It hasn’t been an easy 18 months for the world of music.
From the likes of Tom Petty to Chuck Berry, to Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, and the recent tragic news of Scott Hutchison, the last 18 months have been an example of loss and of losing those who have gone far too soon. The amazing display of tribute across the globe, from some of the most influential names in music throughout recent generations, has been something beautiful to witness despite the pain that walks hand in hand with it. If it wasn’t Bennington’s poignant, heartbroken delivery of Leonard Cohen’s iconic ‘Hallelujah’ in the face of the loss of Cornell, then it was the equally heart-breaking group tribute Celebrate Life show for Bennington himself. And amongst those tributes was, of course, Ryan Key.
With the tenth and final Yellowcard studio effort, an appropriately self-titled album, acting as the 2016 swan song for one of the most distinctive pop punk bands of the last two decades, it was easy as a listener to also take the chance to reflect on time passed throughout those years and ponder on past choices. After all, lead single ‘Rest in Peace’ does this accurately enough; “If you could go back now, would you say it differently?” As a follower of any group, you often don’t want to see the final chapter in the story, but it can also be exciting to see what comes next. Indeed, the closure of the band led comfortably into a continued period of production work and acoustic performances for frontman Ryan Key, largely spent building The Lone Tree Recordings studio and contributing to the latest Like Torches album, until eventually paying respect through the tribute performance of Linkin Park’s ‘Shadow of the Day’. This was later followed up with Key debuting the gentle, melancholic track ‘Live On’ during a live performance, a track written in reflection of Bennington’s legacy.
Ryan Key’s debut solo EP, THIRTEEN, sees the musician writing primarily in reflection (recently re-embracing his hereditary first name “William” (taken from his grandfather)) and explaining the EP’s title which refers to personal difficulties throughout 2013. Indeed, when opening track ‘Old Friends’ begins, with softly played acoustic guitar and soothing ambiance that lingers gently in the background, Key’s opening sentiment “in 1999 I was first learning to sin, cranked up and hit the road to grind some gears again” immediately shows exactly the kind of record this is going to be; it’s a far more mature statement that William Ryan Key is looking to make, with ‘Old Friends’ displaying a weary look back on the mistakes of youth and introspectively exploring a brand new identity musically. Sure, second track ‘Vultures’ may retain the slightest hint of what Yellowcard used to represent stylistically, but this is a song far more akin to the likes of Linkin Park’s ‘Sharp Edges’, as opposed to the energetic pop punk tones of Ocean Avenue, a lively acoustic riff driving the instrumental side of things while Key contemplates quietly, “is it better to have had or to have not?”
And, as the EP continues, William Ryan Key stays true to his chosen course; THIRTEEN remains for the entirety of its duration a quiet, brooding meditation on Key’s catharsis, with ‘Thirty Days’ softly navigating the pursuit and loss of a personal relationship, while ‘Form and Figure’ lightly echoes the gorgeous atmospherics of the likes of Ben Howard, with Key pondering “how do I get right, color my eyes white again?” While stylistically much of the EP remains in very similar territory, it’s the tender, open-hearted reflections of the lyrical content that ends up being so wonderfully captivating here, as Key draws the listener in perfectly, crooning with ease throughout THIRTEEN.
Ultimately, THIRTEEN is a body of work that benefits beautifully from the past, with Key bearing the weight of it all lyrically and yet still displaying a continual desire to pursue the better and beyond. The lingering influence of personal struggles throughout 2013, rediscovering his identity musically, and the recent loss of those, both influential to Key himself and the rest of the world, have all clearly played their part in the writing of this particular chapter in the journey. It hasn’t always been easy and it hasn’t always been fair, but THIRTEEN stares it all in the face admirably, and perhaps ‘Great Unknown’ says it best in a haunting sentiment of acceptance: “funny how time doesn’t care, who we love and who we wish we could repair.”