For Fans Of
The last time I reviewed a record from The Wonder Years was three years ago for their 2015 LP, ‘No Closer To Heaven‘. At the time, I scored their fifth album very highly – 90/100 – as I thought it was a truly great record. Not just by the standards of pop-punk/alternative/emo but also by the strong precedent that the American band had laid down on their past releases, namely 2011’s youthful and earnest ‘Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing‘ and 2013’s still impeccable standout ‘The Greatest Generation‘. However, now looking back on ‘No Closer To Heaven‘, I just simply don’t like that record as much as 20-year-old me did back when he first wrote about it.
Other than the touching nature of ‘Cigarettes & Saints‘, the gut-punch of ‘Cardinals, and the sublime yet pained failings of the American Dream detailed on ‘Stained Glass Ceilings‘, that previous record is fine at best – it’s not all that memorable now and it doesn’t hold up as well as some of their other records do for me personally. Honestly, just chalk my initial gushing love for it up to me being possibly swept up in “new album ecstasy” and in me being a shittier writer back in 2015 than I am currently in 2018. And no, I’m not linking that old review in here as we’re all better off not reading it, quite frankly.
[Note: I’m also not going to edit that review to fit my current opinion either, as the “me” that reviewed ‘No Closer To Heaven’ was a different Alex and he had his own thoughts at that particular point in time. To change them now would be some revisionist history type shit and I’m not about that].
Yet while listening to The Wonder Years‘ latest body of work, ‘Sister Cities‘, I’ve come to realise what the cosmic difference between this record and its predecessor is. With ‘No Closer To Heaven‘, whenever I’d finish listening to it, I’d be content and while enjoying the experience overall, I never felt compelled to jump right back into it. Whereas with ‘Sister Cities‘, I just cannot stop thinking about this amazing album, both when I’m listening to it and when my ears are parted from it. Every time I go through this new opus, I need to dive right back into it from start to finish immediately after the record ends, grab a hold of all of its various strings and unravel it all over again. Because it’s just that fucking good and because it leaves me speechless like very few records can.
This accomplished sixth record is on a staggering new level for Philadelphia’s best musical outfit. (Well, the best Philly band excluding these guys, of course). Nothing here is by accident nor is any element lacking in care or effort – every verse and every chorus has been meticulously crafted and the record flows together beautifully so. Every bassline from Josh Martin, every single one of Mike Kennedy’s drum hits, every chord and riff from guitarists Casey Cavaliere, Matt Brasch and Nick Steinborn, and every single lyric and every vocal take from Dan “Soupy” Campbell fit together and sound exactly as they should be here. This is the most cohesive record of The Wonder Years‘ entire catalogue. This is the kind of musical, spiritual and emotional feat they’ve been seemingly building towards this entire decade. Hell, perhaps even for their whole career! One of those “born to make” type of releases ‘Sister Cities‘ most certainly is for The Wonder Years.
One thing you’ll notice is that similar to their fifth LP, ‘Sister Cities‘ carries over the same approach to livelier recordings and a warmer, thicker production style that’s wholly authentic, as well as The Wonder Years sonically maturing away from the sweaty basement pop-punk sound that they first became so well-loved for. The closest to thing pop-punk that ‘Sister Cities‘ gets to is the emotional Saudade of ‘Heaven’s Gate (Sab & Sober)‘, the sense of impermanence heard in the louder and denser choruses of ‘The Ghosts Of Right Now‘ (written about watching a loved one battle cancer knowing they’ll be gone soon), and the brisker pace, faster rhythms and romantic yet punk-like reverie of ‘The Orange Grove‘, but even then it’s not quite the same. This is something larger in scope, something deeper in tone and something far more atmospheric in sonic character than all that’s come before it in the band’s much-lauded discography, whilst also retaining their solid high standard of immense lyrical honesty, chest-opening emotion and lavish songwriting talents.
