Exactly how objective is music criticism? It really isn’t much of a secret that we are not journalists, obligated to the responsibility of balanced conscientiousness. After all, the best music writings ala Lester Bangs or Richard Meltzer were always ones that were unabashedly biased, where subjects close to the heart sparked utter passion. Objectivity negates that zeal; a robotic dedication to justice that downgrades reviews to exist as detached lab reports.
For me, criticism is inherently imbued with intertwining memories that are trigger-buttons of personal significance. In other words, certain music pieces hit historically-embedded sweet spots, pleasure points in the course of my ongoing love affair with music. In the case of Relient K’s latest effort, my teenage indulgences with the critical black holes known as CCM and pop-punk have colored my critical lenses as I reviewed MmHmm. Throughout my formative years, Christian bands like DC Talk and Newsboys affirmed my worldview and beliefs, whereas pop-punk bands like Offspring and Green Day were there when I felt like rebelling against said worldview and beliefs. Back then—enlightened in understanding but not in taste—that was all the musical satiation I needed.
After going through the education of Indie 101 however, I now view the CCM scene as mostly a joke. The term Cheesy Christian Music is a mostly apt label for the tripe that gets puts out on a daily basis, the lack of imagination and atrocious lyrics sugar-coated with proclamations of love to our Lord and Savior, consumed by the church community don’t know any better. It is with this educated subjectivity I approach this review. Thus I will not make any concessions for Mmhmm, I will call a musical spade a spade.
I can state on the record that Reliant K isn’t going to set the world on fire with innovation and musical genius. Upon first listen they sound like a run-of-a-mill Good Charlotte or Sum 41 clone, with the prerequisite three-chord power trip of catchy hooks and adolescent tongue-in-cheek attitude. However, two things stop me from brushing them aside into the sizable pile of rubbish that bands of this ilk comprise. For one, it is a Reliant K album. From past experiences, this means that beneath the manufactured melodiousness lies a razor sharp wit, a smart aleck level of intelligence, and a bleeding beating heart. Second and most importantly, Mmhmm has successfully evoked those memories of angst ridden teen-hood past, my search for identity and the coming to terms with my faith facilitated by bands-of-yore.
As a result, I have accorded a bit more attention to Mmhmm than what I feel any typical CCM/pop-punk bands deserve, and fortunately, I am rewarded by its hidden delights. Like contemporaries Blink 182 and Good Charlotte, there is a sense of maturity in terms of themes and arrangements. Concerns of greater meaning are complemented by a flourish of string arrangements, a sudden switch of tempos here and there, and piano-driven Ben Folds balladry. Apparently, the ‘secular’ world is somewhat sharing my enthusiasm, with a spectacular debut on the Billboard charts at 15th place and the claim to being the most listened to band on purevolume.com. Furthermore, USA Today compares the album to Brian Wilson’s Smile. Though I believe that statement is hyperbolic, it does demonstrate the euphonic strides that Relient K has made.
It cannot be denied that Relient K writes populist lyrics. Eschewing poetic effect for identification, they wittily promote a sense of satisfaction evoked by familiarity rather than artistic epiphany. The lyrical highlights of the album include “My Girl’s Ex-boyfriend”, containing the words “She and I settled down you can bet/That he is going to have to settle for less/He’s someone that I would hate to be/I got the girl and he’s left with just the memory”. This is a happy tradition of smartass-ness carried over from songs like “Mood Rings” (“let’s get emotional girls to all wear mood rings/so we’ll be tipped off to when they’re ticked off”) in the past album Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right… But Three Do. Song titles like “The Only Thing Worst Than Beating a Dead Horse Is Betting On One” and “Which To Bury, Us or the Hatchet” display a sense of off-kilterness that anoints the band with a wacky Flaming Lips or Chin Up, Chin Up kind of sensibility, a trait that they will hopefully explore in future efforts.
Having said all that, I must admit that despite all these welcome embellishments, it is the tried-and-true power-pop shenanigans that won me over. Throughout the album’s fifty minutes running time, I am transported back to those simpler days when Ixnay on the Hombre is playing on the tape deck, as I marvel at Dexter Holland’s ability to craft bold clever lyrics that spoke to me on a profound level. A little over a decade later, I am having yet another Offspring moment, albeit stripped of anarchy and replaced with a more positive worldview. The band members of Relient K are around the same age as me, and we seem to be mellowing at the same time. The songs of Mmhmm seem to be written specifically for me—dealing with post-college life, grappling with adult issues of regret, significance and hope. Without shame, I proclaim that this critic has been edified by simple spiritual lyrics driven by simpler power chords. After all, music is about identification.
Like their contemporaries, Mmhmm may not be destined to be an indie hipster favorite, but it is a huge dollop of meaningful fun. It is the musical equivalent of movies like Independence Day or Con Air, big-screen blockbusters (albeit a tad derivative) but fulfilling nevertheless. However, there is still untapped potential. Green Day showed that it was possible to transcend the pop-punk genre with its 2004 magnum opus American Idiot and Relient K proves that they have the goods to scale those heights. Looking forward to American Savior anyone?