There’s a real danger with going acoustic, since the artist’s songwriting ability and personality is laid open and bare for the listener. There’s no hiding behind distortion, synth lines, or (in very rare cases) a violin melody. Studio sheen can only polish an acoustic turd so much. However, unlike the recent glut of punk and rock artists going acoustic, William Ryan Key does not have any issues with musical nakedness. Much like how his former band, Yellowcard, were a constantly shapeshifting and powerful collective, Key’s songwriting prowess is evident from the onset. His keen understanding of that elemental emotional connection with the listener is still there, even if Thirteen doesn’t exactly contain anything quite like “Way Away” or “Southern Air”. That’s the point, though: that this new chapter in Key’s life is similar but different. Songs like “Form and Figure” and “Thirty Days” are every bit as charismatic and hauntingly melodic as any of Yellowcard’s more pensive numbers.
What we have is a record that explores Key’s life over the past five years (2018 minus 5 equals 2013; math is fun), and how his choices and experiences have affected himself and those around him. It’s a retrospective look at how the past affects the present, but it’s in the majestic closer “Great Unknown” where Key most bluntly reckons with how time impacts everyone differently; all we can affect is our decision to keep wandering on our own. In many ways, Thirteen feels like the musical equivalent of meeting an old friend after years apart. They’re a little bit different – and so are you – but what you loved about them is still there, even if it presents in ways unexpected. That closer has the most Yellowcard-like hook of the bunch, and while the mood of the record is decidedly pensive, the songs aren’t necessarily downers.
Just like how Key has finally taken his given first name (which is why it feels odd to write “William”), there’s the sense that the lessons he learned over the years will carry into making the next chapter of his musical life just as vibrant and powerful as they were in the past. However, with Thirteen, it’s clear that Key is a bit more comfortable and content with looking inward. This is an impressive collection of quaint and personal ditties that have all the power we should have expected from something with the name William Ryan Key attached to them. It’s just nice to see growing up doesn’t mean we have to grow apart.
There’s a careful balance between being open and honest and coming across too artistic.