Let it be known that no one will ever be able to properly classify Relient K. They’ve been called Christian rock, pop punk, pop rock, punk rock and pop, and they’ve stretched the boundaries of each and every one of those labels over their shockingly long career (coming up on 20 years). What’s damn impressive about the band (now consisting of just vocalist/guitarist Matt Thiessen and guitarist/vocalist Matt Hoopes and some touring/session musicians) is, despite the many changes of style and line up, they’ve never lost what makes them so fun to listen to: their genuine good-natured heart and sense of humor. Air for Free is by no stretch a perfect album, but dear lordy is it a good one, and once the last note on the last track rings out, you’ll feel like a million bucks.

The joyfulness described above comes primarily from the opening six tracks. These songs aren’t just good—they’re flat out wonderful. They’re songs that will begin convincing you that, if Air for Free keeps this level of quality for the remainder of the record, it could end up one of the best pop albums you’ll hear all year.

The opening track, “Bummin’” is a rock song at its core. Reminiscent of the Wallflowers, it’s a toe-tapping sing-along head-bopper that doesn’t take itself seriously nor devalue its lyrical content of, well, the perils of bummin’ around. “Mrs. Hippopotamuses’” could be considered a Billy Joel homage with its bouncy, piano-driven qualities. It is most certainly an homage to the band’s roots in Ohio as it literally chants “O-H/ I-O/ Here we go Brownies/ Here we go/ There’s nothing better than knowing where you come from.”

“Cat” and “Man” are radio-ready tracks that are wholly original whilst capturing the zeitgeist of current American instrument-oriented pop music. Soaring hooks with Oohs and Ahs all over them, beats you could dance to at a wedding and an overall feeling that life is the just the best. These tracks also continue to show off Relient K’s range as well. “Man” could’ve been written by Sara Bareilles for all its beauty and fun, for heck’s sake. And just wait until you get to the title track. With its electronic beat, background piano and quiet, lovely vocal melodies, it’s a crime you haven’t heard this thing on pop radio yet.

Only five tracks were mentioned above. That is because, out of the opening six, one stands out as the best. In fact, “Local Construction” is the best track on Air for Free. It may be one of the best pop tracks you’ll hear all year. Imagine this: fun. has an affair with Sara Bareilles’ Kaleidoscope Heart, but the lovechild is adopted and raised by former punks with an appreciation for semi-technical musicality and Elton John records. That’s “Local Construction.” Based in a 3/4 shuffle beat, the piano front and center and Thiessen’s voice weaving a vocal melody that could be superimposed over the final scene of Sleeping Beauty is only the beginning. The second and third time through the chorus, Relient K leans back on their roots once again and lays down a 3/4 halftime punk drumbeat that the production value never allows to become stifling but makes damn sure you know isn’t from just a normal pop song. “Local Construction” literally features every influence and style Relient K has ever touched on and mashes them together at the atomic level. It’s the work of musical madmen and it is unlike anything you’ve ever heard. It’s an impressive piece of pop music art. And, truthfully, Air for Free is worth the purchase for this track alone.

But alas, with such a strong opening, it would be a very special album if Relient K could have kept up the quality of the first 20 minutes. Fact is, they don’t. And also, clocking in just shy of an hour, the 16 track Air for Free is just too long and wavers in quality for the back 40 minutes. The hilariously on-the-nose “God” and it’s follow-up, “Elephant Parade” simply aren’t very good. “Mountaintop,” “Sleepin’” and “Empty House” spike back up the quality scale nicely, but can’t quite reach the earlier heights. “Flower” is perfectly gorgeous, but “Marigold” is a rehash of earlier vibes that can’t match up.

The first half of “Runnin’” is a punk rock Paul Simon tune (yes, seriously, and it’s great), but then it degrades into a piano-driven pop song that shoves God right down your throat. “Prodigal” is just about the same sans the punk rock. Relient K has always been somewhat faith-based, but they’ve never quite done this. Even Christians may feel sort of wary about these tracks. And everyone else may feel downright alienated.

Air for Free isn’t a perfect album. If Relient K shaved off about five tracks and were a bit more judicious with the religious imagery this album would be nearly perfect. Regardless, most of these issues can be overlooked if you’re willing to allow the opening six tracks and their quality to be knocked down a peg or two. Otherwise, what started out as a fantastic album can only be considered a very good one. Because that’s exactly what Air for Free is. Despite its faults, it’s a damn good record worth picking up for anyone who likes to feel joy.

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