Review Summary: For a band that released an album called The Upsides this sure is a downer.
There isn't really a good place to start talking about this album. I suppose about the band, The Wonder Years are a sextet from Pennsylvania and No Closer To Heaven is the follow up to 2013's critically acclaimed The Greatest Generation. But you probably already knew all that. The thing is that No Closer To Heaven is so densely packed with emotion, so dripping with sadness, regret, longing, and beauty that I'm physically and emotionally drained. It's like going through a near death experience and then trying to describe what happened right after it's over. Your mind is racing, jumbled, doesn't know up from down. But we'll give it a try.
Dan “Soupy” Campbell is no stranger to depression. He has talked about having it for most of his life, and it's this that took over when attempting to write TGG's follow up. After living with it and going through writers block for months he simply wrote about what he was feeling, and its this raw look at a mind verging on suicidal thoughts and working through it that makes No Closer To Heaven so emotionally investing. In part it's a memorial for lost friend Mike Pelone, but more than that it's about regretting past mistakes and being angry at the twisted world that made all of this possible. It starts right away with opener Brothers & introducing one of the big mantras of the album in it's lyrics, “We're no saviors if we don't save our brothers.” Dan's lyrics truly shine when covering such personal topics with this record containing some of the best he's ever written. A Song for Ernest Hemingway is a great example with a chorus that will surely be added to their pantheon of fan favorites, "I'll be your dead bird/you'll be my bloodhound/You're just doing what you're told/Pick my body off the ground." Another highlight is You In January, an out and out love song, "When you tell me you love me/I can actually see it/Your breath frozen in the air/Newborn droplets of ice/You were the one thing I got right." It actually isn't that much of a stretch to call No Closer to Heaven a concept album, it goes beyond just having similar themes in all the songs and tells a story. A story of depression and it's roots, of working through those and getting to a place of content. It's no The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus in scope or story, but I guess not much is.
The growth of this band, however, isn't limited to the front man. The music here truly shines as the pinnacle of The Wonder Years' achievements. It's astounding how a band can simultaneously retreat from the Pop Punk sound of their past and also completely revel in Pop Punk tropes. The choruses are huge and soaring, so singable it hurts. The songs are short, sweet, and to the point. And yet they take these basics and elevate them to greater and greater heights. From vocal harmonies akin to the Beach Boys in A Song For Ernest Hemingway to the increased keyboard presence adding to the atmosphere of most tracks, the band has literally expanded their horizons in every respect. Here in the songwriting however lies the album's only real hindrance as there is, for lack of a better word, just filler from time to time. Both The Bluest Things on Earth and I Wanted So Badly to be Brave are very much bland and, while each has moments that stand out, you will find yourself forgetting that these songs are on the album in repeat listens. One of the keys to the rest of the album's success is the use of dynamics. A bad word in most punk dictionaries, this gives each song emotion that just wouldn't be possible if it was a constant loud assault on the ears. Cigarettes and Saints is a great example of this but the best usage is in Stained Glass Ceilings. The song starts out small and soft, featuring clean guitar and Nick Steinborn laying down the most beautiful keyboard on the record, and builds through a huge crescendo into the screams of guest vocalist Jason Aalon Butler (letlive.) alongside Soupy lamenting how we are stuck in, “***ing John Wayne's ***ing God Complex.”
If you remember one thing about TWY's previous album it is the brilliant closer I Just Want To Sell Out My Funeral. The song not only was it's own summation of the entire record's themes but also featured a medley of all the high points strung into one giant anthem for Generation Y. So a reasonable question would be, “Does this album close in the same huge, bombastic style?” The short answer is no, No Closer To Heaven doesn't need that, it would feel tacked on and repeated. No this album needs exactly what it has, a short acoustic song that isn't exactly joyful but more bittersweet. Here we see an endpoint of sorts in Soupy's journey, seeing that life isn't really about being happy, it's about being ok with not knowing the future and still working towards it. “We never reach the gates/I'll keep walking anyway/Im no closer to heaven.” In the end this sad album closes with the same theme that the band has always been preaching. “It's not about forcing happiness, it's about not letting sadness win.”