The old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” certainly holds water in many situations, perhaps most notably amongst music fans who grow to love the signature sound of their favorite band. Yet for every band that has switched their style to disastrous consequences, there exist a few outliers – bands with the natural talent to pull off a sonic overhaul without losing their identity or dividing their fan base. You know it when you hear it.
Following 2012’s pop-punk revival, Southern Air, and on the heels of last year’s tenth anniversary tour of the classic Ocean Avenue, no one would have blamed Yellowcard for riding the wind of nostalgia and releasing something somewhat predictable. Instead, the Florida rock act flipped the script on everyone and, in the process, have the released the bravest album of their career.
Lift a Sail is not a pop punk album, but it is 100 percent Yellowcard at heart. Born from a tragic snowboarding accident that left lead singer Ryan Key’s fiancé paralyzed from the waist down over a year ago, the album is as painful as it is hopeful; as troubled as it is triumphant. It’s the soundtrack of a band that has paid tribute to its past and is ready to turn the page to something greater.
The album is an emotional rock record with pop sensibilities and a flair for ballads. While the shift may initially strike a nerve with some fans, it’s hard to imagine many walking away unsatisfied – the aftertaste is quite sweet here. Furthermore, the band’s long heralded ability to capture a feeling in their songs and display it with powerful sincerity is at an all time high on Lift a Sail.
The album opens with a gorgeous and somber violin introduction, courtesy of Sean Mackin. While one would never claim Mackin hamstrung by the band’s genre of choice in the past, Lift a Sail truly allows him the opportunity to explore sounds like he never has before. He relies much less on fast-paced intros and bridges, instead favoring often delicate and passionate moments that fill out the song and capture its emotion in the way only a violin can.
The tracks on Lift a Sail transition frequently between loud and anthemic to soft and delicate. “Transmission Home” is marked by brash guitars and pounding drums that lead into the best chorus Angels and Airwaves never wrote. “Crash the Gates” follows suit with fuzzy guitars and a spacey chorus, giving room for Key to push the track over the top.
Anyone who expected a lack of intensity after the departure of drummer Longineu Parsons III – fear not. Anberlin drummer Nate Young more than holds his own on these songs, adding elements of restraint and power not found on much of the band’s past catalogue. Young’s presence can be felt mightily on the electronic-heavy/80s-influenced “Fragile and Dear”, a song that finds Key utilizing a vocoder for added effect while Mackin makes his presence felt with an uplifting violin solo.
On the other end of the spectrum are tracks like “Madrid” and “MSK”, the former being a slow, sad acoustic love song while the latter is a building piano number, carried by Mackin’s violin and pushed over the top by Key’s massive chorus. Perhaps sounding more powerful and determined than ever before, he pleads, “As 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”.
What holds the album together, though, are the in between moments that capture the best of both of these worlds. On lead single “One Bedroom”, the band puts on song-writing a clinic with a track as fresh as it is familiar and as earnest as it is poppy. Lift a Sail hits its highest point on the title track, a song so full of emotion and determination that it’s hard not get choked up when listening.
This is what Yellowcard do best – convey those small quiet moments that are so difficult to express. Here, Key declares his intention to move past his pain and through his difficult trial, singing, “If a cold wind starts to rise / I am ready now, I am ready now / With the last sail lifted high / I am ready now, I am ready now”. A song of hope that almost sounds as if it were sung through tears, “Lift a Sail” captures the feeling that threads its way throughout the entire record.
The album fittingly comes to a close on “California”, a quiet piano ballad that dreams of a day when two lovers can once again enjoy the state’s sunlight after the current state of pain has passed. It stands in stark contrast to Ocean Avenue closer “Back Home”, where a bitter Key wished nothing more than to run away from the west coast. It’s a beautiful and poetic finish in more ways than one.
After the release of Southern Air in 2012, I claimed it to “not only the best album of the band’s career, but an album that very well may shape the future of the genre, influencing an entirely new generation of bands just as they did nearly a decade ago.” I still hold firm to the back half of that statement, but it’s clear that Yellowcard has become much, much more than just a great pop punk band.
Yellowcard is telling a story, with each piece serving a different purpose and conveying a different sentiment. Lift a Sail called for something more – and the band delivered. Always willing to remember the past but never content to live in it, Yellowcard have become an example of what it means for a band to grow and evolve in all the right ways.
by Kiel Hauck
Kiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.