by will sexton (@willshesleeps)
Raw emotion and wearing your heart on your sleeve in music can be very much a make or break for some bands. You can miss the mark slightly or, in The Wonder Years’ case, you can execute it expertly and continue to impress with hard-hitting, gorgeous lyricism that will never get old. One of the most impressive and consistently evolving pop-punk/alternative rock bands in recent times returns with their sixth album Sister Cities, an album whose opening riffs and drums sends goosebumps down your spine straight off the bat. Strap yourself in for a whirlwind tour of the past couple years of frontman and singer Dan Campbell’s life.
The album as a whole is very much based on travel, the effects of touring and being away from friends and family for a prolonged amount of time. Campbell himself even states that this album was “a record about distance, or maybe how little the distance matters anymore. It’s a record about how big we all thought it all was, and how much closer to everyone we really are.” The writing process included Campbell keeping a journal throughout their 2015 world tour and circling the most important and stand-out moments, which eventually became the songs you hear today.
Business gets underway on an incredibly strong note with the heart-wrenching Raining in Kyoto, a song written about Campbell’s late grandfather who sadly passed away while they were on tour; a song subject that, even on paper, is heartbreaking. The lyrics are something that you can never mention enough when it comes to The Wonder Years because the band have perfected this transparent songwriting when you can really feel and can almost see the emotion on Campbell’s face while recording the vocals. What makes this song so evocative is that this subject of ‘being away on tour while someone important to you is hurting/ill’ has been approached as a fear of Campbell’s already in the song Dismantling Summer from their 2013 album The Greatest Generation, which only adds to the sorrow. It’s this transparency that really ranks this band highly in the scene they’re in. It’s relatable to some and everyone who hears Campbell singing at the VERY least feels empathy.
On the other side of evoking emotion, Flowers Where Your Face Should Be (Considered You In January [Part 2] from their 2015 album No Closer To Heaven) is about Campbell’s now-wife and about preparing for their wedding day. It was influenced by seeing some blue Hydrangeas on tour, resulting in the most impressively affecting writing he has ever done. Aided by some incredibly soft instrumentation, it builds up to be one of the most romantic pieces of work they have put out. It’s a nice emotion shift from the other heavier songs. Some of the lyrics are nostalgic and sad, creating a lovely contradiction within the song itself, finally building up into that last line sung mostly in gorgeous falsetto: “I’m gonna marry you underneath driftwood from Crescent City”, a link to the arch that Campbell built himself for his own wedding. Having light and dark sides is very important for albums of this timbre.
The instrumentation is mostly the same compared to their older albums; however, there have been some defining genre changing moments, further solidifying their sound into alt-rock. These changes include some spacey electronic bass on the intro to their (not-technically official) second single Pyramids of Salt, which adds an element of eeriness. It could do with a little perfection, though – it’s pretty much a one-off throughout the record, so it feels like it sticks out a bit. That being said, on Flower Where Your Face Should Be they’ve utilised some different guitar pedals that haven’t featured much previously, which is refreshing to hear.
Two tracks that dictate a shift in subject matter are When the Blue Finally Came and We Look Like Lightning. When the Blue Finally Came is written about a moment on tour when the band went cliff diving in Sydney, Australia. It’s such a simple subject matter but somehow becomes a breath of fresh air in the album, while the instrumental relief relaxes you. In comparison to this ode to the exciting rush and celebration of life, We Look Like Lightning is written about the fears of death while flying in planes. The Wonder Years as a band flew on up to 40 flights around the world supporting their last album cycle in one year, so Campbell writes about the increasing chance of the plane crashing and “what song you’d wanna die to”. Still very much connected to the overall theme of traveling and touring these two juxtaposing song subjects add to the overall space that this album was born in.
Very specific highlights of this album also include the chords changes and vocal performance in the chorus of The Ghosts of Right Now, a song which is interpreted as being about wanting to spend time with the people you’re no longer able to, whether it be because of them passing or just not being around. The “wanting to see how the light collects in the high desert heat” is so specific and evoking. The second highlight is the connection of the soft and spacious When the Blue Finally Came to The Orange Grove. The transition is so seamless; like the calm before the storm. While WTBFC celebrates the feeling of enjoying somewhere new and exciting, The Orange Grove is the feeling of yearning for places you know and wanting to be back in time with the people you used to be around. The third and final of these highlights is the chorus of Sister Cities, the massive title track and lead single of the album. It is the song that will be screamed back at the band in live performances and the raw power from the vocals is another home run for The Wonder Years.
Every song on this album deserves its spotlight, which is the most powerful thing about this album. The Wonder Years have been on some serious journeys over the last two years and Campbell is able to take you on those journeys with them so easily through his incredible lyricism and storytelling. The absolute pinnacle of the album comes in the form of the end track The Ocean Grew Hands To Hold Me. You’ve been on this adventure with the band and finally pull up to the last, incredibly emotional track which explores the idea that all of the people you have ever met and made a connection with are an ‘ocean’; an ocean that you wish you could drown yourself in when you feel cut off and far away from home. After the final slamming of drums and aggressive strumming of guitars, you feel complete empathy. An excellent piece of work. Congratulations, boys.