The Wonder Years’ latest album, Sister Cities, finds them with a sound built from their pop-punk beginnings, but they’ve pushed beyond it to compliment their lyrics with unlikely, more rock-like choices that began in 2015’s No Closer to Heaven.
These songs, many taking place in foreign countries, focus on how space both distances and connects us in terms of love and loss. The album as a whole is less stable than their previous records, less sure of where it belongs.
I was struck by “Flowers Where Your Face Should Be,” a song that ends on a 45 second lyric-less outro, a stark contrast to the jam-packed lyrics of even their most recent album. In that time, we are meant to–or at least I did–reflect on the things that unite us across language and borders.
The last song, “The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me,” has an intro over one minute and stays soft for nearly all of the song, allowing space for the listener.
In nearly every song, TWY stray away from screamed choruses in favor of a more contemplative tone.
“I think we’ve been marching towards this since the beginning of the band.” – Dan Campbell
- Raining in Kyoto
A fast, even bass line pumps through the verses of this heartbroken opener. The choruses are slow as we visit the last few memories Campbell has with his grandfather. Unlike other TWY songs about loss, there’s no relief from the grief, no higher purpose.
“It’s been over a year now, / April turns into May. / I barely stopped moving, / I’ve been so fucking afraid / too much of a coward to even visit your grave.”
2. Pyramids of Salt
Thought child of “Cul-de-sac” and “Cardinals” Campbell’s careful, almost shaky voice over a quiet synth details a resignation. It builds to a relatively muted chorus that it ultimately ends on, with the addition of something not quite a plea and not quite a command: “don’t wash me away again.”
“We’re so vacant, / these bodies / collapsing / so gracefully. / And I love you, / and I’m sorry, / and I understand if you blame me.”
3. It Must Get Lonely
Again abroad, this time in Ireland, Campbell’s back contemplating loneliness and being “the one who stays” when others only leave behind tombstones for you to visit. The almost timid tone of the song pushes up to a scream for the first time when Cambell screams “It must get obvious enough that I’m the one who stays” and “it must get lonely” before quieting back down to another fade-out.
4. Sister Cities
So far, this song is the closest to TWY older sound–think “Passing Through a Screen Door”–with more prominent guitars and the chanting of “I wanna turn to steam / I wanna call it off / I wanna lighten the dark / I wanna swallow the sun”
“I’m guarded like I’m wounded, my first instinct’s always ‘run’”
5. Flowers Where Your Face Should Be
Cambell’s commented on how this album is about connectivity–here is the first time that comes under a spotlight.
Another pseudo-acoustic song, TWY appears to be again addressing grief (of his grandfather, perhaps), but this time the song turns to who I can only assume is Campbell’s now-wife (of “You in January” fame) and the Northern Californian driftwood he got married under in New Jersey. He connects his love to the couple crying on the street that reminded him of his grief and the tenderness of a couple sleeping under a highway bridge.
“The sadness that pooled in my heart / starts emptying slowly”
6. Heaven Gate (Sad & Sober)
From the beginning, the song feels in conflict with itself. The vocals switch from chorused vocals over a crowd of guitars to almost incomprehensible lyrics over clashing drums to a suddenly soft, pleading voice. Unfortunately, this song got lost among similar songs in both this album and “No Closer to Heaven.”
“It was always going to end like this”
7. We Look Like Lightening
In the midst of a possible plane wreck, our narrator is addressing his mortality and wondering what song he wants to die to. The tight, two line choruses are contrasted by a heavy bridge and the combination feels like a storm coming on.
“One day the things you love are gonna put you in the ground / (but I’m planning on running til I can’t anymore)”
8. The Ghosts of Right Now
At this point, he’s anxious even about future grief: not seeing a peak and watching someone waste away. This was a surprisingly heavy song, with lots of drums and electric guitars.
“I wanna bring you back to the water, turn your branches evergreen. I wanna take you someplace safer / I wanna leave”
9. When the Blue Finally Came
This ethereal, echoey tune is the shortest track-it’s a pretty good transition song, but doesn’t stand out too much on its own.
“I’m afraid, but I’ll follow you anyway / when the blue finally came, it swallowed up everything”
10. The Orange Grove
At the penultimate song, we’re finally given the big chorused vocal-driven chorus we know so well from TWY’s past work. This time, it has a bridge like many of the songs on this album: quiet vocals over a guitar asking “did you carry the weight alone?”
“There, at the edge of losing everything, taking desperate swings in the dark”
11. The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me
This was the song I was most looking forward to listening to, given 10 minute album closers in the past. It doesn’t mirror “I Just Wanna Sell Out My Funeral” or “No Closer to Heaven” directly, but it does a great job addressing the themes of the album and coming to a conclusion: “I’m gonna guard what’s left of the good in us” and “I miss everyone at once / but most of all, I miss the ocean”
“I’ve been running for a decade now, and I think I’m ready to go, oh, I’m ready to go”
Review by Anna “Ohio” Huffman