The first track, the a cappella vignette “Plead the Fifth,” for instance, is written from the viewpoint of an 19th century man with an outlandish conspiracy theory about Lincoln’s death and it features lead vocalist/guitarist/pianist Matt Thiessen using his mouth to simulate each instrument of a drum kit. “Crayons Can Melt On Us For All I Care,” which takes longer to say than to play, is a classic Relient K goofball aside. And while the epic “Deathbed,” which includes Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman on guest vocals, has a somber setting as its title implies, the masterfully woven tale of a man’s life and death brims with witty observations and aural ironies.
“I really love to not be serious all the time, even when I am being serious,” says Thiessen, who likens the band’s growth on Five Score And Seven Years Ago to Laffy Taffy. “It’s the same flavor but we try to stretch it a little bit. It’s still melodic, it’s still rock ’n’ roll, there are still a lot of dynamics. But at the same time, we’re trying to write a bit differently, lyrically.”
Indeed, the album is a departure for Relient K. In addition to the two story-songs that bookend the album, there are some love songs – and they’re happy ones. “I always write about what I’m going through and I can’t avoid the fact that I’m just really happy and there are some good things going on,” says Thiessen.
The elation is palpable on “The Best Thing,” which veers giddily between majestic piano flourishes and punked-out bliss delivered at breakneck speed. And the happy state of mind lights up the exuberant first single “Must Have Done Something Right” as well. “This song represents something that I've wanted to create for a long time,” explains Thiessen. “It’s not a political commentary or a tear jerking emotion-piece, it’s just a feel good, fun song. Written at 3 a.m. with a smirk on my face, the song turned out to be something that you can tap your foot and smile to.” Infatuation is viewed through a fisheye lens in “Faking My Own Suicide,” wherein the narrator (with a wink and a nod to the classic 1970’s comedy Harold and Maude) fantasizes about faking a suicide attempt to gain the attention – and affection – of his dream girl.
But Five Score And Seven Years Ago is more than an intriguing mix of light and dark humor. Tracks like “Devastation And Reform,” “Bite My Tongue” and “Up And Up” pick up where mmhmm’s “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been” left off. Classic literature from Aristotle on has made much of the tragic hero undone by his one fatal flaw – but Relient K has always been more interested in the everyman who messes up in myriad smaller ways. “We’re all doomed to make mistakes and to try to recover,” says Thiessen. “But I prefer to look at it from the positive, and refer to it as a grace kind of thing.” Thus self-loathing is pushed aside in favor of redemption and the promise offered by each new day.
Five Score And Seven Years Ago marks Relient K’s first full-length album featuring bassist John Warne and guitarist Jon Schneck – although the two appeared on the band’s Apathetic EP, released in late 2005. With original guitarist Matt Hoopes and drummer Dave Douglas completing the lineup, Relient K is now a quintet with each of the members contributing vocals. The backing harmonies, stunning throughout, amp up the infectious “Must Have Done Something Right” and serve as an ironic counterpoint in “Deathbed.” But the biggest change was in the control booth.
Relient K recorded most of the album in Los Angeles with producer Howard Benson (Less Than Jake, My Chemical Romance, the All-American Rejects). “I was honestly pretty nervous,” confesses lead guitarist Matt Hoopes, “We’d never really worked with any other producer beside Mark Townsend – he did everything from our first demo, all the way up to the last album. But it was a good experience working with Howard.”
Benson quickly assuaged Hoopes’ jitters, creating a supportive environment and bringing a fresh perspective to the band’s music. When their tight recording schedule drew to a close, most of the band scattered to their respective homes for a quick break before the Nintendo Fusion tour. (Originally based in Canton, Ohio, the band now lives “all over the place,” as Hoopes describes. He and Schneck live in Nashville, Warne lives in Denver and Thiessen and Douglas remain in Ohio.) After L.A., Hoopes put Thiessen up at his place and the two worked in a Nashville studio with producer Townsend, where they recorded most of “Plead the Fifth,” “Deathbed” and “Crayons Can Melt On Us For All I Care.”
Five Score And Seven Years Ago is an ambitious follow-up to mmhmm, Relient K’s first joint Gotee Records/Capitol release, which debuted at #15 on the Billboard 200 and at #1 on the internet chart in 2004. It has subsequently been certified Gold as have the band’s previous two albums, 2003’s Grammy-nominated Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right…But Three Do and 2001’s The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek. Propelled by the success of mmhmm and its two Top 20 singles (“Be My Escape” and “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been”), the band has toured incessantly, hitting the road with bands like Good Charlotte, Simple Plan and MXPX and landing a main stage slot on the 2005 Vans Warped Tour, and logging a slew of television appearances, including “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live” as well as MTV’s “TRL,” “Hard Rock Live” and “Summer on the Strip from Las Vegas.” Yet Relient K (yes, named for the Reliant K automobile, which Plymouth manufactured in the 1980’s) relishes its relative anonymity. “We’re still under the radar, nobody knows who we are,” says Thiessen gleefully. Mmhmm, given the promise of Five Score And Seven Years Ago, that may change.