Since first hearing The Upsides some five years ago, in an old friends bedroom, The Wonder Years have always been a constant in my musical life, each of their records an anchor to a particular period of time, realigning with each new release. The bands second record was for the angst-riddled teenager I was back then, hating his hometown, and then Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing was the motivation to move on, to do something. It made me want to be the change, and I started reading Bukowski and Ginsberg like vocalist Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell was doing in hope of gaining some sort of perspective. That record inspired some progress, and then its follow-up, 2013’s The Greatest Generation was for the almost-adult making that push for something better, to grow up properly instead of waiting on the peripherals. What I’m getting at in a clumsy fashion is that The Wonder Years’ records are important to me, I changed as they did, and now in 2015 I’m 21 and I think we’re all where we want to be, at a place where the band can release their best record to date, and where I can appreciate it in a way I wouldn’t have been able to back in that bedroom in 2010. I’ve grown up, but maybe not as much as The Wonder Years have.
I’ve written that opening paragraph five different times now, and each time I’ve managed to make it shorter and shorter, because when I sat down to write this review it was easier for me to talk about why The Wonder Years matter more than it was to cover why No Closer To Heaven matters. I needed to go through those aforementioned processes of maturing, and so did the band musically speaking, because those stages, that trilogy (completely and rightly disregarding Get Stoked On It!), were necessary in order to get here now. If The Greatest Generation was the sound of a band finding their feet then its follow-up finds those feet planted firmly and ready to start a new chapter in a separate series. In a way, their fifth finds the Philadelphia natives beginning again with fresh ambition and desire, but what it loses in pursuit of this new direction it makes up for by offering more in its place. No-one in the scene is as good as The Wonder Years are on this record; no-one else is capable of doing so much across thirteen tracks. From the opening seconds of Brothers & to the final guitar strum of the title track it’s all marvelously full-blooded and ambitious, bigger and bolder than anything preceding it. No Closer To Heaven hits harder, it sounds more accomplished, and it seems to stand head and shoulders above anything the genre has seen in recent years. I think it says a fair amount about how highly I value this record that I’m finding writing this second paragraph as difficult as the first, because I still can’t find the words, even though I’ve already tried to write them before as well.
I’m sure that Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell could teach me a few things about dealing with writers block. He’s always been a musician constantly trying to better himself, and he continues to do so here. ‘Cardinal crashed into my window, I think he might die / I’ll plan him a funeral, I’ll read his last rites / Cause I know what he saw in that reflection of light on the glass was a better life’ read the first lines he sings on No Closer To Heaven, and they set the tone, as well as highlight Campbell’s change, immediately bleaker and more poetic than the opening lines of say The Upsides or The Greatest Generation. In a way they’re also more affecting, not as quotable as ‘I’m not sad anymore, I’m just tired of this place‘ but deeper, more profound, and they kick-start a lyrical drive within Campbell, who takes on more serious, and ultimately more compelling topics. Each is covered however, with trademark Wonder Years’ life and energy, sometimes substituting hooks for heart, yet always leaving their mark. The macabre and morbid opening minute of A Song For Patsy Cline is juxtaposed by a sublime and shining chorus which takes its time to arrive; a welcome example of a more daring approach to the bands songwriting, the track given space to breath. Others are occasionally expansive, knowing when to rise and when to fall without losing their impact, less direct and more dramatic almost. You In January begins soft, acapella almost, and when its chorus flares it’s one of the catchiest things the band have released without necessarily being heavy or anthemic; it flows and flickers, charming in its coupled escapism, following verses where Campbell describes the little things, and then puts them to large effect.
