For a band as established and celebrated as Yellowcard, the decision to return from a hiatus is a weighty one. It’s not as simple as waking up, getting back into the studio, putting out a record and playing a few shows. There is a lot at stake, and the band’s legacy is part of those stakes. Putting out a bad or even a mediocre record can tarnish an otherwise sterling career, and this is something the fans consider, too. Certainly, some reunion records we could have done without – even some reunion records that have come out fairly recently. Many would rather not have their outlook on their favorite band be affected by a hasty and ill-advised reunion album – in some cases, the allure of “what could have been” might have been more satisfying than the product of the reunion.
Yellowcard is just not one of those bands. Last March, the Jacksonville natives released When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes, a record that I wrote served as a statement. A statement that not only was Yellowcard active again, but that the band was truly and sincerely back. The album was a refresher, essentially a crash course in all things Yellowcard, as the band took a sound that we were all familiar with and crafted a comeback album that stood shoulder-to-shoulder with its past work. It was a perfectly executed return to the scene. But with Southern Air, Yellowcard expands on that statement and reveals a monumental triumph in the process. Southern Air is the definitiveYellowcard album, featuring Ryan Key’s most intimate and personal storytelling, Sean Mackin’s most emotive violin contributions, and Longineu Parsons’ ever-steady backbone behind the drum kit.
Most of us can recognize a Ryan Key chorus as quickly as anything by now, and Yellowcard’s sixth studio effort kicks off with a big one on “Awakening.” It’s not the chorus that stands out on this track though, but rather the verses, during the second of which Key belts out, “Yes, I miss you still / And probably always will / I’m living with a busted heart that I will have until / I find the strength I know is somewhere in bones / To pull the curtain up again and get on with the show / At least you know that I still care enough to write.” Key’s lyrics have been a mixed bag ever since the band got its start, with distinguishable highs and lows, but there’s no doubting that his lyrical prowess has magnified on this record.
“The Surface of The Sun” kicks the door down with a huge rock sound, one of the more aggressive songs in the Yellowcard catalog. The drums and guitars are big here, and the song shares similarities with a sister track, “Rivertown Blues,” later in the sequencing. The latter of these two is more impressive, and is also the uncontested album highlight for me, with a punk-first beat from Parsons and a wailing guitar solo from Ryan Mendez. Parsons goes wild on the drums during the prechorus as Key sings, “You wanna know what I’m thinking? / I think about back then / Back when we built something new / The world was ours to conquer / And we were not afraid to lose ourselves.”
As always, Yellowcard throws in a few slower songs to mix up the pacing during the album’s 10 tracks, and they each serve a different purpose. “Telescope” is a brooding, building number, reminiscent most of the Paper Walls era, while “Ten” is the emotional highpoint of the album. Key delivers an intensely heartfelt story about a child lost before birth, with so many personal references that an overcoming image is drawn up for the listener. The song is so intimate and so strongly impacted by Mackin’s emotive violin underbelly that by the time it’s over, you come up for air, gasping for breath – it’s Key’s strongest effort on an album full of strong efforts. The other midtempo song, the Patrick Stump-co-written “Here I Am Alive,” again allows Key’s lyrics come to the forefront, this time as he offers insight into the highs and lows of his band’s career and hiatus.
“Sleep In the Snow” ignites the middle section of the album, with “A Vicious Kind” providing the back end of an impressive one-two punch. It’s in Southern Air’s holistic consistency where it actually tops the slightly more sprawling Paper Walls for the top spot in Yellowcard’s discography. There’s never a dull moment here, and the sequencing is paced as best as possible to provide the most cohesive listen. Earlier on, focus track “Always Summer” packs exactly what it sounds like – essential listening for the hot weather, with Mackin’s 23-second violin solo (I savor every second of this, as I’ve been waiting for a violin solo this awesome for basically this band’s whole career) providing the spark. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that “Always Summer” is the most identifying Yellowcard song since “Ocean Avenue.”
The title track closes things out here, and the album ends with another killer chorus and a highly enjoyable minute-plus jam session. While the musicianship steals the spotlight on the song, it’s hard to resist yelling along to the chorus. Key has said that Yellowcard’s time off inspired a lot of the writing for Southern Air, and his time at home with his family played a large role in this. The picture is painted clear on the title track as Key remembers home while belting, “This southern air is all I need / Breathe it in and I can see / Canvases behind my eyes / All the colors of my life / This southern air is in my lungs / It’s in every word I’ve sung / Seems the only truth I know, this will always be home.”
The excitement I felt when Yellowcard announced its reunion is nothing compared to the sense of awe I get when I listen to Southern Air. For a band like this to completely put its all into a comeback and not only become a presence in the genre again, but absolutely be even better than they were when they left, is something amazing to witness. Southern Air is Yellowcard’s greatest album, and that’s something I never could have pictured myself saying a couple years ago when we got word that they were going back into the studio for Say Yes. Paper Walls has long been a top record of mine, and Southern Air bears resemblances to that album in all the best ways. Where When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes was safe at times and perhaps slightly predictable, Southern Air keeps listeners intrigued and invested throughout. This is the best pop-punk album of 2012, and it’s a veteran band putting on a clinic for everyone to listen.