In a way, it feels like William Ryan Key knows his solo career didn’t get off to the best of starts. Thirteen felt incredibly anaemic, especially for a debut release, lacking so much of the spark of his former work in Yellowcard and the potentially interesting or evocative storytelling that’s become so typical in the bandleader-turned-troubadour mould. And yet, the fact that Virtue arrives just a matter of months after its predecessor feels rather encouraging, almost as an attempt to cauterise the wounds caused by previous mediocrity and continue on a stronger foot, something that the much-improved lead singles have provided some fairly concise evidence for.

That seems to be largely the case for this whole EP too, as Virtue is not so much moving in a different direction to Key’s previous outing, but repurposing what was brought to the table there for something with a far more distinct style. That namely comes from a greater embrace of the more atmospheric, layered side of indie-folk, something that sees Mortar And Stone pick up some gorgeous shimmering pianos and synths to feel more languid and complete, or the title track explode into its alt-rock crescendo drawing on bands like Daughter and even Mumford & Sons at their most inflated and arena-ready. The ideas laid down on the table last time really feel like they’ve been fleshed out to a greater degree this time, keeping the delicacy and soft, warm production but injecting in some much-needed character with an instrumental canvas that’s a lot less barren and hesitant. It’s not always the case as the awkward vocal manipulation that runs rampant through No More, No Less would attest, but on the whole, Virtue is moving in a much more positive direction.

As for Key himself as a presence here, he’s not quite able to keep up with everything else the whole way. The quiet, understated tone in his voice is definitely solid, as is the retention of the lyrical personality on tracks like The Bowery that come both from his last EP and so much of Yellowcard’s work, but there’s something about how drastically the creative vision of this EP has expanded that Key’s own output doesn’t quite scan with in the same way. Admittedly that does feel like a harsh criticism, particularly when there’s not a lot drastically wrong with it, but the two elements of this sound don’t quite click to the extent that they could, as that can cause Virtue to waver just a bit more than would be preferable.

But again, that’s a relatively small complaint in what’s undoubtedly a massive improvement from Key. The sonic overhaul has done a world of good for both his output and his identity as a solo artist, and though Virtue hasn’t totally reached a point where that’s totally solidified, it’s clear that Key’s solo career is moving forward at a rate to suggest that shouldn’t be long incoming. And even so, considering how greatly underwhelming its predecessor was, Virtue is exactly what was needed to get back on track on its own.

7/10

For fans of: This Wild Life, Mumford & Sons, Dashboard Confessional
Words by Luke Nuttall

‘Virtue’ by William Ryan Key is out now on Lone Tree Recordings.

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