When I sat down to write this review, I found myself staring at Microsoft Word’s blinking cursor for at least 10 minutes, coming up blank. That’s not a common occurrence for me. Usually, when I write a review, it comes out fully formed, all in one sitting. But how could I review an album such as this? What could I say that would speak to the experiences of other listeners and not just my own? The struggle was born from the fact that Yellowcard’s last album, Southern Air, became one of the most personal records in my life two years ago. That album came out toward the end of summer 2012, the summer before my senior year in college. It was my last summer in my hometown, my last summer before the real world set in, and songs like “Southern Air” and “Always Summer” just felt so fitting. Suffice to say that listening to an album that ends with the line “this will always be home” is particularly resonant when you’re driving away and don’t really know where your next “home” is going to be.
Needless to say, Southern Air is my favorite Yellowcard album, and probably always will be. I connected with it like people older than me connected with Ocean Avenue back in 2003, and I was worried that, like them, I’d have to deal with a follow-up that completely misplaced the magic of its predecessor. But while Lift a Sail, Yellowcard’s latest record, is a departure from the anthemic beachside sound of the band’s last couple albums, it isn’t a departure in the same way 2006’s Lights and Sounds was. Sure, both records shift in a more “rock” focused direction, both are darker than their predecessors, and both are highly ambitious. The difference is that, where Lights and Sound was directionless and dull, Lift a Sail is the portrait of a band that has more to say right now than at any other point in their career.
Anyone who has followed the pre-release campaign for this album knows what inspired it. Last year, frontman Ryan Key’s wife was paralyzed from the waist down, and that devastating event informs every song on this record. The result is an album that is simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful. There are moments of despair, but on the whole, Lift a Sail rings as an uplifting testament to love and human resilience. From track one to track 13, those themes swirl and churn until they infect you completely. There are no singles, at least not with the immediacy of “Ocean Avenue” or “Always Summer.” There are also no anthems as towering as “Southern Air,” and nothing that is as impressive from a musical perspective as “The Sound of You and Me.” But while Lift a Sail probably has none of Yellowcard’s best songs, it is arguably still the band’s most accomplished front-to-back album, if only for how it manages to hold onto a core meaning while also spinning off in a greater range of musical directions than just about any other pop punk album I’ve heard in the past five years.
Then again, Lift a Sail isn’t really a pop punk album. The most overly pop punk-ish song on the album is the infectious “Make Me So,” and even that single pairs its earworm chorus with suprisingly dark and moody verses. The other pop punk nominee is “The Deepest Well,” which features Memphis May Fire’s Matty Mullins in a surprisingly un-shitty guest spot. The latter is the album’s most aggressive cut, with scorching guitar riffs and a towering chorus that wouldn’t have been out of place somewhere in the mid-section of When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes. It’s arguably the only song on this album that would have legitimately fit on a past Yellowcard album.
Part of the reason for that fact is that Yellowcard intentionally set out to make a “proper rock ‘n’ roll record” with Lift a Sail. Ryan Key has gone on record citing 1990s rock influences like Foo Fighters, Nirvana, and The Smashing Pumpkins, or characterizing this record as “massive.” And indeed, there are more than a few rock ‘n’ roll moments here, from the aforementioned “Deepest Well” to the raging “Crash the Gates.” Ryan Mendez and his guitar are the core of these songs, which truly do explode into veritable tidal waves of sound. Even “One Bedroom,” the sappy and sensitive first single that Ryan Key wrote about the early stages of his wife’s recovery process, crescendos into an arena rock climax ripped straight from the middle of the last Marvelous 3 record. As for those 1990s rock influences, the band might have overstated them a bit, but there’s no doubt that “My Mountain,” the album’s penultimate track, borrows a few of its tricks from The Colour and the Shape-era Foo Fighters.
But for every song that sees the band slamming a foot on the acceleration pedal and turning the amps up to 11, there is another song that finds them exploring textures that are distinctly left of the rock ‘n’ roll palette. Take “Fragile & Dear,” an electronic-influenced number unlike anything Yellowcard have recorded in the past. Credit Anberlin’s Nate Young—this album’s “guest drummer”—for the shift. Anberlin has been incorporating electronics into their sound for years—particularly on their last two albums—and Young definitely brings some of that adventurous spirit to this record. “Fragile & Dear” is the album’s most Anberlin-sounding song, with a flickering electronic intro that Young might honestly have just lifted from the top of “We Are Destroyer” (the opening track from this year’s Anberlin swansong, Lowborn). Key even adopts a vocoder for a haunting break section midway through the track, but don’t worry: this is still a Yellowcard song, and from the soaring chorus to the Sean Mackin violin solo at the center, it’s a damn good one.
