“Deathbed” by Relient K: An Epic That Was Ignored.

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In 1998 a four piece band (now five piece) out of Canton, Ohio emerged. Their name, Relient K. The name came from an old Reliant K automobile that one of the band members owned at the time. However, due to trademark issues, the band couldn’t maintain the same spelling, thus the reason for their “misspelled” name.

It’s often rare that a band will stick together for more than 15 years and continue to grow and get better at their craft. Relient K went from starting in a garage/studio at one of the bandmates dads house, to selling out massive venues and playing with the likes of Paramore, Fun, Mae & Switchfoot.

In March of 2007, the band released their fifth studio album entitled “Five Score and Seven Years Ago”. This was the first full length album they created with Capital Records after they had completed their contract with Christian label Gotee Records. This album is a fully produced (maybe a little over produced) mainstream record with tons of great riffs, lyrics and creativity.

Throughout the entire discography this band has recorded from 1998-2013, there has never been a song like “Deathbed”.  I won’t go far enough to say that it matches the epicness or raw creativity of something like Queen’s anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody”, however I will say that from a story standpoint and production standpoint, this song can compete.

Let’s get into it. Below is the song which you can listen too while continuing to read the post. It’s a 14 minute event so make sure you have some time to listen to the entirety of it. (NOTE: Lyrics are at the bottom of this post)

Analysis:

As the song begins we hear a person walk into the studio and sit down at the piano. This creates a certain expectation about the experience that we are about to have. A slow, soft piano quickly crescendos into the atmosphere while retaining a pianessemo level and quality. The piano is warm and calming as well. The first lyrics spoken establish that the song will be from the characters perspective. The first few lyrics are dark and cold, the character is reflecting on his own mortality. As the piano drives the moment, the reality of the audience’s darkest fear is revealed, this character is going to die alone. The opening lines of this song are actually the chorus that finds itself in the midst of the story, as this first chorus concludes, the next movement begins.

As if to catch the listener off guard, the music turns bright and happy instantaneously. It’s at this point where our story actually begins. The character gives us context of what year the story is starting which gives us a reference to how old the character is. This section has heavy pop piano with string swells and punchy drums. This is symbolic of the beginning of a story which has hope and promise.

Once out of that section, a flute begins to combat with the punchy drums and the lyrics demonstrate loss, and so does the fullness of the arrangement. Harmonies shape the melodic contour and become a soothing voice to the character.

At the next age jump in the lyrics “By forty seven I was fourteen”, The vocal and strings come together to convey the start of where the characters journey started to get affected by his own selfishness. It’s in this moment that we learn the character was a chain smoker and alcoholic.  Once this is established, the music breaks down to only vocals, piano, organ and bells. I think the bells symbolize the passing of time (in this case Christmas) and how the character feels that time is too short and his time has been wasted.  The music here is focused and contains heart.

As we move into the next section, we return to the chorus with an ever building brassy section that is constantly crescendoing without ever getting to the full fortissimo. At this point, the chorus is pulsing, as if the listener is feeling the last heart beats of the character.

Once we exit the chorus, a new chapter in the characters life has started and with that, a new musical idea. An instrument that sounds like a Harpsichord is introduced into a whirling motif that gives the audience the idea of a whirlwind, which is appropriate considering the character (at 21) has impregnated his girlfriend and must marry her. This is show through the lyric “It’s easier to be sure you love someone when her father inquires with the barrel of a gun”.

The next shift of music occurs when the songwriter brilliantly uses the word harmonious while an a cappella arrangement takes center stage in the music. The piano comes back in the back ground as the character becomes more frustrated with his life. The music returns to an edgy punch which reflects the characters emotions of anger, fear and regret.

As we return to another verse of his story, another instrument is introduced. This instrument (has a bright timbre and pierces through the music) is highlighted as if the instruments in the song are evolving at the same rate as our character.  We are then given an insight that the character is now a divorced and alone alcoholic. This lyric leads us into the chorus.

At this point, the chorus is mostly consumed with string instruments and piano and vocal. There are accents throughout this section, reflecting the characters frustration with his own life. As the chorus builds, various instruments that we heard before are now coming together. Flutes, voices, piano and strings and even some brass are now entering into the final plea from the character.

Suddenly, everything is taken away and we return to piano and vocal. The character begins to reveal his real fears about dying in relation to Jesus. The music seems to grow warm with emphasis on it’s hymn-like quality. As the piano glissandos and the strings provide a bass for the environment, the character is now encountered by Jesus.  As soon as Jesus enters the scene, acoustic guitar enters into the music, created a soft, touching moment. Jesus takes our character back to the moment in which he claimed redemption.

