Review Summary: Ryan Key at the peak of his craft.
When Ryan Key was fervently singing about the virtues and vices of growing up on Ocean Avenue
, it would have been difficult to imagine him in any setting other than Yellowcard – a successful pop-punk outfit that had accrued a loyal, impassioned following. Key always felt like a natural fit in that scene, crafting music that embodied what it meant to be a teen/young adult struggling to make it in this world. Relationship issues, traveling/hometown angst, and the concept of family populated the majority of the band’s content spanning twenty years; this longevity allowed fans to not only follow Key’s lyrics like an unfolding story, but also to grow up with him. As he shared the joy of newfound love and the heartache of goodbye, many of us connected with him on a personal level.
So by the time Yellowcard
– the band’s eponymous farewell – was released, it felt like the final chapter in some great story that we had all contributed to. With Key singing contently about family (“On these shelves I keep my family, in this bed I watch them fall asleep”), repairing severed friendships (“Could we forgive somehow could we let it rest in peace”), and finally identifying a sense of home (“I don’t have much that I can give to you, but I love the way you make me feel – like I’m at home and I am not alone”), it was the resolution we were all looking for…and that some of us were lucky enough to find for ourselves. Key could have quietly faded away at that moment while leaving behind one of the greatest legacies in pop-punk, but instead he chose to turn the page. As Thirteen
initially showed us and Virtue
now confirms, the next chapter of Key’s career is even braver and more beautiful than the first.
Although Yellowcard made William Ryan Key who he is today as a musician, there’s now little doubt that he’s fully shed his old pop-punk identity. Thirteen
was exclusively acoustic, and some of the quickly strummed verses in ‘Vultures’ and ‘Form and Figure’ were good enough to recall the Either/Or
era of Elliott Smith. That’s about as hefty a compliment that can be levied upon an acoustic singer/songwriter album, but Key earned such comparisons while still maintaining his recognizable vocal warmth and lyrical candidness.
continues down that path, while beautifully integrating new styles into his tightly woven formula. The title track ‘Virtue’ is joined by 80’s-influenced keyboard effects and cascading drums that would not have sounded out of place on Bon Iver’s ‘Perth’, a breathtaking vantage point that comes as a bit of a surprise two-thirds of the way through the EP. To boot, there’s a non-English spoken word outro that makes the moment sound even more thoughtful and worldly. The most astonishing departure, however, is ‘No More, No Less’, which features heavily autotuned vocals on top of an ambient/shoegaze soundscape. The song builds gradually until it concocts a haunting atmosphere that sounds like it could have been on the last album from the band Nothing. It’s an odd sensation to hear Ryan Key’s electronically altered vocals blend seamlessly into that kind of rich, textural ambience – but that’s where we are with Key, an artist who has developed well beyond expectations.
When Key stays within his acoustic wheelhouse, the results are every bit as stunning as they were on Thirteen
. ‘The Bowery’ might exceed all previous efforts in that department, an inward-looking piece that features a lush blend of delicate piano notes, crystalline acoustic picking, and Key’s endearing vocal inflections as he poses the question, “Who do I think I am？” Key’s solo endeavor thus far has been distinctly focused on introspection and exploring vulnerability, a trait that ‘The Bowery’ exhibits in spades. ‘Mortar and Stone’ and ‘Downtown (Up North)’ fit the bill as well, with the former feeling cathartic and the latter being slightly more reflective/forlorn. Across the EP, there’s an admirable blend of the soft, familiar touch that we fell in love with on Thirteen
and stepping stones to bolder, gutsier sounds.
is more than just a complementary EP to Key’s first 2018 installment; it’s proof that he has landed as a solo artist. His new sound is not one of three chord pop-punk tracks and heartache by the sea, but rather bare sounding, stripped-down ruminations. You can almost envision him relishing the seclusion, finding peace outside of the grand spotlight that was Yellowcard - or, as he seemingly sums up in ‘No More, No Less’ – “I found my home…I'll drift alone.” He has settled into a sweet spot of stunning acoustics and token experimentation, all bolstered by the sort of maturity and songwriting that only could have resulted from decades of professional refinement and personal growth. This is Ryan Key at the peak of his craft.