Southern Air

Written by: CM on 13/08/2012 05:54:27

Last spring, pop-punk poster boys Yellowcard made a long-awaited return from a 3+ year hiatus. The album that did it, "When You're Through Thinking, Say Yes," was a resounding comeback, a pristine collection of massive hooks, heartfelt lyrics, and summertime grandeur that I quickly took to like I hadn't to any previous albums from their catalog. It remains arguably the best record from a band who is responsible for some of the most revered albums in their scene, from their big breakthrough (2003's "Ocean Avenue") to their striking return-to-form (2007's "Paper Walls") following the dark and confusing "Lights and Sounds." Only a year later though, they're back with another record, and once again, they're at the top of their game. The latest, "Southern Air," seeks to be the culmination of everything the band has done so far, and quite simply, the result is a tour-de-force. It's got the sun-drenched atmospherics of "Ocean Avenue," the ambitious arrangements of "Paper Walls," and the intensely personal, autobiographical angle that manifested itself on the finest tracks from "When You're Through..."

Each piece of the puzzle coalesces perfectly over the course of "Southern Air" and its ten tracks. We get the traditional propulsive opener ("Awakening"), the road-trip ready summer anthem (appropriately titled "Always Summer"), and the tearful penultimate ballad ("Ten"). In between, frontman Ryan Key and Yellowcard do pretty much exactly what you'd expect them to do: violinist Sean Mackin flits in and out of arrangements, dominating the texture with swift arpeggiations, Longineu "LP" Parsons beats his drums with rapidfire intensity, Ryan Mendez builds a wall of electric guitars that make each song sound appropriately massive, and Ryan Key keeps the whole thing going, delivering arguably his catchiest, most relatable, and most consistently great set of songs to date. Ever since "Lights and Sounds" received a beatdown from both critics and fans in 2005, Yellowcard haven't strayed too far from their comfort zone, and that remains true here. Songs like "Surface of the Sun" and "Sleep in the Snow," as enjoyable as they are, could have fit easily on any of the band's other records, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. This is a band who do what they do and do it well, always delivering stellar collections of summer soundtrack worthy pop rock that will appeal to the fans who have followed their career from the beginning. Furthermore, their songs, especially on this record and its predecessor, resonate with me on such a personal level that writing them off for a lack of creativity would be missing the point: innovation, for a band like this, comes second to pure pathos appeal, and they've got that second bit in spades.

Perhaps it's not so surprising then that the best thing about "Southern Air" is that it's coming along at the perfect time. These are the kinds of songs that you play as the sun goes down on the last nights of summer, the songs you blast in the car as you drive away from your hometown, from old friends, or from one chapter of your life into the next, belting along to every note at the top of your lungs. "I left home but there's one thing that I still know/It's always summer in my heart and in my soul," Key sings on the record's first single. It's a simple line, but it defines the meaning of the album: the stories here have an air of finality to them, a feeling of climactic build that previous records just haven't been able to sustain throughout, and that's why it's Yellowcard's greatest accomplishment to date. Case-in-point is "Here I Am Alive," the purest pop song the band has ever written, and bearing one of their most irresistible hooks. "They say you'd don't grow up, you just grow old/It's safe to say I haven't done both," Key belts in the chorus, and for a generation of fans who fell in love with music when they turned on the radio and heard "Ocean Avenue" for the first time, the line echoes like a battle cry. It's been nine years since that song and album become a definitive summer soundtrack for thousands of teenagers, and in that time, we've all grown up: we've moved on, we've faced triumphs and tragedies and everything in between, but for a lot of us, that album has remained important. I still make a point of playing "Back Home" every year on the last night of summer, as I bid farewell to my home and everything the season has meant to me, and the songs on "Southern Air" come from that same place; some things just never change.

But while "Southern Air" remains grand throughout, it crosses over to transcendence with its final four tracks. Album highlight "Telescope" is a heartfelt eulogy for an inspirational loved one. Key gives one of his best vocal performances to date, showcasing more vocal power than ever before, and delivering the song's personal subject matter with an impassioned drive. A relationship fractures on the frantic "Rivertown Blues," where LP's vicious drum fills get one of their most impressive showcases to date, and "Ten," the album's emotional peak and its only ballad, is an ode to a lost child and the father-son relationship that the narrator watches evaporate right before his eyes the moment he hears about his girlfriend's miscarriage. "You would be out in the sun until it was gone/You would be watching Star Wars with your PJs on/You would be playing tunes on your first guitar," Keys cries, over a gorgeous bed of folky instrumentation ranging from sweeping string sections to wistful steel guitar accents. It's both a sobering rumination on loss and a nostalgic look back at childhood, at the moments from our youth that we carry with us forever. And while the overwhelming sentiment may turn some listeners off, I'd argue that, for this record, that's a large part of the point as well.

Just like I spend every April and May looking for the perfect album to inaugurate my summer, I generally find myself in a similar position come August, searching for the ideal send-off. "Southern Air" is that album, but it's also so much more: it's a record about family, about loss, about youth and how it fades away, and about striking out towards a new life-chapter. As the sun begins to set on my last summer as a college student, I can hardly explain how much those messages - and the songs that carry them - mean to me. "The future's coming on," Key proclaims during the album's title track and grand finale. "And after living through these wild years and coming out alive/I just want to lay my head here, stop running for awhile." It's hard to think of a more perfect way to sum up the album or a more apt description for exactly how I am feeling as the weeks dwindle and the sunsets tick down to a change. And while, on initial listen, the song might not have quite the climactic force of the band's previous finales, bombastic and grandiose climaxes like "Be the Young" and "Holly Wood Died," after twenty times through, I wouldn't have it any other way. It's the perfect cap to a damn fine album, Yellowcard's best and most singularly meaningful record to date, and every time I listen, I love it more. I'm trying as hard as I can to be objective with the score below (because as good as I think this album is, it won't win win any new fans, for the band or for the genre), but to me - with how this band has grown with me and with where I am in my life right now - it's a perfect 10.

Download: "Always Summer," "Here I Am Alive," "Ten," "Southern Air," "Telescope"
For the fans of: If you liked previous Yellowcard albums, you'll adore this one.
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Release date 14.08.2012
Hopeless Records

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