Review Summary: Running aground.
Of course Yellowcard marketed Lift a Sail
as a dramatic reinvention of their style. Of course the rumor mills threw comparisons like Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana around. Of course everyone vaunted how huge everything sounded, how everything belonged in a stadium. And maybe they had to write an album like Lift a Sail
. Maybe, for whatever reason, Ryan Key didn't trust Nathan Young (of Anberlin fame) to keep up with the blistering drumming that Longineu Parsons made a trademark. Maybe Southern Air
was the perfection of the super-melodic pop-punk they've been honing for more than a decade, and they knew they had to move on.
There's a good deal of speculation, but it's an attempt to make sense of what my ears have been telling me for days. Lift a Sail
is the worst Yellowcard album since their mainstream breakthrough.
Album after album, fans knew pretty much what to expect from Yellowcard: up-tempo pop-punk with violin countermelodies, nasal vocals about nostalgia, loves lost and Key's deceased aunt, and big huge choruses. And they were almost always good at it. It's shocking how much Yellowcard was able to wring out of such a simple formula. But after 17 years in the business, the band decided to abandon pop-punk for a more alt-rock flavor. Or, that's what they said leading up to the release. Instead, we basically have pop-punk, but slower and less sincere.
It's not that any song is particularly awful. It's just that almost everything feels painfully safe. "Make Me So" aims so squarely for the "cheeky prepubescent girl jam" demographic that it turns into an utter snoozefest, and Key's stuttering vocals in the chorus are cringeworthy. The slow-burning "One Bedroom," "MSK" and piano ballad "California" show none of the vulnerability that turned otherwise pedestrian past ballads into stunners.
"This doesn't really sound like much of a rock album," you say. Ah, but Yellowcard tries at that too -- and it's still boring. "Crash the Gates" has no sense of urgency; few songs have ever tried so hard to craft a "huge" sound, with its tappy guitar riffs and slow percussion, and sounded quite so hollow. "Fragile and Dear" and "The Deepest Well", minus Memphis May Fire's Matty Mullins' grating guest vocals in the latter, are merely forgettable.
Of course, Yellowcard has too much songwriting capability to fail outright. The beautiful interlude "Convocation" is a nice preparation for "Transmission Home," which could actually fill a stadium. It's a massive anthem with big "whoas" and huge guitars, and while it feels stuck in second gear at times, it's a promising sign of the new sound's potential. Unfortunately it's never quite reached again, though the title cut comes close with its impressive textures and trademark Yellowcard vague-but-resonant anthem ("With the last sail lifted high, I am ready now...When the cold wind starts to rise, I am ready now"). And "My Mountain" is a pleasant throwback -- the chorus is zippy, the energy is high, and it could have fit nicely on the "comeback" album When You're Through Thinking, Say Yes
It's not the change in style that cripples this album. It's the poor execution. Yellowcard both failed to bring to the table what made them a great pop-punk band (energy and sincerity in spades) and failed to embrace the benefits of alternative rock (power, punch and volume). Key delivers his worst vocal performance in years -- he may have been a little sappy on previous albums, but that was better than the half-awake delivery that punctuates most of his newest effort. Lift a Sail
finds a band that painted familiar pictures in vibrant colors working with dull grays and browns, and there's little reason to give their newest work more than a passing glance.