The Wonder Years’ growing up trilogy was an ode to the confusion, the non-stop shifting and the understanding of transition. The college-bound angst of The Upsides and the utter blank of what comes after it, the hometown love buried beneath broken promise and premature nostalgia of Suburbia: I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing and concluding in the sprawling existential blueprint The Greatest Generation, looking out from within the self to try and work out where we really stand in this world and what exactly we’re supposed to do with that. It’s a legacy that’s set a milestone for music in the 21st century, a document of grounded truth that will influence both the musical and literary worlds.
No Closer To Heaven is a new chapter, more than a new idea, because clichés aren’t to be found here. Described by frontman and lyricist Dan “Soupy” Campbell as “the start of a new house on the same street”, Campbell takes every lesson learned from every song before this and re-examines what those lessons meant to tackle issues that have been subtle driving forces up to this point, ghostly guarded memories finally having the spotlight put on them. The intimate details and connections are all still there but this time the contexts are those of wider issues, sometimes in the very same stories.
The pop-punk pace that has coloured the band’s music to this point is not so prevalent now but, like Campbell’s words, new pastures bloom into older shades and vice-versa. NCTH owes more to Brand New’s Deja Entendu and The Early November’s The Room’s Too Cold rather than The Starting Line’s Say It Like You Mean It or Saves The Day’s Through Being Cool, pushing out that bit further, sometimes a little faster, sometimes a little more spacious. The Wonder Years wouldn’t be The Wonder Years without all six members, they work and write phenomenally well as a band and, as such, the Beach Boys elements of A Song for Earnest Hemingway blend into the near post-rock expanses of Stained Glass Ceilings with ease. The Bluest Things On Earth hits like a song from Taking Back Sunday’s classic Where You Want To Be, The Get Up Kids and Counting Crows can be heard in the breezy atmosphere of You In January and the soaring crescendos of Palm Reader are pure Brand New. Interestingly, this is the first Wonder Years album not to feature the gruffer vocals of bassist Josh Martin and keyboardist/guitarist Nick Steinborn, and instead guitarist Matt Brasch applies new vocal techniques to compliment Campbell’s equally progressing voice. This is a new place for The Wonder Years, for sure, but it’s every bit as good and every bit as enveloping.
Campbell, an English major, allows the ghosts of Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Bukowski and more to haunt the corners of this album, muses to navigate the difficult stories, issues and ideas found inside. I Wanted So Badly To Be Brave paints his relationship with a friend who faced domestic abuse in vivid detail, turning a blood brother pact, “I cut open my palm and held it out to you”, into his friend being “tossed room from room” and pleading “don’t take me home”, the same home that Campbell loved, missed and hated all at once on Suburbia. Thanks For The Ride imagines a future for a friend of Campbell’s who passed away from a coma, “I heard you got married to a boy from California”, even though they “lose touch after college came and went”, the “shoulder to lean on” maybe that Campbell once begged for on The Upsides‘ My Last Semester, now feeling distant and lost.
None of this is truer on centre-pieces Cigarettes & Saints and Stained Glass Ceilings, two songs that cut lashing wind on deep wounds. Saints is a crushing document of the emotions following the death of close friend to the entire band Mike Pelone. Confessions like Campbell, a well-documented atheist, still lighting Mike “a candle in every cathedral across Europe” and admitting “I’m sure there ain’t a Heaven, that doesn’t mean I don’t like to picture you there, I bet you’re bumming cigarettes off saints” despite his beliefs, are enough to stir any listener, fan or not.
Ceilings, featuring guest vocals from Letlive’s Jason Butler (the world’s other most exciting band, for the record), returns to Campbell’s bike being stolen on old cut An Elegy For Baby Blue but the bittersweet humour and memories of that song are replaced by a troubled discussion of broken ethics, where the only advice the police gave him was to arm himself against any further teenage assailants. Tragically, the same chain of events led to the murder of a teenage student from one of Campbell’s after-school classes, at which he works while not on tour. Now a “reminder of how fucked this world can be”, “the kid who pulled the trigger knew too well the world couldn’t offer him hope”, Campbell’s desperation to make a “difference” appearing dim in the shadow of the event and the power the gun trade holds. Butler coming straight in from the same side, “I have everything in front of me but can’t reach far enough to touch those fever dreams they call America”, despairing that “three-fifths a man” still “makes half of me” rallying against the idea that a vote from African-American heritage only accounts for said fraction of a white vote – the same ideal that these gun laws were established upon.
It’s a vision of a broken world where two vital voices come together to try and shine some kind of light, a glimmer, anything. As the closing title-track explains, “in a world that I can’t fix with a hammer in my grip…the glow of the city…I may never reach the gates, I’ll keep walking anyway, I’m no closer to Heaven”, we improve by progression in moment not by reaching an end goal. As Campbell so brilliantly put it at the end of The Greatest Generation: “I just want to know that I did all I could with what I was given” – two years on, through the dark, his message stands tall and permanent.
Philly’s greatest treasure, The Wonder Years go beyond merely being a band, they tackle and discuss issues that exclude nothing, treating the troubles that affect you and you alone as importantly as those that affect everyone.
In small writing on the back of this album are four words: “make a positive impact”. This is my generation and this is my gospel.
WORDS: WILL CROSS
To find out more about The Wonder Years and for concert dates, visit: thewonderyearsband.com