Originally published in The Declaration, October 2015
“We’re no saviors if we can’t save our brothers.” These are the first words heard on “No Closer to Heaven,” the fifth studio album by pop-punk band The Wonder Years. It rises up from the instrumental introduction track, “Brothers &,” which is a truly beautiful piece—and not beautiful in the conventional pop-punk sense of beautifully cathartic noise, but genuinely lovely in a way that yields none of its teeth.
It drops out into “Cardinals,” the first proper song of the album, which sinks those teeth in deep. It starts with lead vocalist Dan Campbell planning the funeral of a bird that crashed into his window over a drums and guitar that swell into an enormous wall of crashing, ringing remorse. He turns his attention to another subject. “I know the devil you’ve been fighting with / I swear I’ll never let you down again,” he sings to them, and a chorus of voices comes in behind him again: “We’re no saviors if we can’t save our brothers.”
And that’s when I knew I was in for an emotional ride.
It’s hard to write about the Wonder Years without going back to the beginning; their work is bound by continuity, as if each record is a new layer of paint over the last, through which certain elements remain visible. The guitar riff from “My Last Semester” on their second album, “The Upsides,” is echoed in “Came out Swinging,” from their third album, “Suburbia”. “Came out Swinging” is used as a lyrical callback on “The Bastards, the Vultures, The Wolves” on their fourth, “The Greatest Generation”. There’s a sense of thematic growth and evolution in this.
“Suburbia: I’ve Given You All, and Now I’m Nothing” was the first album of theirs that caught my attention. Lyrically, it was a literate approach to the pop-punk rhetoric of getting out of this town. The beat poet references were heavy-handed, and flirted with pretension, saved by the remarkable energy and melody of the music. One surprising standout moment was the track “I’ve Given You All,” a poignant acoustic tribute to a “Vietnam vet who got beaten to death / in memorial park under one of the benches.” What the album lacked in subtlety it made up for in sincerity, and this is a theme of the group’s career.
“The Greatest Generation” was another step forward in maturity and composition. It’s thematic center was “The Devil in my Bloodstream,” a pensive piano ballad which halfway through explodes into a passionate, plugged-in plea for strength in facing the death of a loved one—not exactly typical pop-punk fare.
The album also featured some of the most moving vocals ever committed to record, in my opinion. The adrenaline-boosted track “Passing Through a Screen Door” is full of them. It’s a song about being too afraid to settle down because things could go horribly wrong, and it culminates in an outburst of a bridge in which Campbell sings “Jesus Christ, I’m 26 / all the people I graduated with / all have kids, all have wives / all have people who care if they come home at night / well, Jesus Christ, did I fuck up?” Cards on the table: I’m 20 years old, and in an extremely stable place in my life. But the conviction in his voice shakes me to the core. There is real fear, and audible trembling.
On “No Closer to Heaven”, Campbell said in an interview with Fuse, the band was aiming to “push out from every direction. It’s a little bit softer, it’s a little bit louder, it’s a little bit faster, it’s a little bit slower. It moves out every way.” In almost all of these goals, the group is successful. Manipulation of dynamic contrast has always been one of their strengths; quiet moments make the noise all the more powerful, as “Cardinals” shows off.
“Stained Glass Ceilings” is a track that goes harder than anything the group has put out so far, aided by the screamed guest vocals of Jason Aalon Butler from post-hardcore band Letlive. “You in January,” on the other hand, opens softly and sweetly with solo vocals over keyboard, and ends in kind. There is a clean, sentimental guitar riff that weaves through it. It may be Campbell’s most straightforward love song ever, and without a doubt his most secure, standing up to tracks on past albums like “Don’t Let Me Cave in” or “There, There”.
“I’m measuring heartbeats in miles away / you held me together, I used to burst and decay / we got off the airplane, a couple of runways / I’m glad that you stayed,” he sings. Despite its often dark tone, it is an extremely hopeful album, shown in “January” as well as “I Don’t Like Who I Was Then,” a song in the more typical Wonder Years style. They have always been a band that looked for the silver linings (their second album, “The Upsides,” is devoted to it) and it’s encouraging to see that optimism stick around.
The only way it hasn’t expanded is in the sort of fun you hope to have with a pop-punk record, and even a Wonder Years record. It doesn’t even really feel right to call their current style pop-punk. “Suburbia” had tracks like “Summers in PA”, a good old-fashioned jam about making bad decisions with your friends on a summer weeknight. Even “The Greatest Generation” was on average up-tempo and bright enough to keep its serious lyrical themes from being a complete bummer.
“No Closer to Heaven” is at times too plodding and heavy, and when it’s over, it’s like being hit with a ton of bricks. There’s no real outlet to even things out. The closest thing is the title track, an acoustic post-script that closes the album. Campbell sings “I may never reach the gates / I’ll keep walking anyway / I’m no closer to heaven.” The album feels like another step forward, and a confident one, in spite of it all.