If anything, The Wonder Years shedding off their faster, busier and angsty pop-punk skin in place of more expansive alternative sounds has done wonders (sorry not sorry) for their music and how these songs blossom in whole new ways. For these aren’t the young early-20-somethings who wrote laughably bad and cringey easycore such as ‘Get Stoked On It!‘ nor are they the same guys who made upbeat-meets-whiny pop-punk tunes a la ‘The Upsides‘. Instead, this album is six men that once wrote about the joys and pains of growing up now being all grown up, who have families of their own, who have loved and lost, and who are still figuring things out in their lives. And it’s just as endearing as it ever was, if not more so. Sure, I myself very much loved the band’s pop-punk records but I’m so glad that they’re maturing away from their past in both a natural and effective manner.
This is pop-punk growing up but in the best possible way.
Much of what makes this record work as both an emotional journey and as a listening experience is how it’s all cinched together with the memories the six-piece made on the road over the last couple years. Just as Soupy talks of constant air-travel in the second verse of ‘We Look Like Lightning‘: “And the beacon out there on the wing/It lights the clouds from inside out/And from the ground we look like lightning“, The Wonder Years spent a lot of time travelling and touring during the ‘No Closer To Heaven‘ album cycle. (After all, right behind the dog on the front cover, it says “home away”). Other than just getting older every second of every minute of every hour of every day as we all so tragically do, the band saw so much of the globe during this heavy touring schedule; from both the old and the familiar to the new and the unmarked. Yet what’s key to this stunning 11-track record is the fact that they heavily documented their worldly travels in journals, photos, videos, poems and so forth, giving them plenty of referential material when it came time to pull all of this album’s puzzle pieces together.
Hence why this album is lyrically packed full of easter eggs and references to both common and not-so-famous geographical landmarks many will have seen in-person and just as many will never see in the flesh. Whether it’s Oregon’s tallest volcanic peak The South Sister (‘The Ghosts Of Right Now‘) or Arizona’s Desert Treasures Citrus and Dates Grove in the States (‘The Orange Grove‘); the historic Montmartre district of North Paris, France to the local sights of Palmer Street in Philly where Soupy lives (‘It Must Get Lonely‘); the flooded streets and ancient prayer sites of Japanese cities (‘Raining In Kyoto‘); sitting under the watchful eyes of The Andes while touring in South America (‘Sister Cities‘) to even hanging out on an off-day one hour or so outside of Sydney while on tour here in Australia (‘When The Blue Finally Came‘). So please believe me when I say that this new record is just so universal but also so relatable on an intrinsic level that you just don’t see these days, as it explodes with the kind of personal sonder many artists aim for in their music and lyrics yet seldom reach.
Then again, The Wonder Years definitely aren’t like most other bands – they’re better.
As part of the promotion for ‘Sister Cities‘, Soupy said in a statement that. “It’s a record about distance, or maybe about how little the distance matters anymore. It’s a record about how big we thought it all was and how much closer to everyone we really are“, adding that “It’s a record about connecting people.”
Normally, I’d just label that as a frontman talking some wankey bollocks about their new album because his band has a new release coming out and they need to promote it. But in the case of Soupy and The Wonder Years, it’s a genuine and accurate self-assessment of their latest LP’s theme and lyrical content. Just as Soupy sings in the chorus of the glorious title track, “I’m laying low/A stray dog in the street/You took me home/We’re sister cities“, there is real love and compassion to be found everywhere; the kind that your friends and family offer back home as well as the kind that distant but nonetheless loving music communities offer you and your touring band when you’re on the other side of the planet.
Now, back in 1996, a hilariously mad yellow evil genius stated that you “can’t argue with the little things, it’s the little things that make up life.” And it’s the little things and tiny details here that further help make this sixth Wonder Years record stand out as being so goddamn important, so engrossing, and so rewarding too.
