Relient K has been a stalwart presence in the alternative Christian rock scene ever since the band’s self-titled album-length debut arrived back in 2000. So when I saw that the seventh track on 2013’s Collapsible Lung was titled “PTL,” I thought I knew exactly what the acronym meant. It didn’t. Instead of “Praise the Lord,” “PTL” actually stands for “Part-Time Lover.”
Album opener “Don’t Blink” finds frontman Matt Thiessen singing about facing his fears (“I’ve been terrified of life for way too long”) as well as singing the praises of someone who reminds him that, “Love is beautiful and true/Love is beautiful and new.” The song rejects love’s imposters (“Been making lists and crossing off/Every kiss that wasn’t love”), and near the end proclaims, “Been making plans and drawing maps/I plan to take the righteous path/And hope and pray it leads me back/To all the happiness I had.”
The title track recognizes that the road of life can be disorienting (“Between the miles of open road/I lost sight of what might matter the most”), but still affirms lifelong love (“I wanna grow old and rub your tired limbs/And take it easy/Until we wither away”) and God’s guiding role (“And I hope I haven’t heard the last words from the Holy Ghost”).
“Can’t Complain” delivers an optimistic response to life’s ups and downs: “‘Cause I know/The pleasure’s gotta come with pain/And I know/That things won’t always go my way/ … But I can’t complain/No, I can’t complain/Every day’s too short to let it go to waste.” We also hear this old-school nugget: “If you can’t say somethin’ good/Don’t say nothing.”
“Lost Boy” involves finding the right girl after spending too much time in empty relationships. “Sweeter” perhaps recognizes that a relationship is unhealthy (“She’s sweeter than sugar/’Til the sun goes down/Don’t allow her to sour/Just spit her out/Believe me/She’ll leave/A bad taste in your mouth”). But …
The band suggests that the woman in that track will ultimately drive a man to drink (“Can’t drink enough to wash her down”), one of several references to excessive alcohol and bars. The song also more than suggests that the relationship in question is a sexual one (“She looks good in your clothes/Climbing up the staircase/Back to bed you go again/Even when her eyes are closed/Can’t keep from starin’/Oh, the trouble you got in”).
On “Gloria,” two people also seem to be sleeping together, despite the fact that they’re struggling to actually love each other. “Woke up alone with ya'” the song begins. “I never know with ya’/ … Hey, Gloria/What’s come over ya’?/Why don’t you teach me how to love?” Later, that education includes submitting to Gloria’s demanding and possessive ways (“I guess it’s love when you tell me what to wear/I guess it’s love when you’re going through my phone/I guess it’s love when I can’t go out alone”).
“If I Could Take You Home” finds a man flirting with a woman with a history of doing romantic damage (“The trail of broken hearts you’ve left behind/Should send me running, girl, but I don’t mind”) even as he suggestively tells her, “If I could take you home/I’ll be all that you need.” Elsewhere in the song, lyrics suggest he’s not concerned with her promiscuity (“It’s not up to me/Where you sleep”).
More drinking references and another unhealthy relationship turn up on “Boomerang,” where a man can’t get away from an ex whose memory taunts him. “I can’t get away from you/I just can’t escape/’Cause you’re at my favorite bar/Your hoodie’s in my car/The smell of Chanel 5 won’t die hard.” Later, compulsive brooding morphs into an unwise drive-by: “Already on the way/End up at your place when I should be driving home/Girl, what was I thinking/Girl, what was I drinking?”
“Disaster” finds a man trading nights at the bar for a relationship (“I’ve been spending all my time falling in love/ … Now there’s a missing person poster hanging up at the bar/’Cause I’ve got a girl/I think we’re in love”) that he suspects will end badly (“I think we’re in love/But, oh, for how long?/It’s got disaster written all over it”). Later there’s a reference to astrology (“So don’t nobody show her/Our horrorscope headline/Disaster/Written all over it”) as well as an opaquely suggestive reference to the woman, a baby, church and perhaps sex (“Baby/You look so sexy/So what do I do when/We get home from church and the baby/Is in her room sleepin’?/ … You get closer to me/Oh, this has disaster written all over it”).
Still more carnal activity in an unhealthy relationship turns up on “PTL”: “I never meant to be your/I never meant to be your/One-night mistake/I never meant to be your part-time lover/Then again, I’ve never been a full-time man.”
Collapsible Lung features songwriters who’ve previously penned hits for such artists as Lady Gaga, Cee Lo Green, Bruno Mars and Beyoncé, among others. About the album’s sonic diversity, Thiessen says, “This time around, we wanted to have a collection of songs that surprised even us. … And we couldn’t be more pleased with the result.”
Well, as you can see, references to faith do pop up here and there on this group’s seventh musically varied and admittedly catchy effort. (Think influences such as Train, Maroon 5, The Killers and OneRepublic.) More frequently, however, Matt Thiessen is singing about haunting bars as he tosses out allusions to sex. And that makes me wonder if longtime fans will be as pleased as Matt is. Or will they be wondering if Relient K has suddenly become less reliable that it used to be?
At best—and this is bending over backwards to offer the most sympathetic interpretation—some of the album’s more problematic songs could be construed as cautionary tales. They don’t, for the most part, overtly glorify drunkenness or casual sex. Instead, it could be argued that these tracks are merely documenting the damage done by such activities.
But what’s overwhelming is the sheer volume of reckless behavior on display here, as well as the artistic attention given to its details. Such lyrical detours into drinking and deeply dysfunctional relationships could complicate listeners’ own attempts to, as Thiessen sings, “take the righteous path.”
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews.