Review Summary: What strikes me most is the symmetry
It’s only fitting that the Wonder Years would write an album about experience, about those little moments that appear insignificant but retrospectively mean much more to us than we ever thought they would. Sister Cities is the brainchild of years of diligent journals and tour note-taking whilst The Wonder Years embarked upon tour after tour. The result is arguably their most cohesive album to date and also probably their biggest departure from their signature “sound”, but an album that also downplays the importance of distance and reassures us all that we’re much more united than we think we are, despite our physical proximity. For me, this endeavor started long before Sister Cities, as a band I’ve seen four times across four different cities, from San Diego to Los Angeles to Salt Lake and finally in London. I longed to be home again along with The Wonder Years every day for six months in the Abu Dhabi Desert with “Hostels and Brothels”, felt the pressure of growing up but not progressing as fast as my peers in “Passing Through a Screen Door”, reminisced about spending lengthy afternoons with friends doing nothing in “Summers in PA”, and finally mourned along with Soupy and co. after the loss of a loved one in “Cigarettes and Saints”. Not to get too fanboy here but suffice it to say, The Wonder Years have always had a unifying and reassuring presence in my life.
The Wonder Years have consistently made a name for themselves by creating bigger and better choruses with each and every album. This is where Sister Cities departs from the winning formula, although I’d argue it doesn’t detract from the greatness of any particular song or the album as a whole. Furthermore, there are still your typical soaring choruses in songs such as “Raining in Kyoto” and “The Ghost of Right Now”, The Wonder Years mix the best of the old and the new by combining slower poetic songwriting with monumental choruses on “We Look like Lightning” and “Pyramids of Salt”, the former seeing an explosion of a bridge from The Wonder Years that sees Soupy screaming his lungs out, which we can only compare to No Closer to Heaven’s guest vocal spot on “Stained Glass Ceiling”.
Undoubtedly, Sister Cities will meet with its fair share of critics who can’t reconcile this Wonder Years with the band that they grew to love, and the nostalgic and honest lyrics that have come to personify them. However, one needn’t look far to find remnants of the band they used to love, with Soupy belting his trademark brutally honest lyrics as he copes with the passing of someone he loves in “Raining in Kyoto” :
“It’s been over a year now, April turns into May
I’m too much of a coward to even visit your grave”
Or even in the consistently beautiful imagery that The Wonder Years have succeeded in creating ever since The Upsides
“The entire coast is out of water, it’s turning different shades of
grey, like it’s somebody you love as they slowly fade away”
As always, the heart and soul of Sister Cities is Dan “Soupy” Campbell, who showcases his range more than ever. Soupy’s songwriting and vocal delivery allow him to be just as convincing in a ballad framed around a couple he witnessed on the side of the road, or aggressively screaming his lungs out. This record sees Soupy utilizing and manipulating tempo more than ever before, and doing so with relative ease. While “The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me” isn’t the most cohesive album closer to date, I’m looking at you “I Just want to Sell Out My Funeral”, it’s arguably the most ambitious and best musical composition the band has ever written.
The days of singing about “***ty dudes with tribal tattoos”, slaying orange juice with the boys, bar bands, and “moshercising” are long gone. However, where recent Wonder Years records have lacked in fun, they more than compensate for in maturity and ambition. The trait of any great album is its ability to take its listener on a journey, to weather the same ups and downs, to feel truly connected through music. Sister Cities accomplishes this ten-fold, establishing space as a human construct by which we are only as disconnected as we choose to feel. Clearly this was the Wonder Years’s intention in creating Sister Cities, what remains truly unclear is if they are unaware that’s what they have always done, since the date of their conception. One cannot escape the irony of a band creating an album of little moments when they’ve always been there for the big moments, where each listen constitutes a moment in itself, a profound journey, an unspoken promise between band and audience that for the small price of 45 minutes, we share the ability and opportunity for mutual experience and growth. As usual, Wonder Years, thanks for the ride.