight and didn’t listen to anything else. I loved it and like you said, it was very different compared to their other albums. I shared it with many friends and family who also enjoyed it as well. Thanks for posting this up, God bless.

    JA

  2. Hey John,

    I have been a lover of RK since their first album, self titled. Long time. All through out my life since middle school, I am 24 now, RK and their music has been the background, along with a couple other bands but mostly RK. My band use to do RK covers off of their “Two lefts don’t make a right, but three do” album. Their music has been an inspiration to me in every aspect of my life and I understand that this new album, “Forget and Not Slow Down” album is about a broken engagement, which I have been there and can relate, but one song gets me on its meaning, I dont need a soul! I do not understand what he means. Can you help?

  3. I think it has to do with not his own soul, but him telling himself that he doesn’t need her or anyone else to be okay. The title has a double-meaning; “soul” meaning both his own spirit or a person, and I think he’s just expressing the pain there, telling himself he doesn’t need anybody or maybe suggesting he even wished he didn’t feel as much as he did. I also hear the album as a progression, so those middle parts may be the lowest, hardest points of his journey. Does that help?

  4. Joshua Smith

    I just want you to know that this CD and your review both helped me get through a horrible break up at one point in my life. I sometimes come back to read your encouragement just because it was so helpful to me then. Thanks.

  5. Marina Brea

    Absolutely love this letter. You are right about everything. I was also confused about I don’t need a soul. Thank you Corey for asking, and John for making it make sense. And John, us forever long time fans had no trouble adjusting to the new style of music:) After all, we are growing up too!

  6. I am also a married man who teaches (fifth grade) and I love this album too. It is cathartic with every broken heart I have had in the past, or even for the ones I have broken. I loved your insight, because you nailed it. I listen to “Forget and Not Slow Down” once or twice a month. I hope Matt reads your letter.

    Peace, brother.

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