The Wonder Years broke me for 44 minutes and I didn't mind one bit.
Pop-punk has been in a weird place. Out of the 90s and into the early-2000s, the kings of the genre Blink-182 and Green Day ruled the roost, with bands like Sum 41 and Fall Out Boy breaking through under the tutelage of the founding fathers. But over time the genre has been ridiculed, often seen as juvenile and immature, so much so that the branded “scene” kids can often be heard crying “Defend pop-punk!”, whilst eating pizza, lamenting their hometown and talking about how much their friends mean to them.
It’s an odd genre that can easily be criticised. But this is where the new kings, The Wonder Years, come in. A band who undoubtedly mature with each album, and, arguably, improve with each one (don’t @ me), the Philly natives have taken the genre to a new level. In 2011’s Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing, the band released the genre’s definitive work, working beyond anything anyone expected. With 2013’s The Greatest Generation, the band conquered the genre, putting a cap on their monumental achievements up to that point. They could have called it quits with an undeniable legacy to their name and no one would’ve complained. But no, they continued and delivered arguably their magnum opus No Closer to Heaven in 2015, releasing a number of their best tracks in the process,including what is for my money the rock song of the decade in ‘Cigarettes and Saints’.
It’s a tough career to build on, but the band are never one to rest on their laurels, and it is this rest-free approach that brings us to album number six: Sister Cities. This is The Wonder Years at their most retrospective and mature, a learned band enlightening their music and attempting to connect deeper with the listener than ever before. Suffice to say, Sister Cities is the stuff of pure wonderment.
Few bands could pull off an opening salvo of ‘Raining in Kyoto’ and ‘Pyramids of Salt’, the band here flexing their instrumental muscles, the combined guitar power of Matt Brasch, Casey Cavaliere and Nick Steinborn making their music sound more gargantuan than ever before on the former. The latter sees singer Dan “Soupy” Campbell utilise his phenomenal range and delivery as he cries “I drew a line in the sand with these worthless fucking hands”, I defy you to keep your jaw from hitting the floor.
‘It Must Get Lonely’ is quintessential Wonder Years; a rhythmic and punchy rock piece, packing their undeniable power as Soupy refers to himself saying “I’m a raw nerve in the sunlight/After two weeks in the dark”. The rest of the song capturing the band’s world journey, the lyrics referencing Ireland, Spain, England and France, but Campbell keeps it close to home as he refers to “a suit that’s been to too many funerals”. The Wonder Years have never been afraid to shy away from death and grief, Campbell’s past seeping in again here. But fear not for bassist Josh Martin and drummer Mike Kennedy, the duo sustain the title track in all of its irresistible glory as it explodes into one of the album’s strongest hooks. The universal connection sought by the band on Sister Cities shines through on ‘Flowers Where Your Face Should Be’. Here, Soupy talks of a sad couple sat by the road, expressing the familiarity of the scene to his own experience back home, only for the song to transition into, of all things, a declaration of undying love.
Sister Cities connects the seemingly unconnected and closes the distance in the way only The Wonder Years could. This theme continues on the progressive and unique ‘We Look Like Lightning’, part soft, slow burner, part groovier experimental piece, part explosive catharsis, all riveting and enthralling. ‘The Ghosts of Right Now’ is a pounding cry into the face of uncertainty, as a loved lies on the brink of death, already a ghost, the aggressive instrumentals perfectly reflecting the frustration of the lyrics as they thrash away. The story moves away from the personal and onto the empathetic in ‘The Orange Grove’, the story of a desolate town, inhabited by an individual struggling to stay afloat, their story running parallel with soaring guitars in what is a powerful track.
But Sister Cities refuses to play it small as ‘The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me’ closes proceedings. A confessed all-time favourite from Soupy, as well as the apparent culmination of all the band have sought to achieve, it’s a six minute-plus epic. Campbell delivers one of his more powerful religious allusions to date, saying “I said that I would start believing/If they made you well again/Guess they knew it was bullshit/Never hold up my end”, the common call to God that, if you give me this, i’ll give you everything, only for existence to fail the answerless beggar once again. But Campbell takes refuge in the world, “When I was in shambles/When I got too weak/The ocean grew hands to hold me”, the theme of Sister Cities at its pinnacle: we are all connected in some way or another, whether we know it or not.
There is beauty to be found, in the artificial and the natural, and on Sister Cities, The Wonder Years bring everything together into a beautiful 11 song collection. Grab the kleenex, sit back and let the best band on the planet take you on a journey for 44 minutes.
Sister Cities is out now via Hopeless Records