*For the record, this is a review from Rockfreaks and was done on their 10 point scale, which I reference in the final few lines. I gave it an 8.5 over there, in attempt to be at least partially objective.
Hopeless Records, 2012
Four and a half stars
Each piece of the puzzle coalesces perfectly over the course of Southern Air and its ten tracks. We get the traditional propulsive opener ("Awakening"), the road-trip ready summer anthem (appropriately titled "Always Summer"), and the tearful penultimate ballad ("Ten"). In between, frontman Ryan Key and Yellowcard do pretty much exactly what you'd expect them to do: violinist Sean Mackin flits in and out of arrangements, dominating the texture with swift arpeggiations, Longineu "LP" Parsons beats his drums with rapidfire intensity, Ryan Mendez builds a wall of electric guitars that make each song sound appropriately massive, and Ryan Key keeps the whole thing going, delivering arguably his catchiest, most relatable, and most consistently great set of songs to date. Ever since Lights and Sounds received a beatdown from both critics and fans in 2005, Yellowcard haven't strayed too far from their comfort zone, and that remains true here. Songs like "Surface of the Sun" and "Sleep in the Snow," as enjoyable as they are, could have fit easily on any of the band's other records, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. This is a band who do what they do and do it well, always delivering stellar collections of summer soundtrack worthy pop rock that will appeal to the fans who have followed their career from the beginning. Furthermore, their songs, especially on this record and its predecessor, resonate with me on such a personal level that writing them off for a lack of creativity would be missing the point: innovation, for a band like this, comes second to pure pathos appeal, and they've got that second bit in spades.
But while Southern Air remains grand throughout, it crosses over to transcendence with its final four tracks. Album highlight "Telescope" is a heartfelt eulogy for an inspirational loved one. Key gives one of his best vocal performances to date, showcasing more vocal power than ever before, and delivering the song's personal subject matter with an impassioned drive. A relationship fractures on the frantic "Rivertown Blues," where LP's vicious drum fills get one of their most impressive showcases to date, and "Ten," the album's emotional peak and its only ballad, is an ode to a lost child and the father-son relationship that the narrator watches evaporate right before his eyes the moment he hears about his girlfriend's miscarriage. "You would be out in the sun until it was gone/You would be watching Star Wars with your PJs on/You would be playing tunes on your first guitar," Keys cries, over a gorgeous bed of folky instrumentation ranging from sweeping string sections to wistful steel guitar accents. It's both a sobering rumination on loss and a nostalgic look back at childhood, at the moments from our youth that we carry with us forever. And while the overwhelming sentiment may turn some listeners off, I'd argue that, for this record, that's a large part of the point as well.
Just like I spend every April and May looking for the perfect album to inaugurate my summer, I generally find myself in a similar position come August, searching for the ideal send-off. Southern Air is that album, but it's also so much more: it's a record about family, about loss, about youth and how it fades away, and about striking out towards a new life-chapter. As the sun begins to set on my last summer as a college student, I can hardly explain how much those messages - and the songs that carry them - mean to me. "The future's coming on," Key proclaims during the album's title track and grand finale. "And after living through these wild years and coming out alive/I just want to lay my head here, stop running for awhile." It's hard to think of a more perfect way to sum up the album or a more apt description for exactly how I am feeling as the weeks dwindle and the sunsets tick down to a change. And while, on initial listen, the song might not have quite the climactic force of the band's previous finales, bombastic and grandiose climaxes like "Be the Young" and "Holly Wood Died," after twenty times through, I wouldn't have it any other way. It's the perfect cap to a damn fine album, Yellowcard's best and most singularly meaningful record to date, and every time I listen, I love it more. I'm trying as hard as I can to be objective with the score below (because as good as I think this album is, it won't win win any new fans, for the band or for the genre), but to me - with how this band has grown with me and with where I am in my life right now - it's a perfect 10.