Review Summary: Well, wasn't this the most surprising misfire of 2012?
There is an important contrast to be made between When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes
’s “Be the Young” and Southern Air
’s “Here I Am Alive” that reveals what makes Yellowcard’s latest effort feel so lacking. Lyrically, both declare a similar sentiment of eternal youth. But the former captures the wistfulness that comes with the acknowledgement that despite their declaration, people do grow up. It’s that last hurrah before the band grows up. “Here I Am Alive” shows a regression in this sense; the band undoes those hints of maturity with an undeniably upbeat and almost cheery song reveling about how they have either “grown old” or “grown up” but “have not done both.” Well it’s clear that the band has grown old---lead singer Ryan Key is now 32. But without the subtle recognition that their youthful escapades must end, the band sounds as childish as Peter Pan never wanting to grow up.
Consider the third track, “Always Summer.” As their signature metaphor for youth, summer has been used in Yellowcard songs for quite a while, even if it’s simply through the metonymy of beaches or even California. That the band would note that “it’s always summer in [their] heart and soul” could be them using clever, self-directed satire but sadly is simply Yellowcard retreading the same ideas that they have in the past. But even so, the fact that the songs’ lyrical topics are juvenile even by Yellowcard’s standards does not automatically mean that the lyrics are asinine or that the songs aren’t enjoyable. No, what ultimately cripples the album musically is the band’s insistence to add a summery vibe to a style comparable to their least summery album, Paper Walls
, a reflection of this same indecisiveness regarding the band’s attitude towards growing up.
The band certainly improves in toning down the loudness that plagued Paper Walls
, but the resulting clearer audio shows a band too often pushing the tempo at the expense of their signature catchiness. Yet unlike their 2007 effort, the band does not commit to this change, and we are left with a mediocre blend of two different styles (perhaps a literal representation of the genre pop-punk). The formula does succeed at times; “Surface of the Sun” is unpredictable for Yellowcard standards regarding the timing of the choruses, which allows it to coalesce a drum-driven verse and a soaring chorus (despite its lackluster melody) into a standout, fresh track. But then songs like the aforementioned “Always Summer” attempt to fuse a verse devoid of an interesting melody from Key with a poppy chorus, and the disappointing result is a disjointed mess, neither catchy nor exciting. Similarly suffering is “Southern Air,” which starts off promisingly but attempts to retain some sort of catchiness, thus falling apart by the first chorus. Even when the band singularly commits to melody (“Here I Am Alive” and “Telescope”) or fast-paced excitement (“Awakening” and “Sleep in the Snow”), the results are mixed; the former of each group fails due generally to choruses whose poppiness feel forced and contrived, whereas the latter of each succeeds due to the natural, organic nature of its composition. In particular, “Sleep in the Snow” stands out due to its excellent drumwork (as per usual for Longineu Parsons) and interesting lyrics (using winter metaphorically as a counterpoint to their figurative summer). However, ultimately the band tries to reinvent its sound while staying true to its roots, which unfortunately feels too much like an adolescent trying to cope with maturity by hanging onto the past.
“Ten” gets a special place because it epitomizes another important issue in this album. Unlike the remarkably consistent When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes
, almost every song on Southern Air
has some weak point in addition to varying degrees of strengths. On a micro-level, focusing on the lyrically based ballad reveals Key’s awful line of “You would be ten and I’d be driving you to school/ You would tell all your friends that you thought I was cool.” Any emotional impact of some of the more poignant lyrics is negated by the sheer laziness of the second half of that rhyme. Sadly, indeed the entire song suffers due to it. That line, and others such as “You would be watching Star Wars/ With your PJs on,” ruins easily the best melody of the album and possibly of Yellowcard’s career. Thus, on a macro-level, the peaks of the album are lower than those on every other previous album, allowing the valleys to drag down the album to mediocrity.
Yellowcard always have leaned more to the pop end of pop-punk, complete with their unique blend of youthful naivety and nostalgia. At their best, they are akin to a 23 year old with eidetic memory, being able to perfectly recreate the summer romances and teenage angst with rose-colored glasses while subtly displaying self-awareness regarding this bias. In Southern Air
, the band seems more like the sad 30 year old reliving his glory days while the world moves on without him. The melodies are simply not up to par; there is a reliance on Sean Mackin’s violin as melody (instead of counter-melody), in addition to uninteresting guitar riffs from Ryan Mendez (despite a nifty guitar solo) and surprisingly uninspiring vocal melodies from Key. This is in no doubt due to the band increasing emphasis on the punk in pop-punk while avoiding straying from their comfort area, revealing a failed attempt to feign both musical and lyrical maturity. The result is an album brimming with potential that ultimately fails in providing the nostalgic and musical experience this Yellowcard fan expects.