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[Album Review] William Ryan Key – Virtue

It’s perhaps too easy to forget that taking steps in the right direction isn’t always the simplest task. There’s a shrewd shred of self-awareness in that knowledge: the realization that maybe it just isn’t going the way you had in mind. Maybe it isn’t going to be okay.

But it’s also easy to forget that one day, someday, it’s going to be.

In a review that seems a very long time ago, a statement was made that William Ryan Key’s THIRTEEN was “a body of work that benefited beautifully from the past”, a medley of growth and meditation that encapsulated in itself a sense of self-awareness. While eyeing Key’s younger self with a mixture of both weariness and something close to nostalgia for much of its duration, the majority of THIRTEEN directed its attention inwardly, feeding off the memories and mistakes of a different life – and taking steps forward to move past them. Maybe at one point or another it wasn’t okay, but THIRTEEN represented the ever elusive light at the end of the tunnel, or the very first dizzying breath of fresh air upon resurfacing from beneath the water after staying down for far too long.

With this in mind, it’s rather fitting to note just how naturally Virtue continues this growth, with ‘The Bowery’ and ‘Mortar and Stone’ both picking up perfectly where ‘Great Unknown’ stylistically left off, while also fleshing out the barer acoustics of THIRTEEN with greater depth of instrumentation through the inclusion of piano and percussive elements. With these implemented, Key’s catharsis sees itself shifted far more noticeably into the realms of a moodier, intoxicatingly textured Daughter-esque indie rock direction, or perhaps somewhat akin to the likes of Of Monsters and Men’s hauntingly poignant Beneath The Skin.

Take for example the EP’s title track: while beginning in a similar vein to THIRTEEN’s ‘Old Friends’ through quietly pacing itself with gentle acoustic guitar, and Key’s sombre croon of “I could wait on an answered prayer, if I believed there was someone there”, the track soon crescendos into huge swathes of reverb-laced percussion (and the kind of piercing guitar work that would be right at home on Daughter’s Not To Disappear), and in doing so becomes something so much more entrancing to behold.

Elsewhere, ‘Downtown (Up North)’ easily displays the closest example of Key almost completely replicating the stripped back aesthetics of THIRTEEN, and this is where a subtle juxtaposition in Key’s choice of stylistic direction becomes a little more noticeable. With the beautifully ambient introductory ‘The Same Direction’ compared to the more “THIRTEEN-esque” ‘Downtown (Up North), it’s easy enough to highlight Virtue’s very deliberate inclusion of more ambitious instrumentation and songwriting. And in doing so, Virtue not only represents a further example of William Ryan Key’s “post-Yellowcard-solo-career”, but also represents plenty of Key’s own inner monologue and internal debate on just what exactly he wants this new material to be.

The shining, spectacular example of this ambition easily finds itself explored throughout Virtue’s clearest and most defining moment: the concluding ‘No More, No Less’. While structurally remaining generally reserved for the majority of its 5 minute run time, focusing on a simple repeating melody and Key’s synthesized, vocoder-enhanced vocals, ‘No More, No Less’ nevertheless sees William Ryan Key at his finest. If it wasn’t the gorgeously textured crescendos that appear throughout the middle and ending sections of the track, then it would be the raw and openhearted nature of Key’s lyricism, such as “I’ve found a home, I’ll drift alone – it doesn’t matter what you say”, or “am I gonna survive when I’m out in the wild, am I gonna belong?”

To once again touch on the words of a previous review, it was highlighted that William Ryan Key’s THIRTEEN “stared it all in the face admirably” when taking into account the personal hardships and rediscovery of musical identity over recent years, and Virtue is no different in this regard. If anything, Virtue establishes Key’s foothold as an exceptionally honest songwriter with a far greater sense of self-confidence, completely without hesitancy to put out into the world what most would prefer remain hidden away. It’s hardly the simplest task taking steps in the right direction stylistically when half the time you yourself are perhaps unsure of what exactly the end goal is going to be, but it’s in this journey that William Ryan Key finds himself displaying some fantastically poignant songwriting.

As for what may come next, it’s simply one more step.

M. Stoneman

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