Mmhmm is Relient K’s best album. I thought so when it was released ten years ago and I think so still today.
I was in high school when it dropped, on Election Day 2004. The version of Mmhmm I listened to back then, over and over again, still lays calcified somewhere in my subconscious. So baked in it was to my adolescence that it’s hard to render an unbiased verdict on the album’s legacy these ten years later. (Add to this that I was in a band that held up Relient K as the paragon of pop-punk.) And yet, I’ve revived its musical bones since then. Mmhmm is not frozen in time and perspective like other albums that stick to us simply because we were young and impressionable; it’s alive and wriggling for me even today.
The first of Mmhmm’s two exemplary qualities is its diverse timbre. Whereas Mmhmm’s predecessors (2001’s The Anatomy of Tongue in Cheek and 2003’s Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right…but Three Do) felt like self-contained musical ecosystems, sonically and lyrically, Mmhmm expanded Relient K into a greater realm, a confederacy of sounds living and interacting in the same world but nevertheless on their own adventures. I imagine it as a map of Middle-earth, with the cheery “High of 75” in place of Hobbiton, the doleful “Life After Death and Taxes” overlaying Minas Morgul, and the plaintive “The One I’m Waiting For” in Gondor’s stead. (Want a Cliff Notes viewing of the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy? Just listen to Mmhmm.)
I like albums with a tightly cohesive sound, like they came from one of those domains, but sometimes I like touring the whole land, as it were. This is what we get to do with Mmhmm. It’s all still Relient K, and it’s all still pop-punk to an extent, but stretched to the boundaries.
But Mmhmm shines above all in its eloquence. This is the key difference between Mmhmm and its predecessors. Gone are the pink tuxedos, chapped lips, and literal gibberish of Two Lefts that charmed me as a fifteen year old but don’t hold the same sway now. The silly, pop culture-obsessed outlook of the band’s first three albums gives way, in Mmhmm, to a lyrical bravura that would also infuse the group’s subsequent albums, especially 2007’s Five Score and Seven Years Ago.
My favorite song on the album (though it’s hard to choose) is “I So Hate Consequences,” a rueful lament of the futility of running from our mistakes: “And after all of my alibis desert me / I just want to get by / I don’t want nothing to hurt me / I had no idea where my head was at / But if my heart says I’m sorry can we leave it at that?” It’s also the first instance in RK’s oeuvre of the screamo effect—an apt use given the song’s pent-up frustration, and the subsequent release of it in the tender coda.
Mmhmm is not without some random, manic fun. The flash-bang “The Only Thing Worse Than Beating a Dead Horse is Betting On It” speaks the truth: “Opinions are immunity to being told you’re wrong / Paper, rock, and scissors / They all have their pros and cons.” As does the buoyant, very danceable “My Girl’s Ex-Boyfriend,” which could be sung by any dude in the throes of a rosy romance.
Even the track titles tell their own song’s stories. “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been,” “This Week the Trend,” “Which to Bury; Us or the Hatchet,” and “When I Go Down” synecdochically capture the guilt and frustration of failure, while “Be My Escape” and “More Than Useless” allude to the aspirational longing that pervades this record as much as RK’s later ones.
But the cornerstone of the album is the lyrical leitmotif: You took my heavy heart and made it light. That simple line appears in slightly different forms in “High of 75,” “Let It All Out,” and “When I Go Down,” which constitute the beginning, middle, and end of the record. It’s the through line frontman and lyricist Matthew Thiessen uses to join disparate songs together as a cohesive whole. It’s also emblematic of Thiessen’s great ability, one that all great songwriters have, to give words to feelings in a vulnerable and plainspoken way.
That line is also the reason why I’ve stuck with Mmhmm all these years later. I’ve drifted away from other music I liked as an adolescent, or revisit it only in bouts of nostalgia, but Mmhmm continues to speak to me. I’ve changed a lot over the last ten years. I’ve accumulated regrets, succumbed to identity crises, and struggled to reconcile who I want to be with who I’ve actually been. The emo-tinged power chords and piano-driven introspection of Mmhmm has been the perfect partner in that journey through young adulthood and beyond, and from darkness to light.
Originally published at The Simba Life.