The first time I heard Yellowcard was sometime in the summer of 2004. I think my sister and I were packing for our annual trip to visit my grandparents in New Hampshire and I had the radio on. (This event is notable because I can legitimately not remember the last time I had the radio on of my own accord.) I had my radio tuned to the local “modern rock” station, which played about 50% Staind and 50% everything else. They also had this feature called “the Buzzcut,” where they’d play an up-and-coming song from an up-and-coming band and ask listeners to call in with feedback. If listeners liked the song, it got added to the playlist. If they didn’t, it never got played again.
The Buzzcut song on this particular morning was “Ocean Avenue,” Yellowcard’s breakout hit single. At this point in time, the song was almost a year old, because it inexplicably wasn’t the lead single from the album of the same name. (More inexplicably, Capitol Records officially released “Ocean Avenue” as a single in February, the least appropriate month of entire year to be listening to “Ocean Avenue.”)
The bad timing didn’t matter. That first time I heard “Ocean Avenue,” I knew it was going to be a hit. The chorus was just too undeniable for it to miss. And fuck, that bridge. If I recall correctly from that first listen, my sister thought “Ocean Avenue” sounded like blink-182.
I thought it sounded like summer.
Fast-forward 12 years and a few months, and it’s funny just how prophetic that first impression proved to be. It almost goes without saying that “Ocean Avenue” went on to be one of my “songs of the summer” for 2004. I remember pretty much immediately going downstairs to download the song after that first listen, so I could put it on my “travel mix” for the upcoming trip. Like I said, the song was just too undeniable to ignore.
But Yellowcard were more than just a one-hit wonder, more than just a flash in the pan. Sitting here now, looking back at the journey I took to get from 13 to 25, perhaps no band captured the sound of the summers of my youth better than this one. Ocean Avenue wasn’t even an instant classic for me. I loved some of it (that massive chorus in “Only One,” or the chill-inducing build on the bridge of “Empty Apartment”), but didn’t care for all of it. Musically, 2004 was the most important year of my life and I weirdly don’t really associate it much with Yellowcard. It took me a little while to appreciate them as more than just another pop-punk band with a few great songs.
But Ocean Avenue proved to be an album that stuck around. On Labor Day 2005, I made an “end of summer mix” to play all day as I mentally prepared myself for the first day of high school. “Back Home” felt like an appropriate inclusion. Something about that line in the second verse, about being “free to stand beside the ocean in moonlight,” perfectly captured the end of summer vibe I was going for on that mix. I was sad to see the summer go. I was nervous to start a new journey at a new school. I was excited to start high school. I was trying to hold on to the sunny days beneath those cloudless skies, even as they drifted away.
Yellowcard’s transformation from a band I kind of liked to one of my favorite bands was kickstarted because of my decision to put “Back Home” on that playlist on Labor Day 2005. Every year since then, I have made a point of returning to that song as earth’s fairest season dies. It was there for every Labor Day; every 10 p.m. the night before school started up again; every attempt to do an entire summer reading assignment in the space of two hours; every journal entry where I reflected on the highs and lows of the preceding summer; every last summer drive; every last summer sunset; every last day of freedom.
For a lot of people, that’s what Yellowcard’s music will always be. It’s loading all of your friends into the car and taking a road trip to the beach on a perfect sunny day, without any thought about when you’ll be coming back. It’s the summer romance that you still remember fondly, even though it ended so long ago. It’s the risk and excitement of summer parties back before you were old enough to legally have a drink. It’s the perfection of that last golden summer before responsibility finally set in.
I didn’t love every Yellowcard album. I was particularly confounded by Lights & Sounds upon its release, and I still am to this day. I also never fell quite as hard for Paper Walls as many of the band’s fans seem to have done. But when I think of the bands that were most important to me growing up, I can’t leave these guys out. I can’t forget that, the day after I graduated high school, Ocean Avenue was the first album to get a spin in my car stereo. I can’t forget how When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes came to my rescue near the end of the worst semester of my life and reminded me that the hopeful perfection of summertime was still there, just a month or so away. I can’t forget driving away from my last summer in my hometown with Southern Air playing loudly, shouting along to “Always Summer” and the title track and knowing that everything was about to change. I certainly can’t forget how Lift a Sail held me together in the days and weeks after my grandpa passed away, when the only thing I wanted to do was break.
