So this is what the reign of American Idiot hath wrought.
The release of American Idiot blindsided an awful lot of the music-buying population, a bunch that still mostly knew Green Day for the goofy hits of their younger years. Sure, they had some bona fide hits between Dookie and American Idiot, but very little (save the largely misunderstood “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”) that stuck for longer than brief runs on pop and rock radio. In came American Idiot, however, which went ahead and proved that a band that nobody really took seriously could come in, criticize American governmental policies (albeit in a pretty superficial way), create a rock opera, and suddenly become the biggest band around. It’s the kind of album that opens a door, that tells other bands that nobody really takes seriously that, yes, you too can have it all, you too can be tremendous with a little bit of venom, a lot of ambition, and maybe a Rock Epic or two.
Yellowcard, on the surface, would seem like the perfect candidate to borrow the sceptre of American Idiot and create an album that plays the part of surprisingly accomplished attempt at gravity—its members cut their teeth with a few indie albums, had a fairly popular venture into major label hitmaking that spawned a hit song, and nobody outside the band’s diehard fanbase has taken them seriously since. The problem is, it takes a good measure of actual, serious talent to come up with the out-of-nowhere epic hit album, and I’m not convinced that Yellowcard has that.
That’s not to say they don’t give it their all—from the very beginning of Lights and Sounds, every indication is that this is going to be the one that gets Yellowcard the universal acclaim it deserves. “Three Flights Up” is a short, piano-based instrumental that carries with it more emotion and heartstring-tugging melody than anything on previous album Ocean Avenue, grabbing the listener’s attention with a gentle kiss rather than a slap to the face. Unfortunately, “Three Flights Up” is just about the most impressive thing the album can muster.
There are a couple of tracks here that try their damndest to take on big topics—“Two Weeks from Twenty”, for one, is about a young man who goes off to war and predictably dies, leaving his girl all alone. Here’s the punchline, courtesy of vocalist / songwriter Ryan Key: “And there’s still no shame / From the man to blame”. Oooh, they’re taking on the President! Did I mention that the song’s protagonist is named “Jimmy”, which is (surely coincidentally) the same name as American Idiot‘s central character? Later in the album comes “Words, Hands, Hearts”, one of those benign 9/11 tributes that talks about how terrible it was, and gosh, it was terrible, wasn’t it? “No one’s heart is strong enough / To fix what happened here”, says Key, in what is surely supposed to be a poignant moment, yet it comes off as maudlin more than anything else. That both songs are performed in a flaccid rock ‘n roll style, with “Two Weeks from Twenty” going the more sensitive route while “Words, Hands, Hearts” tries for a big rock chorus, doesn’t help their cases as Big Important Statements.
Even worse than trying and failing on the big important topics, however, are the poor tracks that don’t even have a weighty subject to fall back on. “Down on My Head” has one of the worst melody lines I’ve heard in a rock song, “Waiting Game” uses strings to try and add emphasis to a needy little song about not much, and “How I Go” borrows Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, whose pretty harmonies can’t save another mid-tempo sensitive rocker. None of this is even to mention the song with the evocative title of “Martin Sheen or JFK” that doesn’t lyrically have anything to do with the president, or the fact that the insert contains lyrics for a song that you have to pay extra for on iTunes. That’s right, not only have the boys in Yellowcard put out a shitty album, they’re using it to tease their fans into paying extra cash for one more song that they easily could have stuck on said album.
(Insert requisite mention of violinist Sean Mackin, barely audible for most of the album, here.)
Sure, there are a couple of decent tracks—two songs decrying the evils of Hollywood that feature the eye-rolling inclusion of a character named Holly Wood sound (at least) musically inspired, and “City of Devils” is a decent enough attempt at a power ballad. The entire album is produced quite well, too. Unfortunately, the sorta-good parts just don’t make up for the overabundance of flaccid mediocrity on display throughout most of the album. Lights and Sounds may be Yellowcard’s attempt at a big, serious album, but the band doesn’t sound even remotely ready.