Speaking of Mackin, Yellowcard’s not-so-secret weapon finds kinship with Young in a way that I don’t think he ever did with the band’s former drummer, Longineu “LP” Parsons. LP was likely the more technically proficient percussionist, outfitting songs like “Rivertown Blues” and “The Sound of You and Me” with vicious, show-stopping drum fills. However, you could also argue that LP was always the force pulling Yellowcard more in the “punk” direction, whereas Mackin has long been eager to explore more orchestral and symphonic territory.
He gets a chance to do just that on Lift a Sail, teaming up with Young on songs like “MSK” to do something that we’ve never heard on a Yellowcard album before. The track features no guitars, instead relying on a fluttering violin accompaniment from Mackin and a wash of keys and electronic programming from Young. The bare texture gives Ryan Key a chance to give one of his most intimate and emotive vocal performances ever: “As all these mornings turn into brand new days/Everything still hurts, you’re so far away/I would dig a hole through the Earth and crawl to get to you,” he sings on the chorus, a pledge of undying devotion that rings like a wedding vow. Considering Key’s recent ordeal, the song feels like this album’s beating heart.
Ultimately, Lift a Sailis about telling Key’s story: it’s an album about the difficult emotional journey he took in the wake of his wife’s life-changing accident. The remarkable thing, though, is that this record never feels like a solo album. On the contrary, Lift a Sail tells Key’s story, but makes ample use of the contributions and creative ventures of all the other band members to get there. For instance, “Transmission Home,” the album’s rousing mission statement, is only as affecting as it is because “Convocation,” a gorgeous violin adagio that Mackin provides as a prelude, precedes it. Similarly, “Illuminate” flourishes because it combines Young’s penchant for darker sounds, Key’s skill for crafting sing-along melodies, and yet another massive Mendez guitar intro into a song that straddles some bizarre line between ballad, pop punk sing-along, and aggressive rock song—all without ever actually committing to one easily definable category.
“Do you picture me? What do you see? Maybe a future full of unwritten things,” Key sings during the chorus of “Illuminate.” Every album seems to find these guys looking off into the future, and this one is no different. Ocean Avenue ended with Key wondering whether he was happier with the sunny days in California or with the dark Atlantic skies back home; Southern Air found him living through his wild years and coming out alive; and here, he’s finally grown up. “If a cold wind starts to rise, I am ready now,” he proclaims on Lift a Sail’s title track, a bittersweet opus that feels as subsequently joyful and heartbreaking as “Back Home” once did.
Between the emotional guitar solo of “Lift a Sail” and the plaintive, piano-led strains of “California,” the end of this record really does feel like Ocean Avenue viewed from the other side of the street. For so many of us, that record was a soundtrack: of youth and of endless summers without a care in the world. Nothing is as black and white with Lift a Sail, and it shouldn’t be. In the 11 years since Ocean Avenue, the guys in Yellowcard have gone through countless life-changing moments, and so have the rest of us. We’ve grown up; we’ve fallen in love, maybe even gotten married; we’ve lost people; we’ve suffered heartbreaks or tragedies; we’ve gotten a glimpse at the hardships of the world, but also at so many of the beautiful things that make life worth living; and we’ve gotten to 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.
So no, Lift a Sail is not a record stacked with summer anthems, and it won’t appeal to the same nostalgic impulses that Yellowcard’s last two albums did. But the best compliment I can give to this record is to say that I’m proud: proud of the band for exploring new musical avenues; proud of Key for being so open and honest about his crucible; and proud of Yellowcard for refusing to make the same record over and over again, or to try to appeal to the people their fans used to be. Life is a journey, and the records a band makes throughout their career should chart that journey. Just like the rest of Yellowcard’s fantastic catalog, Lift a Sail does just that, and while it might not be everyone’s favorite record from the band, it is undoubtedly the record they needed to make right now.