The first time I heard the chorus to “Rest in Peace,” Yellowcard’s new single, I knew they were saying goodbye. “If you could go back now, would you say it differently?” Ryan Key asks in the song. “If there was no one there, would you open up for me? If this was the last time that we would ever speak, could we forgive somehow? Could we let it rest in peace?” When the band released that song, they hadn’t yet broken the news that they were calling it quits. But one listen to that chorus told me everything I needed to know: this was the sound of a curtain call.
It’s surreal to think that Yellowcard will never again soundtrack a summer—at least not with a new set of songs. It’s also fitting, though. When, I reviewed Lift a Sail back in 2014, I wrote about how myself and so many other listeners of the band had reached “the point where those carefree summers of old may still sound as utopian as they always have, but where they also don’t apply to us anymore.” The band grew out of their summer sound on that record—a fact that disappointed a lot of people. For me, though, it always felt right. Southern Air had capped the last summer of my youth, the last one where it felt like real responsibility was still just a dot on the horizon. When Lift a Sail came out, I was a year and a half out of college, I was married, and I had just dealt with the death of a loved one for the first time. I was growing up, and the band was growing up with me.
The band’s final album, the self-titled Yellowcard, is the logical next step, and the last one. In “Southern Air,” Ryan Key sang about how he was ready to lay his head down for a bit and stop running for awhile. On “Fields & Fences,” this album’s closer and the last song of the band’s career, he’s finally found the place where he can settle down and stop. Fittingly, he’s somewhere in Tennessee, awash in the southern air he once sang about with such wistful reverence.
The album that gets us there is classic Yellowcard through and through, but also delivers a surprise or two. The topics are familiar: fractured relationships, regrets, wishes to go back and change things, hopeful glances toward the future, and of course, home. (Summertime and California don’t make any overt appearances in the lyrics, but they’re there in spirit.) The music, also, is thoroughly Yellowcard, reviving the band’s penchant for soaring choruses, walls of guitars, and cinematic violin solos one last time. Sometimes the sound flits in a more aggressive direction (as with the Tony Hawk-ready “Got Yours” or the resentful “Savior’s Robes”). Other times it drifts further toward country music than this band has ever gone outside of “Ten” (the acoustic “I’m a Wrecking Ball” or the bittersweet “Fields & Fences”). For the most part though, Yellowcard is an album that bids fitting farewell to the band’s legacy without becoming fan service. It evolves the band’s sound without taking it too far beyond what fans have always loved. It sounds like a Yellowcard album without being a retread. And as evidenced by the lyrics to “Rest in Peace” it makes plenty of references to goodbyes and endings without being too heavy-handed about it.
Even so, even though Yellowcard is about the best swansong you could have asked for from a band that means so much to so many of us, Yellowcard’s decision to call it quits is bound to inspire a lot of questions. Why break up? Why now? Why ever? Alternatively, why not just end the narrative at Southern Air, an album that feels in every regard like a career capper? Other questions will abound as well. Why not invite LP out for this one last tour? Why drop your last album in the fall when you’ve always been a summer band? Why play new songs on your tour when fans mostly want to hear the old stuff?
Me? I don’t want the answers to any of those questions. I don’t need them and I don’t think I am entitled to them. And that’s not because Yellowcard aren’t one of my favorite bands. Certainly, I’ve never held them up to the same level of the Jimmy Eat Worlds or the Andrew McMahons or the Butch Walkers of this scene. But in a recent project where I picked one song to encapsulate each year I’ve spent on this planet, there were no less than five years where a Yellowcard song was in the running. Put this band’s streak of albums and songs down on paper and it becomes clear just how important they’ve been to me.
Rather, I don’t want to ask those questions because none of them is what I want my parting words for this band to be.
For this band? I think I’ll settle for something simpler:
For this band? I think I’ll settle for “thank you.”