The music is only piano and voice at this point, it’s warm, gentle and inviting. A drum kit appears in the music to add extra emphasis on this moment. Once the beat is established, strings well up and symbolize the joy of the character as he realizes that he is not alone.

For the final chorus, the music is simple as a piano and toy xylophone are played. This is a moment of the characters last breaths of life. The character then begins to talk in past tense for his departure is beginning.

In this emotion section, the music begins to build and swell. Cello is highlighted for a brief moment and the music gets bigger by the addition of drums. As the characters journey to heaven is happening, the music feels inspirational, full and bright. The introduction of horns and brass are present. The sound become rounded and happy. The character is finally discovering love for the first time, and being loved for the first time.

Once the character reaches heaven (musically), we are pointed back to the person of Jesus. Jesus (Jon Foreman from Switchfoot) gently sings:

“I am the Way Follow Me
And take My hand
And I am the Truth
Embrace Me and you’ll understand…”

As the song comes to an end, piano voice and strings gently lead you out as the story comes to an end and the listener has just completed a long and emotional journey.

This song is breathtaking and there is no way to hear everything in one listen. It’s worth breaking down and hearing it in it’s full quality.

Here are the lyrics if you want to read along while listening.

“Deathbed”

I can smell the death on the sheets
Covering me
I can’t believe this is the endBut this is my deathbed
I lie here alone
If I close my eyes tonight
I know I’ll be homeThe year was nineteen forty one
I was eight years old and
Far far too young
To know that the stories
Of battles and glory
Was a tale a kind mother
Made up for her son
You see
Dad was a traveling preacher
Teaching the words of the Teacher
But mother had sworn
Went off to the war
And died there with honor
Somewhere on a beach there
But he left once to never return
Which taught me that I should unlearn
Whatever I thought a father should be
I abandoned that thought
Like he abandoned meBy forty seven I was fourteen
I’d acquired a taste for liquor and nicotine
I smoked until I threw up
Yet I still lit ’em up for thirty more years
Like a machine

So right there you have it
That one filthy habit
Is what got me where I am today

I can smell the death on the sheets
Covering me
I can’t believe this is the end
I can hear those sad memories
Still haunting me
So many things
I’d do again

But this is my deathbed
I lie here alone
If I close my eyes tonight
I know I’ll be home

I got married on my twenty first
Eight months before my wife would give birth
It’s easier to be sure you love someone
When her father inquires with the barrel of a gun
The union was far from harmonious
No two people could have been more alone than us
The years would go by and she’d love someone else
And I realized I hadn’t been loved yet myself

From there it’s your typical spiel
Yeah if life was a highway
I was drunk at the wheel
I was helping the loose ends
All fall apart
Yeah I swear I was destined to fail
And fail from the start

I bowled about six times a week

The bottle of Beam kept the memories from me
Our marriage had taken a seven-ten split
Along with my pride the ex-wife took the kids

I can smell the death on the sheets
Covering me
I can’t believe this is the end
I can hear those sad memories
Still haunting me
So many things
I’d do again

But this is my deathbed
I lie here alone
If I close my eyes tonight
I know I’ll be home

I was so scared of Jesus
But He sought me out
Like the cancer in my lungs
It’s killing me now
And I’ve given up hope
On the days I have left
But I cling to the hope
Of my life in the next
Then Jesus showed up
Said “Before we go”
“I thought that we might reminisce”
“See one night in your life”
“When you turned out the light”
“You asked for and prayed for my forgiveness”

You cried wolf
The tears they soaked your fur
The blood dripped from your fangs
You said, “What have I done?”
You loved that lamb
With every sinful bone
And there you wept alone
Your heart was so contrite

You said, “Jesus, please forgive me of my crimes
Sanctify this withered heart of mine
Stay with me until my life is through
And on that day please take me home with you”

I can smell the death on the sheets
Covering me
I can’t believe this is the end
I can hear You whisper to me,
“It’s time to leave
You’ll never be lonely again”

But this was my deathbed
I died there alone
When I closed my eyes tonight
You carried me home

[Jon Foreman of Switchfoot sings, as the voice of Jesus:]
I am the Way
Follow Me
And take My hand
And I am the Truth
Embrace Me and you’ll understand
And I am the Life
And for Me you’ll live again
For I am Love
I am Love
I, I am Love