Southern Air

Yellowcard - Southern Air

By default, the most important Yellowcard album is Ocean Avenue. It’s the one that made the band stars, the one that gave them a classic hit that still lingers in the cultural bloodstream, and the one that provided them with the platform to launch a long, rewarding career. But Southern Air, the band’s eighth studio album, is uniquely vital to the band’s story too, because without it, the Yellowcard arc would feel incomplete. It was the album that took everything they’d been building toward and everything they’d been promising as a band and captured it all perfectly in 10 songs and 40 minutes. It’s not the most famous Yellowcard album, and there are days when it’s not even my favorite, but it is the best single-album distillation of what this band was capable of when they were at their best. And somehow, it’s 10 years old this week.

When Southern Air came out, it felt like Yellowcard had a lot of gas left in the tank. The band had just roared back to life the year before, with 2011’s When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes, and Southern Air felt like the blockbuster sequel to that album. The two records share a lot, from their fleet 10-song tracklists to the faux vinyl wear rings that are drawn into the album art. Like two movies in a duology, they play beautifully as companion pieces – When You’re Through Thinking coming across as the origin story and Southern Air playing as the bigger, bolder, louder sequel that deepens the themes of its predecessor. In 2012, it felt like Yellowcard could keep making these types of albums forever, but looking back, Southern Air feels oddly like a swansong. The band would make another two LPs after this one, but this version of Yellowcard – this lineup, this sound, this aesthetic – would never exist again.

There are reasons for all those things. After this album, longtime drummer Longineu Parsons III left the band, eventually to be replaced on future Yellowcard records by Anberlin drummer Nate Young. Parsons, a distinctively thunderous presence behind the kit, was arguably the element that most firmly tied Yellowcard to their pop-punk roots. Not coincidentally, once he was gone, the band largely left pop-punk behind, exploring elements of electronic music and ‘90s alt-rock (2014’s underrated Lift a Sail) and even folk/alt-country (their actual swansong, 2016’s Yellowcard) before ultimately calling it quits.

But even if Parsons had stuck around, it seems unlikely that the band would have made another pop-punk album after this one. That’s because Yellowcard perfected their brand of beachside summertime pop-punk to such an impressive degree on Southern Air that any attempts to revisit that sound later would have scanned as redundant, perfunctory, and ultimately superfluous. This album is the natural endpoint of everything Yellowcard had been building to since they’d hit the radio waves in 2004 by singing about that place off Ocean Avenue. After this album, you’d almost have to guess that there was an ultimatum inside the band: something along the lines of “Try something new, or break up.”

For me, Southern Air’s big, mature, climactic energy arrived at the perfect time. When I’d first heard “Ocean Avenue,” I’d been a 13-year-old kid just on the cusp of adolescent adventure. I was discovering music, finding out about girls, grasping the importance of tight-knit friendships, learning about how much possibility a summer season could hold. When I heard Southern Air, I was 21 years old, dating the girl I’d eventually marry, and a month away from starting my senior year of college. The next spring, I’d be walking across a stage at my university and graduating. Beyond that, I didn’t know what the hell the next phase of my life was going to hold. What I did know is that the real world was beckoning, and that the youthful summers of possibility I’d discovered while listening to Ocean Avenue – the summers of sleeping all day and staying up all night, of spontaneous adventure, of unbridled youthful freedom – were coming to an end. I knew, in other words, that the summer I was in the midst of at the time would be the very last of its kind for me. Hearing Southern Air in that particular moment was this beautiful bit of serendipitous fate. I couldn’t have dreamed up a better soundtrack for the dwindling days of that bittersweet summer if I’d tried.

When I compiled my best albums of the 2010s list a few years back, I wrote something about Southern Air that I think captures, as perfectly as I can state it, why this album is so special to me:

You have summers all your life, but you only have summers when you’re young. If you grew up in a place where summer was the season you lived for, then you know what I’m talking about. Sticking out the grueling winters with the knowledge that hot, sunny days would surely come again. Counting down the weeks in the spring, waiting for that first day when the temperature went above 50 so you could roll down your windows, crank the volume, and pretend it was already July. Making every waking minute of every August day and night count, because you knew Labor Day was coming way too soon.

More than maybe any other band, Yellowcard understood what made a summer a summer. Songs like “Ocean Avenue” and “Miles Apart” defined a certain brand of beachside pop-punk that sounded perfect on teenage mixtapes traded during summer flings. Southern Air was the pinnacle of that sound, and the end of it. Because you can only have summers when you’re young, and we all have to grow up eventually.

This album plays like a send-up of one last youthful summer, before they shut off the lights and close down the lifeguard stands and tell everyone to go home. You can still feel the sunburn of a carefree summer day in these songs—in the big gaping hooks of tracks like “Here I Am Alive”—but you can also feel the autumn chill creeping in. There’s a sense of time running short, of knowing that you only have a few more nights in this town to do everything you were supposed to do this summer. And then, when it’s over, it’s over. The title track and album closer lays youth to rest in a rush of guitars and drums, raising a glass to all the wonderful chaos of childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood.

For Yellowcard, this album was a farewell to pop-punk and to the summertime sound they’d built their brand on. For me, it was a pitch-perfect soundtrack to my last true-blue youthful summer. When I think back to those seasons now—to their spontaneity and unpredictability and complete freedom—they seem so far off. Somehow, more than seven years have gone by since I packed up the car and drove away from my hometown toward my final year of college, this album playing on my iPod. But the great thing is that those seasons and everything they meant to you are never really gone. Because as Ryan Key sings on this album, “it’s always summer, in my heart and in my soul.”

I made that three-hour drive from my hometown to my college town a lot of times in my four years as a post-secondary student, but I still vividly remember that drive. Leaving town felt different this time, like maybe I wouldn’t be coming back again. Of course, I would return – many times throughout that semester and school year, and many times after I moved away post-graduation. Eventually, I even moved back for good. But sitting in my front seat that afternoon, pressing play on Southern Air and hearing the first words of “Awakening” as I pulled out of the driveway of my parents’ house – “Bottoms up tonight/I drink to you and I/’Cause in the morning comes the rest of my life” – that felt like a cinematic end-of-youth moment.

Somewhere out on the highway, the album wound around to “Southern Air” and I got a little choked up. “After living through these wild years/And coming out alive/I just want to lay my head here/Stop running for a while.” Ryan Key sings those words in the big, explosive bridge of the song, but I already felt them in my bones. My wild years might have been coming to a close, but my years of running were just beginning. At that moment, nothing sounded more appealing than laying my head back and resting comfortably in the place that had always been home – the place I was driving away from. Like I said, it would be home again, eventually. But I didn’t know that piece of information then, as I followed the cue of August’s final days to another new beginning.

As it turned out, Yellowcard and I would take that new beginning together: The band’s next album, the emotionally wrenching Lift a Sail, arrived in the fall of 2014, a few months into my marriage and just days after the death of my grandfather. Some bands are just like that, their music always arriving at these uncannily fitting moments to soundtrack your life. Looking back at those years, at these albums, at how the songs held me together in moments when it felt like gravity itself was abandoning me, it’s bittersweet. It’s now been nearly six years since the last time Yellowcard graced me with a life soundtrack, and it’s hard not to miss them. There are only so many bands whose music feels like it’s written on your soul, and those bands are notoriously tough to replace once they hang it up. Still, it’s always comforting to know that, when I listen back to Southern Air, it’s like nothing’s changed. Suddenly, I’m right back in the front seat of that car again, shouting along to the songs as my world reconfigured itself.

“Another million miles to go/Not over yet, not even close.”