Lift A Sail
Released October 7, 2014
Razor & Tie
Southern Air, the last album from pop-punkers Yellowcard, featured the prominent lyric “I’ve been here a while/ staring at the screen wondering what I’ll write.” It’s a sentiment I can empathise with. The ninth studio album from the Jacksonville quartet, made famous by their unique guitar-meets-violin rock sound, is the product of many factors, and to address any one without context of the others seems unjust. Music does not exist in a vacuum (technically because there’s no air to propagate sound waves, but allow me the metaphor), and this album has a great deal going on behind the scenes.
It’s been something of an annus horribilis for Yellowcard. Longtime drummer Longineu W. Parsons III left the band to pursue other interests. Violinist Sean Mackin has been undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer. And lead vocalist Ryan Key married his wife in a hospital, two days after she became paralysed after breaking her back in a snowboarding accident. The sheer existence of this album says something about Yellowcard’s commitment to their music and to their fans. But whereas Yellowcard’s last few albums have hit a myriad of highs, both musically and emotionally, this is an album about lows.
Album opener “Convocation” sets a melancholy, almost orchestral tone, and shows how much the band have matured since their early days. However, while standout songs like “Transmission Home” and “Crash the Gates” thrash along for most of their runtime, they often come across as stadium rock by-the-numbers. These tracks and others feature drawn-out interludes with almost nothing going on, as if the band wanted to sound reflective and then became too disheartened to do anything.
The tone of the other songs is either eclectic or inconsistent, depending on your viewpoint. The previously released single “Make Me So” is probably the strongest of the thirteen tracks, and crackles with the punk energy of the band’s classic crowd-pleasers. “One Bedroom,” another single, is an emotional love letter that still manages to pack a serious punch, primarily thanks to the conviction of Key’s vocal track. Title track “Lift a Sail” is similarly poignant (“Feel my heart stop and lift my eyes/ I can’t choose when to love/ Or who I am part of”) and offers an unguarded glimpse into the inner workings of a tormented heart. In a completely different vein, a guest appearance from the lead vocalist of Memphis May Fire over the driving beat of The Deepest Well works well, making it one of the most interesting songs Yellowcard have produced in recent years. In contrast however, tracks such as “Madrid” and “California” have almost no distinguishing features, and can fall somewhat flat. It can feel like these slower tracks were included simply to break up the tempo and bulk up the runtime of the album. If nothing else however, they emphasise the variety of sounds Yellowcard are prepared to play, and how far they have come since the initial success of their three-chord punk.
There’s a generation of people (an age group well represented here at MIT) for whom Yellowcard have a special resonance. Not a party playlist has ever or will ever be made by a person born around that time that does not feature “Ocean’s Avenue.” In the decade since that seminal single, Yellowcard have evolved and experimented many times as any band so enduring would. And despite a few misses, they largely make their new direction a success. Judged purely on musical quality, Lift A Sail is worth a listen, and comfortably deserves a place in the Yellowcard catalogue. But as a statement of intent, it could quite possibly be the most important album the band has ever made.
Fans hoping for a simple rehash of their original sound will be sorely disappointed by Lift A Sail, and they have the right to dislike the new direction the band have taken. But frankly, Yellowcard has earned the right not to give a shit.