Review Summary: The former Yellowcard frontman returns with a work not bold, but brilliant nonetheless.
Yellowcard’s lasting appeal always left me pondering what we value in our music. Even as a devoted fan I had to admit that they were very much an average band technically, relying on tugged heartstrings to see them through ten full length LPs. Vocalist Ryan Key appeared on eight of those records, seeing the group through its most successful and obviously recognizable stretch of years that included pop-punk staples such as Ocean Avenue
and Southern Air
. The more I weigh the band’s objective skill set against the emotional connection that they seemed to forge so effortlessly with their fan base, the more amazing of a feat those ten albums seem. How did they manage to connect so consistently with a group of listeners who were aging, developing more advanced musical preferences, and living during a decade in which the very foundation of musical consumption shifted from physical to digital formatting, thus rendering commercial success entirely at the mercy of fickle whims and a need for instant gratification？ It’s certain that the elevated popularity of pop-punk during the early-to-middle 2000s played a large hand in their catapulted stardom, but Yellowcard’s reputation endured long after the death of such trends – outliving Limewire, MTV, and everything else that helped catalyze the movement. Even down to their self-titled swan song in 2016, there had always been an admiration for the group’s sincerity – a credit that lands squarely on the vocal charm and lyrical works of Mr. Key.
The thing is, he made himself easy to relate to. For as simple as his ideas were – focusing intently on the concepts of love, friendship, and home – he managed to deliver the sort of lines that felt like everything we’d always wanted to say. So when I first discovered that he was releasing solo material, the first thing that crossed my mind wasn’t the musical direction that he would choose, but whether or not he would be able to maintain that relatable character…the intangible connection that seemed to spontaneously materialize on every Yelloward release. Now utilizing his full name, William Ryan Key (why so grown up now, Ryan？), and with his debut EP Thirteen
, he’s proven that the ongoing story
that was Yellowcard continues – merely under a different guise.
I’ll surely have a few stones hurled my way for saying this, but a solo Ryan Key sounds a lot like Elliott Smith. The acoustic guitars are vibrant and more complex than they ever were with Yellowcard, and the punchy verses that overlay his pristine picking sound like something right off the pages of Figure 8
. ‘Vultures’ and ‘Form and Figure’ best embody this comparison, thriving on the same kind of energetic strumming and confessional lyricism. Percussion is actually nowhere to be found until the final track, which allows Key and his guitar to dictate the pace. He rises to the occasion both vocally and instrumentally, taking the time to ensure that every note is dynamic, rich, and full-sounding. It’s a best of both worlds feeling, absorbing these splendid sounds while still being treated to heart-on-his-sleeve lyrics that make you swear you’ve known Key his entire life. Some of the best lyrics come right on the EP’s opener, ‘Old Friends’, where Ryan (no, William…no
, I just can’t) opens up about his road to stardom and the impact it had left on the people that he abandoned. “In 1999, I was first learning to sing…breakneck and reckless I had a trail to blaze ahead, no count or cost of who I might have left for dead” Key laments in the very opening seconds, immediately establishing a present tense setting for Thirteen
, before he continues – even more damningly this time – “Went looking for a river of gold when my hometown was catching on fire, left everyone I love in the smoke…” It’s a very personal apology, as if he felt the need to make amends now that the fanfare of band life has cleared. The song, set to somber but beautiful acoustic picking, feels like everything that music from a thirty eight year old Key should sound like.
Another thing that should not be left unstated is Key’s development as a vocalist. If you compare his Yellowcard debut One For The Kids
to his work here, you’d be hard pressed to recognize them as the same singer. The soft changes in tonality, the improved pitch and range – it’s all evidence of a musician who has grown into his success. What I mean by this is that his nasal, pitchy beginnings – which worked when he was part of an upstart pop-punk outfit – have steadily been honed with each Yellowcard release until now, where he is at a point capable of launching an entirely acoustic/vocal-centric album in which his inflections and melodies are the clear highlights. It’s been an amazing ride for longtime fans who listened to him evolve year after year; and for newcomers, Key offers a finished-sounding product that is the culmination of decades of growing pains and slow but steady progression.
The final two tracks of the EP especially – but really the whole damn thing – are evidence of Key’s growth, both personally and professionally. It’s hard to listen to the gorgeous harmonies sprawling across the chorus of ‘Thirty Days’ and not think about how much Key has bettered himself as a musician. It’s equally as difficult to delve into the parting lyrics of ‘Great Unknown’ – where Key reflects, “Funny how time doesn't mind, who we keep and who we bare to leave behind…Will I ever stop imagining, what if I had done things differently？” – and not be impressed with his ability to take emotions such as nostalgia or regret and state them in such plain but heartfelt terms. I suppose it all goes back to my original diagnosis of Yellowcard – a band by all means average from a technical expertise standpoint – and look at the man at the heart and soul of it all. A guy who’s had more than his share of heartbreak in relationships, who has struggled with the concepts of family and home…a guy no different than you or I, who just happens to be better at expressing it on paper and in song. It’s the kind of average we all relate to, and that is easy to rally behind because it hits so close to home. Now this very average guy, gripping his acoustic guitar more fervently than ever, continues inviting us into his life’s story – begetting a stunning debut EP in the process. For those of us who followed Yellowcard’s career like a movie playing out directly parallel to our own, latching onto every word in the process, Thirteen
shows us that every end is but a means to a new beginning. The sound of Yellowcard’s door (amicably) closing for the final time undoubtedly left a void in the hearts of fans...but no door is shut forever when you have a Key.