This lyrical attention to detail featured in Campbell’s writing as Aaron West, making things real and effective, and it’s good to hear them carry over, especially considering West’s roaring twenties were lived in the hope of making Campbell a better lyricist and songwriter. That mission seems accomplished, because The Wonder Years’ fifth record is their most personal, their most reflective, their most confident, and it’s also their most well-written, with Campbell laying himself bare and then covering subjects you gather he wouldn’t have wanted to touch on past material with earnest thought. See Stained Glass Ceilings, which dwells on drugs and shootings (‘John Wayne with a God complex tells me to buy a gun / like shooting a teenage kid is gonna solve any problems’) or Cigarettes & Saints, which painfully and poignantly mourns a loved one (I’ll bury your memories in the garden / And watch them grow with the flowers in spring / I’ll keep you with me‘). Both carry shades of Aaron West, particularly during the delicate opening minute of the latter, and if he wasn’t already then Campbell is the genres best lyricist, bordering on poetic at times and constantly pouring his all into his lines. His knack for crafting a narrative also carries over from the conceptual We Don’t Have Each Other, and the recurring motifs (cardinals, Hemingway, forehead scars, cut palms) littered throughout No Closer To Heaven make it feel streamlined and cohesive, a singular body of work which flows and references well. It’s a sign of the bands intent to be at their most creative, as are the more experimental moments, the choir backed opener or the crooning Sunday morning opening to upbeat and bouncing A Song For Ernest Hemingway. The Wonder Years want to go above and beyond, that’s clear – they want to push expectations of the genre, and they do with reverence, transcending limitations and showing just how full a pop-punk record can be, how much it can do and how much it can say. It’s optimistic in light of its themes (on thundering Palm Reader Campbell yells ‘I’m gonna stand up straight / I’m gonna clear my throat and speak out unafraid), with shout along choruses aplenty, but there’s more to it, the depth of The Greatest Generation expanded on with tact and thought, making for an album which is appealing on several fronts, with enough to please old fans but also enough to entice those who’d written off The Wonder Years as another addition to a genre they weren’t particularly interested in at the time.
No Closer To Heaven does a lot of things right, and at times it’s easy to overlook the other aspects of its composition. Campbell’s pioneering performance is paired with instrumentals that benefit from whatever new-found freedom the band have discovered, and things sound positive; drummer Mike Kennedy is inventive while guitarists Matt Brasch, Casey Cavaliere, Josh Martin and Nick Steinborn sound comfortable with whatever tone they tackle, adding plenty of nice touches throughout, be in in the melody of You In January or in the records heavier moments, where The Wonder Years let loose their frustrations in new territory. No Closer To Heaven certainly has a few aggressive moments, which see the quintet stepping outside the vibe of past records, particularly on Stained Glass Ceilings, the albums heaviest track lyrically and sonically. It sees Campbell launch an attack on his home-nation, and it seems fitting therefore that Jason Aalon Butler of letlive. features towards the end, delivering a typically venomous and exceptional vocal tirade, asking ‘With everyone built the same then how come buildings so fucking hard for you?’ as The Wonder Years crash and pummel around him. It’s the albums strongest / messiest peak, absolutely huge, changing the dynamic and impressing moreso than other tracks. It stands out following the more traditionally pop-punk Thanks For The Ride, which is thick and infectious as Campbell pushes his vocals over cruising instrumentals, bringing character Hannah to life alongside the likes of Madelyn and Jess, with whom he woke up older. It’s a solid track, but it’s also safer, and these tamer tracks tend to be the less noteworthy, namely The Bluest Things On Earth, passing by amidst more memorable selections. They serve to highlight that The Wonder Years are onto something with the songs that feel fresher, although they don’t do a whole lot wrong when they double back on past stylings. I Don’t Like Who I Was Then could’ve slotted nicely on Suburbia… and it captures exactly what I loved about the band five years ago but gives it present context, rousing and relatable.
No Closer To Heaven comes so close to perfection that its few minor issues are more frustrating than they are genuinely problematic. I had to look for them, to convince myself this wasn’t quite flawless, and it isn’t. At times, the mix is slightly off; vocals sometimes get lost and instrumentals grow choppy at times. Stained Glass Ceilings runs the risk of throwing too much in at once, but isn’t necessarily hindered as a result. However, any issues I had with the production disappeared once I’d adjusted the EQ settings on my computer and fiddled with my headphone amplifier, but for those without these liberties the album may sound slightly underwhelming at times. Elsewhere some bridges draw out a little too long, and also, after the huge finish that I Just Want To Sell Out My Funeral packed on The Greatest Generation, the closing title track may leave audiences wanting more. It’s an unpolished acoustic track which wraps things up nicely with some optimism stating ‘the future’s looking bright’ before Campbell closes proceedings with the ethos ‘I’ll keep walking anyway / I’m no closer to Heaven”, but it isn’t the grand finale I expected or really wanted.
