In the rich tradition of pop punk frontmen going it alone, whether it’s due to the end of their primary gig or simply to flex their solo muscles, fans almost always benefit greatly. Virtue is William Ryan Key’s second EP release since closing the chapter on Yellowcard, and while listeners are only getting short bursts of Key’s new direction, the position of seeing an artist search for his sound in real time is a privileged one.

Once the electricity has been unplugged and that old acoustic guitar is put front and center, it’s easy to expect mellowed-out versions of the pop punk style the artist has already established rather than seeing a new trails blazed. Thirteen, Key’s first EP released earlier this year, saw a more indie vibe.

Songs like “Form and Figure” felt like a Death Cab B-side, while “Old Friends” touched on familiar Yellowcard fare. Overall, Thirteen was an exciting first snapshot, but Virtue monumentally moves the ball forward both sonically and lyrically. Key’s vocals straddle a beautiful line between stark naked vulnerability and confident storytelling.

“Mortar and Stone,” along with the title track, may be the best Key has ever penned, inching closer to the world of Pitchfork rather than the stages of Warped Tour, the latter track being the most musically ambitious and expansive we’ve heard from either release.

This is a no-distractions,-lay-on-the-floor-with-headphones-on-kind of record. Heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once, Virtue can only be described as a graceful attempt at artistic spontaneity that ultimately leads to greatness.

Purchase the album here.  

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