There are very few albums that I distinctly remember buying.
Most of this is because by the time I became a teenager, the digital age had made physical CDs nearly obsolete. I have probably bought less than ten CDs for myself in my entire life: Spotify and iTunes have taken care of that. Still, I know of at least one album I purchased in real life that is still one of my favorites today.
Picture this: 2006, the music section of a bookstore. I grabbed a copy of “Mmmhmm” by Relient K, almost as an afterthought. I knew a lot of their songs already, courtesy of my cooler, hipper older sister, but not enough to guess how great this album was. Picking it up was really more of a game of chance.
14 perfect tracks. I’m not exaggerating. The variety in subject matter and length is one of the things that makes it so dynamic. From poppy to punchy to gut-wrenchingly real, there’s a reason why Relient K celebrated its tenth-anniversary with an honorary tour.
Track One: “The One I’m Waiting For”
- We start off with a pop track. There are very few overtones of religion, which is a laid-back way to introduce the album. It’s just a song about a girl who’s maybe a little stuck up, maybe a little too confident in herself. Here we also see one of the first instances of a classic Relient K trope: a sudden change in tempo. This theme will reappear frequently throughout the track list. As the first track, this song serves a foreshadowing purpose: “something tells me that this is going to make sense/something tells me it’s going to take patience/something tells me that this will all work out in the end.” This song then prepares us for the rest of the emotional motifs of the album.
Track Two: “Be My Escape”
- And now we are in the thick of it. The second track is raw, emotional, and intensely relatable. It deals with not only the burden of guilt, but also the idea of trying to hide that guilt and run away form the things that are plaguing you. This song also introduces the presence of God on this album, where he plays the role of ally and antagonist almost equally, and this track is no exception: “I fought You for so long/I should have let You in/oh how we regret those things we do/and all I was trying to do was save my own skin/but so were You.” This focus on guilt and failure leads us straight into track three.
Track Three: “High of 75”
- It’s taken a long time for me to realize that this peppy, upbeat song is actually about a struggle with mental health. For twelve-year-old me, it was literally just about the weather: “and tomorrow, I know/will be rainy at best/and the forecast, I know/is that I’ll be depressed/but I’ll wait outside/hoping that I’ll catch sight of the sun.” Older me has learned to appreciate how it captures the struggles and hopes of someone who has not, in fact, been feeling sunny at all.
Track Four: “I So Hate Consequences”
- After an upbeat song like “High of 75,” track four brings us back to the same whirlwind of emotions from “Be My Escape.” This song, however, ends quite differently, with a direct appeal to God: “and when the doors were closed/I heard no I told sos/I said the words I knew you knew/oh God, Oh God I needed you/God, all this time I needed you, I needed you.” This is the first time that God is addressed specifically by name, and it hits the listener hard.
Track Five: “The Only Thing Worse Than a Beating a Dead Horse is Betting on One”
- Full disclosure: this is a weird one. Relient K seems to like to put a short song to act as an interlude in the middle of their albums. But at least it supplied us with this unforgettable lyric: “opinions are immunity to being told you’re wrong.”
Track Six: “My Girl’s Ex-Boyfriend”
- Another pop track takes us out of the darkness we were growing so used to. This one was probably twelve-year-old Meredith’s favorite track, solely for lines like this:”if it wasn’t for him/he would be able to see/if it wasn’t for him/he would be as happy as me.” Don’t worry, though; it gets darker from here on out again.
Track Seven: “More Than Useless”
- This track is still pop-esque, but it packs a different kind of punch. The message itself remains uplifting, of how God tells us that we can find our value in him, and yet there’s something underneath it all that betrays someone’s deeper thoughts: “sometimes I think that/I’m not any good at all/sometimes I wonder why/I’m even here at all.” It seems that this crisis of faith still has not been resolved.
Track Eight: “Which to Bury, Us, or the Hatchet?”
- And we’re right back in the angst. This is a song about fighting, but it’s more than that. It’s about trying to love somebody when your own opinions and pride stand in the way. This is where we get the classic lyric: “I tried to hold your hand but you’d rather hold your grudge,” which is one of the best zeugmas I can remember aside from “our teeth and ambitions are bared.” In any case, this track leads us straight into the next song with a feeling of sadness and futility.
Track Nine: “Let It All Out”
- After such an angry track, number nine takes an easy breath of self-reflection. It’s less about someone else, or some other problem, and more about the inner conflict that comes from holding on too tightly to the things you should be letting go. The words: “oh, inconsistent me/crying out for consistency” shows the inner longing for something else, for something better, that only God can bestow upon the sinners.
Track Ten: “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been”
- Ah, yes: the anthem of youth groups. This song might not have been made for congregational singing, but it’s still as catchy and poignant as the first time I heard it. Who can forget this bridge: “stop right there, that’s exactly where I lost it/see that line, well I never should have crossed it/stop right there, well I never should have said/that it’s the very moment that I wish that I could take back.” Nobody, that’s who. With the added bonus of teaching me the meaning of the word “proverbial,” there’s a reason why this song is one of Relient K’s best work.
Track Eleven: “Maintain Consciousness.”
- Otherwise known as every student in school ever, this track is evidence of how much routine can suck the life out of you, even when you’re young. My personal favorite line as a 22-year-old has become: “because it’s 17, 18/ 19, routine/and here at 23/it’s the same old me.” This song is also rife with the ever-present Relient K tempo changes, which makes the song sounds as scatter-brained as its content, which is a nice detail.
Track Twelve: “This Week the Trend”
- Again, this song touches on the struggle between being young and being wise. It’s about following your friends and your culture until you realize how little you actually have figured out. Throughout the song, there are examples provided: “and this week the trend/was to backstab every single one of my friends/and leave a voicemail message trying to make amends/all the while hoping things work out in the end.” We’ve all been there, Relient K. Thanks for putting it into words.
Track Thirteen: “Life After Death & Taxes (Failure II)”
- What’s most interesting to me about this song is that is seems to be a review of all the things that have happened throughout the album. Consider these words: “and this is how I choose to live/as if I’m jumping off a cliff/knowing that you’ll save me/and after all the stupid things I did/there’s nothing left that you’d forgive/because you already forgave me/yeah, you already forgave me.” All of these issues, all of these mistakes, they then lead us straight into the final track of the album, number fourteen.
Track Fourteen: “When I Go Down”
- This final song is the culmination of every emotion that’s been expressed in this musical collection. In the face of all of these trials and struggles, the lyrics read: “when I go down/it hurts to hit the bottom/and of the things that got me there/I think, if only I had fought them.” Again, we’re brought back to that place of trying so hard and still failing, but this song finally gives us the answer we were looking for, in belonging as children of God. The song takes a turn near the end into this: “and life is now worth living/if only because of you/and when they say that I’m dead and gone/it won’t be further from the truth.” In the end, the listeners are left with the message that in spite of all of our troubles, there is still worth to be found, but it must be found outside of ourselves if we are ever to find hope.
All this to say that after over ten years, this album has grown up at the same rate that I have. In the midst of spiritual struggles with anxiety and stress, it’s overwhelmingly comforting to realize that I am not the only person to suffer in this way. At the same time, these songs also give me and others a pattern with which to approach our problems, knowing that “things will all work out in the end.”
Sometimes: all you can say is Mmhm, and move on.