Review Summary: The follow up that the greatest generation deserved
It’s no easy task to follow the success of a critically acclaimed album. It’s even harder following a fan favorite. Add to this the fact that many see The Greatest Generation (TGG) as a genre defining album and it becomes clear that The Wonder Years had a Herculean task ahead of them with No Closer To Heaven. I am pleased to say that they rose to the challenge, producing an album that lives up to its predecessor. No Closer To Heaven hits the ever-elusive sweet spot for a follow up record, being different enough to keep listeners interested whilst retaining all the things that make The Wonder Years what they are and what their fans love. Whilst admittedly not improving upon TGG, No Closer To Heaven is still a cracking album and the follow up that the greatest generation deserved.
Vocalist Dan “Soupy” Campbell is once more the star of the show, despite not doing all that much differently from TGG. Each song feels as personal as a diary entry whilst being open enough for the listener to relate and share in Campbell’s experiences. The subject matter retains the maturity discovered in TGG, never straying into excessive self-pity that occasionally hindered the band’s earlier releases. Campbell continues to preach the “sometimes life sucks, but we wont let it drag us down” mantra and explores the familiar topics of depression, religion, the loss of loved ones and his continuous struggle to better himself. He also pleasantly breaks new ground, delving into areas such as child abuse, the state of society and, most surprisingly, love, something that could have easily fallen flat if it hadn’t been delivered as sincerely as in You In January. The lyrics shift between an almost “The Hotelier” standard of poetry and the blunt and literal honesty we’ve come to expect from Campbell, demonstrated in I Wanted So Badly To Be Brave and Stained Glass Ceilings. All of this is delivered with an astounding mix of yells and whimpers conveying a rich spectrum of emotion that never feels put on or forced. The only real criticism I have of the vocals is not of Campbell’s but of Jason Butlers’s guest vocals in Stained Glass Ceilings, which seem a little jarring and out of place, even if dripping with emotion. Thus, whilst Campbell’s performance doesn’t excel past anything on TGG it reaches the same heights and remains the thing that keeps me coming back to TWYs.
Thankfully the rest of the band doesn’t let Campbell’s talent go to waste, all members delivering top-notch performances. The Wonder Years brand of Pop Punk returns, although slightly more solemnly and at a slower pace than their previous efforts. This leads to an album that lacks the continuous energy and epic feel championed in TGG, which, I’ll admit, was initially disappointing. However, after a few listens this turns out to be a welcome change, resulting in a better-paced experience and leading to some of the most delicate and well-crafted songs of their career. Cigarettes & Saints builds from quiet beginnings to a goose-bump inducing conclusion, creating an experience on par with The Devil In My Bloodstream, whilst the brilliant closer, No Closer To Heaven, demonstrates a subtly in song crafting that I didn’t know the band possessed. However don’t let this fool you into thinking the guys have forgotten how to write the catchy belters that they’re known for. I Don’t Like Who I Was Back Then and The Bluest Things On Earth are great examples, full of pounding drums, upbeat guitar and choruses that you can help but sing/yell along with. What is most impressive is the bands ability to consistently and seamlessly mesh the two, producing simultaneously catchy and delicate songs throughout the album such as Brothers & Cardinals and A Song For Ernest Hemmingway. If I was to nit pick, and I shall, I would say that Palm Reader comes somewhat close to being filler in an otherwise filler-less album. Also, whilst the album generally feels well produced this does falter at times, most notably in A Song For Ernest Hemmingway. In the end though these complaints are no more than minor gripes, outnumbered by the successes of an otherwise brilliant album.
Ultimately nothing revolutionary is going on in No Closer To Heaven; it’s no game changer for the genre or the band. Thus, some will surly argue that No Closer To Heaven is an underwhelming affair. However, this would be unfair. Whilst I agree that No Closer To Heaven doesn’t replicate the step up between Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing and The Greatest Generation, this would be asking far too much. Instead it simply matches the high standard of its predecessor, resulting in a moving and charming record full to the brim with the catchy hooks and raw emotion that we expect from The Wonder Years with a few tweaks to keep things interesting. Thus I can comfortably say that once more The Wonder Years have come out swinging and knocked it out of the park.