Sound — 7
Pop-punk had begun a rapid and tangible aging in the mid-2000s. With staple acts like blink-182, Green Day, and Sum 41 either off the table or increasing in mainstream appeal, pop-punk was subject to a crisis of identity. While some popular acts found success in experimentation with darker subgenres, others relied on '90s-inspired power-chord-driven melodies and listener-friendly relationship-driven lyrics (see: Paramore).
One band that never truly departed from the optimistic early spirit of pop-punk was Relient K, whose most successful "MmHmm" in 2004 generated success for tongue-in-cheek loyalist acts while digging slightly deeper in lyrical content without relying on populist political ranting or overuse of minor key signatures (see: Green Day, Rise Against, My Chemical Romance, The Offspring). "MmHmm" provided a great album flow, some good singles, and remains the prize of Relient K's discography.
Perhaps in response to the increasing popularity of aforementioned indie and emo acts at the time of its release, Five Score and Seven Years Ago brought the band's philosophical dark side to bare more than any Relient K release to date. In fact, 2007 was the first significant year of decline for these genres, but thankfully the balance between angst and romance is in no way overplayed. Though opening and ending with sobriety, there is much fun to be had on this release.
One of the more interesting things to note about Relient K's tonal experimentation on Five Score is a markedly grungier implementation of electric guitar compared to their previous records. The anthems are more somber, the ballads more depressing, and even the faster punk-inspired songs have a twinge of hardship. There are toy pianos and screeching guitars; choral harmonies and a heavier emphasis on piano. None of this is to say the album ever departs too sharply from the band's established sound, but a mild amount of risk-taking appears every so often.
The change of pace must have been a surprise to longtime fans; there again, Relient K may always have had a hidden maturity even in moments of careless fun. While early releases are reminiscent of Descendants and blink-182 via catchy riffs and mellow chord progressions, "Five Score" is equally melodious yet more aggressive. Soaring, harmonic "Give Until There's Nothing Left" is offset by the brisk pace of conflicted "I Need You," with similar dichotomies present between other tracks (anthemic yet remorseful "Devastation and Reform" vs victorious "Up and Up"). Some of this variety appeared on "MmHmm," albeit with a definite emphasis on more positive and empowering moods.
Lyrics — 8
If "Five Score" is only a mild sonic departure from "MmHmm," a greater berth between the two is given in lyricism. Five Score shows off some of the band's darkest moments, if nowhere near the dread and lament expressed by some contemporaries. Notable is the band's ability to delve into difficult topics while smiling in between: a song about faking suicide to attract a lover's attention is set against a 10-second song that has essentially become a running gag during the band's live performances. "Bite My Tongue" has a hard time growing up, and while "Deathbed" ends on a hopeful note with regard to afterlife, its conflict with the tribulations of human life is stated with depressing repetition. The album deftly handles both sides of its subject matter, never too optimistic (though often optimistic) and never too apathetic (though often apathetic).
Though void of any painful blemishes in terms of its sound and writing, "Five Score" does feel rather disjointed in the second and third acts with a constant, occasionally dizzying rotation between its upbeat and downtrodden tunes. More careful placement of tracks or a bit of self-consciousness about the direction of the story (take note, this is no concept album) may have given the album a greater sense of ground, which was one very fulfilling aspect of "MmHmm" (introduction, rising tension, peak emotional point, and finally the release and finale in the last four tracks or so). This frustration aside, the songs are still well put-together and the climax in particular is a real joy (if a bit sad).
Overall Impression — 6
Ten years on, the direction in which pop-punk has evolved is akin to "Five Score." The album fits comfortably beside new releases. Though gone is the brooding despair of emo-punk (or whatever your preferred designator may be), there seems to be a great deal of interest in pop-punk bands that alternate, similarly to Relient K, between dark and light. Say Anything, Four Year Strong, and some others use such contrast to great effect. Perhaps this is in tribute to cult favorites such as Green Day's Warning and blink-182's self-titled release, or simply a natural progression in the wake of truly overdone emotionally-driven punk music. In either case, Five Score compares favorably today even as Relient K has moved well beyond what is typically thought of as pop-punk or emo-punk.