What sucks more than when your favorite TV show goes off the air for the summer, leaves things on a cliffhanger, and then gets canceled? Or when your favorite film leaves the door open for a sequel and the studio promptly slams it shut? Sure, it’s always sad to see your favorite TV show come to an end, or to leave a movie knowing you’ll never see new stories involving those characters again. Getting a proper sense of finality with an ending, though, makes those goodbyes a lot easier to stomach.
It’s the same thing with bands. Once again, no one ever wants to say goodbye to a band or artist they’ve loved. But getting a final album that feels like a proper goodbye does a lot to ease the pain and tie up the loose ends of the artist’s catalog. That factor is what makes Yellowcard’s tenth and final LP, the fittingly self-titled Yellowcard, such a treat. While not the band’s best album, Yellowcard undoubtedly sees the pop-punk staples exiting gracefully, on their own terms.
Plenty of artists never get to do that. Some have their careers cut short by tragedy. It still hurts to listen to Jeff Buckley’s Grace and know that his voice — perhaps the greatest in the history of pop or rock music — never got another full-length showcase. And in a year when music lost a whole slew of legends, from Prince to Merle Haggard, this idea of never getting to say a proper goodbye feels particularly resonant. (It should be noted, however, that two of 2016’s lost legends, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, seemed to outsmart death by releasing remarkably “final” statements in Blackstar and You Want It Darker.)
Other times, bands either fall apart or disband amicably between album cycles. The most famous example of the former occurrence is, obviously, The Beatles. Perhaps the least perfect thing about the beloved band’s catalog is that it doesn’t have a proper swansong. The band’s final album, 1970’s Let It Be, has shades of a goodbye in songs like the title track and “The Long and Winding Road,” but is disjointed and unsatisfying on the whole. Abbey Road, recorded after Let It Be but released first, feels more like a farewell, but will never have de facto swansong status due to its 1969 release date. As for bands that go their separate ways between album cycles, a good example from the same scene Yellowcard occupies is Motion City Soundtrack. That band announced their breakup this year, months after the release of their now-final album Panic Stations. And while Panic Stations, like Let It Be, has shades of a goodbye — the final track, “Days Will Run Away,” would be a fitting farewell in any context — the album as a whole doesn’t have the climactic heft you would expect at the end of a career that spanned nearly two decades.
Yellowcard has gone on record explaining how they deliberately built their self-titled album to be their last. “We wanted to push ourselves to create a lasting finale for this incredible story on our own,” the band wrote in the breakup announcement on their website. The resulting album is no de facto swansong. Rather, Yellowcard is a deliberate farewell, meticulously structured to say everything the band still had left to say.
The release of an album like this — especially from a band that was so influential and beloved in their scene —always begs the question of what a final album should be. Should a band planning their swansong basically rewrite their greatest hits and present them as new songs, paying tribute to the tunes and the fans that got them to where they are? Should a final album be a band’s last chance to take all of the musical risks they never took earlier in their career? Or should a final album be a chance for a band to reach out to their fans directly, putting their goodbyes and thank-yous into the lyrics of the songs?
No matter the course, final albums like Yellowcard are always going to present sizable challenges to the artists making them. A fan will always have high expectations when he or she sits down to listen to a new record from a favorite band. Those expectations increase a hundredfold with the knowledge that the album and songs in question are going to be that band’s last. Needless to say, it’s not particularly surprising when bands choose to call it quits without facing down the challenge of creating a fitting final statement — even if it’s so much more satisfying when they do.
Looking back over my listening history, it’s tough to find a band I’ve loved that has done the goodbye thing quite as effectively as Yellowcard. Plenty of the bands I’ve loved that have split up and left the stage bungled their goodbyes, or didn’t even try to say them. The Dangerous Summer were undone by inter-band feuds and announced their breakup on social media some 10 months after releasing their worst album. The Brothers Gallagher of Oasis bickered so much, and for so long, that by the time they finally broke up the band in 2009, it was honestly kind of a relief. And R.E.M. released what felt like a swansong with 2011’s Collapse into Now, but didn’t come clean about their plans to split until six months later.
All of these breakups carry an air of anticlimax with them — to the point where I almost feel like I need another Oasis album or another Dangerous Summer album to provide a proper sense of closure. When you love music to the point of idiocy, losing a favorite band is like losing a friend or family member. There’s a grieving process, and it’s made so much worse if you don’t get the chance to say goodbye. Yellowcard made a great album in 2016, but the band’s greatest gift to their fans was taking the time to say goodbye the right way.
First off, there’s a sense of the band looking back through their career and creating moments that call back to the music they made over the years. “Got Yours” is a crunchy, catchy pop-punk number in the vein of the hits from Ocean Avenue. “Empty Street” mirrors the climactic bombast of Paper Walls. “A Place We Set Afire” hits the same emotive, mid-tempo, melodic rock pressure points that the band honed to perfection on 2011’s When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes and 2012’s Southern Air. And the spacey “The Hurt Is Gone” has some of the experimental, ambient direction that defined 2014’s underrated Lift a Sail.
Secondly, Yellowcard isn’t all about paying tribute to past triumphs. With this record, the band also made a point of hitting the last pieces of uncharted territory they still had interest in traveling. The result is a record that, while feeling musically familiar in spots, is also frequently adventuring. “Fields & Fences” and “I’m a Wrecking Ball” are legitimate country songs, full of acoustic twang and rootsy Nashville influence. “Savior’s Robes” transitions from being one of the hardest-hitting rockers in the band’s history to a two-and-a-half minute wash of guitar noises. “Leave a Light On” is a piano ballad that sounds more like Something Corporate than Yellowcard, and “The Hurt Is Gone” seems to owe a pretty massive debt to Jimmy Eat World. After years of having a very specific sound (e.g. “summertime pop-punk,” established on Ocean Avenue and perfected on Southern Air), Yellowcard hit a lot of different destinations on this record before finally hanging it up.
Thirdly, Yellowcard uses the lyrics of these songs as a way to say goodbye to their fans. “If this was the last time that we would ever speak/Could we forgive somehow, could we let it rest in peace?” frontman Ryan Key sings in the opener “Rest in Peace.” As the lead single, the song provided an early indication that this album might be the end of the road for Yellowcard. It’s not the exception, either. From “What Appears” (“Slow, steady hands waving their last goodbye/They’ve come a long way”) to “Empty Street” (“Boxing up the fireworks, cancel my parade/The street is empty tonight”), the poetry of the record is all about endings and goodbyes.
Most notable of all is “Fields & Fences,” the grandiose closing track and the last song Yellowcard will ever put on a record. “I got used to being the star of the show/But I’ve seen the lights come and go,” Key sings at the end of the first verse. These lyrics feel hugely resonant coming on the last record from a beloved band, but I’d wager they’d feel powerful no matter what. More than just being about a breakup, Yellowcard is a record about growing up. In fact, all of Yellowcard’s records have been about growing up in some way or another, to the point where it almost feels fitting that they close the door here. We’ve learned the lessons we need to learn from Yellowcard. They’ve been there for our beach trips, our long drives, our endless summer nights, our crushes, our college friendships, our collapsed romances, and our love stories that actually worked out. They’ve been there for our losses, our goodbyes, and those bittersweets days when we finally had to leave home in the rearview. For so many people, these guys created the sound of growing up. And now that the crowd that came of age listening to Ocean Avenue is made up of people in their late 20s or early 30s, it’s time to say goodbye. With listeners bringing that much baggage to the table, it would be tough for any band to deliver an emotionally satisfying farewell album. It’s a tremendous credit to Yellowcard that they managed the feat.