Review Summary: ...after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
When I first heard The Greatest Generation
shortly after its release in 2013, I thought it was half-great. The songs I liked sounded monumental and gigantic, and I found myself skipping everything else to get to them. I then did the same thing with No Closer to Heaven
two years later. It wasn’t until late last year that I really started to come around to these records, and before I knew it, I couldn’t stop listening to this band that had seemed average to me for so long. I hadn't realized how sad “Cul-De-Sac” is the first time I heard it. I must have ignored the desperation in “A Song for Patsy Cline”. Those songs are a part of me now, and I can only wish that I had loved them sooner. It seemed like it happened quickly, but I think I was slowly realizing over that five-year period that while the Wonder Years have always pushed their sound with each album they’ve released, the importance of their music has never really been sonic. They are great songwriters and musicians, for sure, but the bottom line has always been the evolution of a feeling
– what I would call grief, I suppose – and how that feeling manifests itself in words and sounds, a little different every time as they gradually learn to come to grips with it. I now have trouble imagining life without this music that has given me so much.
In a preview video, the band said that their career has been building to Sister Cities
. It is hard not to believe them. Dan Campbell has described No Closer to Heaven
as a half step forward instead of a whole step, but I think that a smaller step was necessary before a full stride could be taken. No Closer to Heaven
had its innovations but there were moments where it seemed as if the vestiges of an older sound were asserting themselves where they didn’t quite fit. Specifically, some of the gang vocals sounded crudely grafted-on rather than organic, as in “A Song for Ernest Hemingway,” where one of the best lines in the second verse is marred by gang vocals that come out of nowhere. Sister Cities
has a dearth of gang vocals and it is better for it. Also missing are the band’s trademark backing vocals from Matt Brasch, who is only heard singing in harmony with Campbell instead of singing his own sections like he did on previous records. While he delivered some of the best lines on both The Greatest Generation
and No Closer to Heaven
, the renewed emphasis on Campbell’s ever-stronger singing (including a large portion of the background vocals) does a world of good for Sister Cities
For this album, Campbell has delivered a personal, singular vision for his bandmates to complement. Campbell, who almost never writes Wonder Years songs about romantic relationships, only references his wedding in relation to the tragedy of a lost friend or the isolation of touring. Loss is pervasive, the phantom pain ever-present. For a record whose songs take place mostly in foreign countries, home looms specter-like over each of them as something that grows more real the farther one travels away from it. Explosions of reds, oranges, and blues burst into life through the grey days and white salt-piles of Sister Cities
. Flowers, which for Campbell have always represented remembrance and acceptance of pain, bloom alongside votive candles whose flames flicker in the damp breeze. Closing your eyes as you listen will transport you to Kyoto and Costa Rica, Texas and Chile. The theme of the album is connectivity – through grief, heartache, love, death – and perhaps connection is sometimes as simple as drifting away in your own mind.
Themes and lyrics aside, the record is simply full of great songs. “Raining in Kyoto” thrums like an elevated pulse before opening into a huge chorus. What stands out immediately is the lengthy bridge wherein Campbell does not sing at all. These musical interludes are more common on Sister Cities
than they have been on previous records. When the full band comes back in for the final chorus, it hits that much harder because of the musical buildup. “Sister Cities” grooves, “Pyramids of Salt” hits like breakers on jagged rocks, “We Look Like Lightning” and “The Ghosts of Right Now” turn aching into aggression. But two quieter tracks stand out above the rest. “Flowers Where Your Face Should Be” is my favorite song on the album, featuring a gorgeous vocal performance from Campbell as well as the restrained musical proficiency that the band showed on Burst & Decay
. It is a song about how the human heart does not recognize man-made borders and is not deterred by the span of oceans, about how the breadth and depth of our feelings tether us together in ways of which we are often unaware.
And “When the Blue Finally Came” seems at first like a companion piece to “The Orange Grove”, and it is, but it is also much more. It is a meditation about how love often walks hand in hand with fear, and about how all-encompassing that fear can be when one half of your love goes away unexpectedly. Then the drums of “The Orange Grove” kick in. As a penultimate song, it succeeds in its brevity where “Palm Reader” did not, even though it is only 30 seconds shorter. The song is anthemic but does not overstay its welcome; it is content to let the final song do the heavy lifting to close the record. “The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me” is jaw-dropping, a climactic song that is nevertheless restrained, leaving expanses of space for most of its duration until the last beautiful minute fills them in, transforming a landscape of divided space into a whole. It is a song that washes slates clean.
is another entry in the secular gospel of the Wonder Years discography. With each new group of songs every few years, they write more and more about how to remember, how to deal with pain, how to find connection, how to live. How to give all until you can’t, and then give even more. This sort of thing isn’t for everyone, I guess. There are apparently still people who pine for the Upsides
days, who have declined to grow with a band that has made every attempt to evolve with each album. And for new fans, an album like this may be too intensely serious to connect with. But there is so much here. And the most exciting thing is that there is still room to grow and push, to explore new facets of grief and fear and pain in the hope that some day there will also be peace. Your individual mileage may vary when you listen. The Wonder Years may not mean to you what they mean to me. But I would urge you to take the ride, and to sing it loud.