elient K had two strikes against them. First, they play pop punk, a genre critically disdained (although largely for just not being punk as fuck, despite never trying to be so). Second, they're a Christian music act making a move into the mainstream (Mmhmm is their first major-label release, on Capitol, and has had some chart success). Contemporary Christian Music seldom garners full respect from critics or secular audiences, and often rightly so—the message all too often replaces craft or innovation.
In 2004, we saw the development of opportunities for both categories. With American Idiot, Green Day reminded critics and fans that pop punk could be smart and important. On the religious front, artists like Kanye West, Nick Cave, and Sufjan Stevens found success while examining issues of faith. If those developments provided opportunity, they also marked a challenge. Green Day raised the bar in its genre, and the other artists succeeded due to the strength of their compositions, not because the atmosphere was suddenly right for religious music. In fact, Relient K's release came on the day of the US presidential election, the climax of an unusually faith-focused campaign season.
Relient K just kept to making their music, never shying away from expressing their beliefs. They also never paid much attention to the boundaries of their style, staying well within the framework of earlier pop punk creations. Musically, the group shows competence and creates enjoyable, if repetitive, tunes—driven by guitar hooks and steady drumming. Although Relient K often switches tempos throughout a given song, the tracks end up with the same formulaic feel, due to formal consistencies.
At times, though, they do sound talented enough to do something better. "More than Useless" contains a brief burst of banjo playing that's absolutely perfect. A singular moment on Mmhmm, it reveals an attention to detail and arrangement as well as a creativity not sustained over the 14 tracks. Something as minor as adding a banjo line in the middle of a song with deep punk screaming makes a large difference in the listening experience. The return of the banjo in the coda, due perhaps to its uniqueness, provides a wonderful emotional accompaniment to the slow piano—a structure that shows inventiveness and restraint and an ability to think in terms larger than hooks and choruses. They just have to learn to do it for 40 minutes (at 50, Mmhmm is just a bit too long).
Lyrically, the band sounds smarter than most of their peers. "My Girls Ex-Boyfriend" takes a funny but sophisticated look at the path we sometimes take to happiness. Our narrator explains, "Two years ago / When he left all that debris / Who would've known / He would leave everything I need." The sentiment's touching, and the music keeps it from being schmaltzy. While many of the tracks tackle the trouble and joys of young adulthood, others take subtle looks at issues of faith. Opener "The One I'm Waiting For" plays like a tale of conflicted emotion, but it slowly reveals itself as a spiritual plea. The driving "I So Hate Consequences" starts of like a petulant sneer in the style of the Offspring, but it changes into a meditation on fear and faith. Likewise "Be My Escape" has the trappings of a romantic request before revealing itself as a study on grace, closing with the moving lines: "And this life sentence that I'm serving / I admit, that I'm every bit deserving / But the beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair."
Relient K, as everyone's been rushing to acknowledge, have become more mature. Like their contemporaries, they'll have to grapple with what it means to age in a traditionally juvenile genre (in the best and worst senses). Right now, the band isn't taking the chances or reaching far to enough to stay interesting for an album-length effort, but they do have their moments. Their lyrics are their strength; they've been able to bring out the seriousness of their concerns without losing the joy or goofiness. If the music catches up, they'll be a relieble act.