After the soaring choruses and melodic punk of nearly two decades in Yellowcard, it’s almost a shock to the system to hear William Ryan Key mellowed out. Some of the best Yellowcard songs were the often-overlooked acoustic ballads, and it can cause an undeserved sense of expectation when listening to Key’s new EP, Thirteen for the first time. Scaled back to its simplest form, Key’s work is dipped so far into a folk sound that it can be hard to recognize him. But the stories and pictures he paints are still some of the absolute best in music.
Over the five songs on Thirteen, Key takes his time with simple melodies. “Old Friends” features a simple strum and spaced out notes that subtly pick up pace during the chorus. “Vultures” and “Form and Figure” are a bit faster paced, but still rely on a simple melody to carry the songs. Taking a note from Ace Enders, there is a synth line that haunts the background of several songs to give them an added sense of weight that emphasizes the guitar. It’s a soothing way to give the songs atmosphere and depth.
Additionally, Key’s vocals are scaled back significantly. Instead of pushing himself for a raging chorus, his voice is so quiet it can be almost monotonous. For someone who has such a wide range, songs like “Thirty Days” seem hampered because it sounds like he is trying too hard to hold himself back. It keeps the songs folky, but not without sounding at least partially forced.
However, the storytelling and themes are utterly incredible. “Old Friends” is a story about life on the road, and learning how to deal with your friends back home while dealing with the ambition of being in a rock band. “Went searching for the Hollywood sound and my old friends were cursing my name / I thought if I could burn out the sun, everyone would be with me in the shade / Wrong as I was, I wouldn’t change”.
“Form and Figure” deals with the aftermath of a failed relationship (“I stay in a sleepless state all the time / blurry lines / with the dawn about to light”). “Thirty Days” is a song that equally works as a love song and as a description of having found help after addiction. The somber tone of Key’s voice as he sings, “I’ve hung a heroes cape and worn a villain’s face / Is it my reflection on the wall? / Do I even look the same at all? / If you see me, I swear you won’t believe these years have worn on me” brims with both regret and hope in equal measure.
While it is a new direction for Key, Thirteen sounds like it has been written before. At 18-minutes long, these songs struggle to differentiate themselves from each other. After the flush and extravagant writing of Key’s vast body of work, Thirteen feels underdeveloped, even if that was the intention. However, it still points towards the next amazing step in his career.
by Kyle Schultz
Kyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and frequently is criticized for his posture. Whip him with a wooden ruler upon sight, if you could be so kind.