Tiny issues aside, No Closer To Heaven will – and deservedly should – go down as one of those landmark, game changing records, those which immediately sound timeless and remain so (Dookie, Sticks & Stones etc). Pop-punk, (if it’s fair to class The Wonder Years under that moniker still), needed a record like this, something others can aspire to beat, something definitive to revive it as it was perhaps beginning to grow weary. I know a lot of people already saw The Upsides that way, I know that I did, but No Closer To Heaven is bigger, better, newer. The Greatest Generation and Chicago were so two years ago (not sure why that reference matters), and No Closer To Heaven is where the genres at in 2015, where it needs to be. This is a truly remarkable record from a band who are constantly improving. It’ll likely go down as one of the year’s best, if not the best, and there’s only so many ways I can try to sell it as such. In the end, Campbell said it pretty well in a recent interview with Upset Magazine: “We’re really confident that this is inarguably and unequivocally our best record. There’s not even a shadow of doubt in my mind that’d lead me to think otherwise. I know we put everything we had into it. I know it’s our best record yet and I know that’s all we can do. We’ve made a really, really great record,” He’s spot on,The Wonder Years have outdone themselves, and that alone should make this worth listening to.
Listen to: A Song For Ernest Hemingway / Stained Glass Ceiling / Palm Reader
FFO: Fireworks, Polar Bear Club, Have Mercy
Original draft 1: I didn’t expect the band to beat The Greatest Generation, and when I first heard that record I remember thinking that this was how I’d wanted the band to sound, and that I wanted things to stay that way. They haven’t, and I’m glad. It’s partly because I grew, as The Wonder Years grew, across those three records, spanning ———- to ——, years which saw me start them as a angsty teenager looking for a foothold, something to relate to in a town he felt lost and alone in. Come —– I was twenty, and I thought I had things worked out, like The Wonder Years had things worked out, all grown up and ready to take the next step. If The Upsides was the record for my disenfranchised youth then No Closer To Heaven is the record for the stable adult who doesn’t necessarily want to forget the struggle which saw him mature. I’ve matured, as The Wonder Years have, which each year that’s passed, and I realise now that the band have soundtracked a lot of that evolution, and even if, in 2015, they aren’t the band I found back then, they’re the band I want right now. I listen to The Upsides and feel nostalgic, but I listen to No Closer To Heaven and I feel, I feel like I’m in the right place, at the right time, right now. That likely sounds very strange, but sometimes records are more than just records, they’re anchors, and at each point in their discography The Wonder Years have given me an anchor. This time around they’ve given me their best, and I’m trying to give them my best in return, but struggling to find their words. No Closer To Heaven is important; it is now, it will be in fifty years, and it’ll go down in history alongside the likes of Dookie, Sticks & Stones, —— whilst sounding like each of those records’ older brother, who’s been through some shit and has something to say about it. Maybe The Upsides was already there, I suppose it was for me, but The Wonder Years have put together something remarkable, their masterpiece, which is more than just sad songs about hometowns and bar bands, it’s about life, and it’s told in striking fashion with overflowing heart and craft, with something none of those releases offered. Listening to, I’m not sure there’s been a band at the level The Wonder Years are at now, and that’s likely why No Closer To Heaven establishes them as heads and shoulders above.
Original Draft 2: I got back from work this morning some several hours ago, I sat down in front of my computer, and I tried to write a review of No Closer To Heaven, the fifth LP from Philadelphia natives The Wonder Years. I tried, I tried harder to write a review than I’ve ever needed to for this site, and I struggled, because how can you review a record when you can’t find the words to describe it. So I gave up, and instead I took to thinking about something other than words on a screen about lines in a song. I went for a walk, talk my headphones, and I tried to think about what The Wonder Years mean to me as a band, as a band who’ve released some of my favourite records, and I realised that since I first listened to The Upsides they’ve just sort of always been there, regardless of where I was or what I was doing. Because the records The Wonder Years have released have been, at least for me, anchors, they’ve been chapters of my life as much as they’d been chapters in the band’s trilogy. I remember the first time I heard The Upsides; it was in a friends bedroom after I’d got back from school one day, back when I was an angsty teenager who lived in a crappy town and wanted more from himself but didn’t know how to go about getting it, or even if he had the motivation to do so. I was the kind of kid The Upsides was made for, knowingly or unknowingly, and I loved it like I loved Sticks & Stones or Dookie, because it was something I should. I remember first hearing Suburbia… in —– on holiday, when I was starting to find my feet, waking up to the life ahead of me and trying to feel optimistic about it. It made me want to read Bukowski novels and find a purpose, it made me want to come out swinging in whatever kind of way a teenager who doesn’t always feel like a teenager can. I heard The Greatest Generation just after I’d started this blog, and I decided not to review because I felt like doing so might spoil what it ended up meaning to me. The Greatest Generation was where pop-punk became more than what I thought it originally was, it transcended the idea I had of the genre and in doing so it probably made The Wonder Years my favourite band, a band who could read literature and implement it, or form a narrative which I found to be as compelling as those in my most beloved novels. It was a record I wanted to read and learn about in a way that I’d never really found in music.