When Yellowcard returned from their hiatus to release last year’s When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes, it felt like a celebration of everything that made the band special in the first place. Catchy hooks, fast-paced pop-punk rockers, a few slow-down, belt-it-out anthems, and a good dose of nostalgia were all thrown into the mix, culminating in the album that Yellowcard fans needed (and wanted) to hear. Quite often, in even the best-case scenarios, reunions end right there. What more was there to prove? As it turns out, quite a lot. With the release of Southern Air, Yellowcard hasn’t just staked their claim in their return to the scene, they’ve burnt it to the ground and constructed a monument of an album that will serve as the new benchmark for the pop-punk genre. Young bands, take notice – this is how it is done.
The brilliance of Southern Air shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, although it likely will to most. The band’s final album before their hiatus, 2007’s Paper Walls, was a masterpiece in its own right, breaking down preconceptions of what a pop-punk album could, or should, sound like and hinted at possibilities that are now being realized. Unfortunately, due to a fallout with Capitol Records accompanied by the dashed expectations left in the wake of 2005’s Lights and Sounds, the album never took off or made any sort of real impact, mainstream or otherwise. Fortunately, Yellowcard has not only gained a second chance, but they have used it to show us what they’re made of. Man, was it worth the wait.
Southern Air’s opening track “Awakening” stands at the front of a long line of brilliant openers from the band, with it’s massive, building chorus, perfectly placed changes of pace, and incredible use of Sean Mackin’s violin. From the outset, it’s clear that the band has chosen not to just write pop-punk songs, but to incorporate the elements of the genre in which they excel so well into something better. This is a rock n’ roll record, as best as can be accomplished in 2012. The momentum of “Awakening” carries over into “Surface of the Sun”, highlighted by blistering guitar riffs and driven by the drums of Longineu Parsons III, whose ability to control the tempo and then let loose at the absolute opportune moment has made him one of the most talented drummers in rock. Not to be undone, Ryan Key’s vocals soar like never before during the chorus of what is quite possibly the heaviest song in the band’s catalogue.
One of the things that makes Southern Air such a notable success is the band’s ability to showcase such a variety of sound without losing even a shred of quality. “Always Summer” sounds like any of the best songs from Ocean Avenue on steroids, finding Key declaring “I left home, but there’s one thing that I still know / It’s always summer in my heart and in my soul” while “Here I Am Alive” is a massive, celebrative pop number, highlighted by guest vocals from We Are the In Crowd’s Tay Jardine. On the opposite end of the spectrum lies the acoustic track “Ten”, a story of a song that deserves to be heard, not explained. “Telescope” is a perfectly crafted pop-rock song featuring a deceptively catchy chorus and wonderful harmonies that lead into the punk infused “Rivertown Blues”.
Unlike most albums that highlight a plethora of a band’s talents, Southern Air’s transitions never feel forced or out of place. In fact, the song placements are flawless, capturing the essence of a band we all know that has shaken off the chains of a supposedly confining genre. Not coincidentally, Ryan Key delves deep into his roots on the album, recalling how past mistakes have led him to not only embrace things like home, family and friends, but how they’ve also made clear what Yellowcard is really all about. There was a time when the summer heartbreak pop-punk extravaganza of Ocean Avenue made sense, and a reason that the album itself made the impact it did. Now, nine years of failures, successes, break-ups, reunions and life experiences later, the band is able to cover its canvas with the knowledge, talent and perspective gained along the journey.
The resulting product is not only the best album of the band’s career, but an album that very well may shape the future of the genre, influencing an entirely new generation of bands just as they did nearly a decade ago. Where Capitol Records faltered with the handling of Paper Walls in 2007, the scene’s fastest rising and most promising label, Hopeless Records, will not with Southern Air. The album closes with the title track, which finds Key reminiscing on the song’s bridge, “And after living through these wild years and coming out alive / I just want to lay my head here, stop running for awhile”. This is the declaration of a band that has finally landed exactly where it wants to be. Welcome home, Yellowcard.