It’s the vivid imagery of Japan that’s summoned up in powerful album opener ‘Raining In Kyoto‘ that’s paired with Soupy’s heart-wrenching and voice-breaking delivery about his recently passed-over grandfather back in America while he’s on tour and how he wished the best for his Pa in the man’s final days. (The second chorus of “You’re half awake/And I bought you a radio to play the blues away/With my hand to hold, you asked about the weather, wish they’d let you die at home” hit me harder than you could ever know). It’s how the band bring in some electronics early on with these triggered drum machine samples early on and then weave in beautifully lush guitar chord voicings on the air-travel bible of ‘We Look Like Lightning‘ – easily one of the group’s best song in years. It’s how chilling and how post-rocky the intro of ‘Pyramids Of Salt‘ sounds, as feelings of hopelessness in trying to helping someone swim against the tides of mental illness washes over even harder. It’s the key lyrical metaphor of lonely rowhomes in Europe during the catchy ‘It Must Get Lonely‘ and how we all know people that are “islands”; individuals who will never properly let anyone in closer. It’s even how the scientific idea in ‘Heaven’s Gate (Sad & Sober)‘ of there being no such thing as “cold” – merely the absence of heat – is used to deal with grief and how the pain from someone’s death is far greater than the isolation that loss results in: “I’ve been thinking a lot about/When the furnace goes/It’s the absence of heat that hurts more than the cold.”
It’s how those gorgeous, ambient-like guitar chords and soft kick drums in the equally heavenly and haunting ‘When The Blue Finally Comes‘ underpin Soupy’s fond memory of jumping off cliffs into lake waters outside of Sydney as a focal point for facing his fear of heights; an anxious encapsulation about how he fears for himself and his bandmates at the best of times. It’s how the frontman uses a Chekov’s Gun writing trope in ‘The Ghosts Of Right Now‘ – “You were the rifle on the wall/And it was always going to end” – to realise that there’s no stopping the fate that’s coming for both himself and those he loves after the fact. It’s little things like how despite the album’s unabashed love song about the vocalist marrying his longtime girlfriend being called ‘Flowers Where Your Face Should Be‘ – “I’m gonna marry you underneath driftwood from Crescent City” – Soupy never actually says the word “flowers”. Instead, he specifically mentions hydrangeas and azaleas, both of which carry a deeper meaning for him and this record: hydrangeas are a popular introduced species originating from Japan (there’s the ‘Raining In Kyoto‘ connection) and were used at his wedding, whereas azaleas – which are often red in colour, contrasting the usual warm blue shade of hydrangeas – are commonly found in Asia, Europe and North America where the band toured heavily on their last album cycle. All of which adds even further to the LP’s “everywhere-at-once” vibe.
And it’s how the lengthy, snow-balling closer of ‘The Ocean Grew Hands To Hold Me‘ is not only the instrumental from that ‘Sister Cities‘ announcement trailer that was teased back in February, but it’s how this grand finale ties up all of the flowing metaphors and humanly real stories of this record’s narrative in a neat little bow for one hell of a climactic send-off. One that finds closure and strength in the words offered about this release’s recurring motif of oceans and how the world’s oceans connect us all together like bridges; like we’re all sister cities to one another in some way.
‘Sister Cities’ is a ridiculously consistent album whose track listing are pins placed across the same map, all pulled together by the red binding string of the band’s unrivalled honesty and heart, Soupy’s unmatched poetic lyricism, as well as the best compositions The Wonder Years have ever created. Honest-to-god, this is one of The Wonder Years’ greatest records yet; a career pinnacle and something very special indeed.
- Raining In Kyoto
- Pyramids Of Salt
- It Must Get Lonely
- Sister Cities
- Flowers Where Your Face Should Be
- Heaven’s Gate (Sad & Sober)
- We Look Like Lightning
- The Ghosts Of Right Now
- When The Blue Finally Came
- The Orange Grove
- The Ocean Grew Hands To Hold Me
‘Sister Cities’ is out now via Hopeless Records – please listen to it.