I hated the prick on the album cover at first glance – this guy wore a shirt similar to what I was wearing and smiled awkwardly as though attempting to apologize for a fight I’d personally had with him. The cardboard sign reading “The Upsides” taunted me for how miserable I felt. I stood seething in a Hot Topic, looking down at this album sitting alone in a grim selection of CDs and salty rubber wrist bands. I bought it just to spite him.
It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
It’s hard to believe that The Wonder Years weren’t a part of my life, much less one of the leading voices of pop punk in January 2010. I’d listened to their debut album Get Stoked On It! a year before and had been very “eh” towards it. I popped the CD into my car hoping for mediocre punk rock to distract me for forty-five minutes from how utterly miserable I felt every day. Instead, I didn’t even get out of the parking lot before the opening line sent a stopped me literally in my tracks, cliché as that may be.
The first and last sentence uttered on the record is one of the most genuine punk rock ideas in all of music; “I’m not sad anymore”. It’s simple, elegant and such a sheer war cry to fight back against whatever may be burdening your life. Everything on the album revolves around this idea.
The linear notes state that the original concept when the record was being written was to write about the depression the band felt and the suffocation of feeling down and out in your early twenties, something that most people experience. However, the way that it often happens, it’s something small that usually reminds you that this type of angst just isn’t that bad and it will eventually get better; in this case, the fountain in Philly’s Logan Circle being turned on.
“I’m not sad anymore” changed the pop punk genre as a whole. Other bands in the scene more or less wrote about the same punk issues (lost the girl, attempt to win the girl, depression and drugs), or had begun inspirational easycore (Set Your Goals, Four Year Strong), but the attitude was still that the music needed to be rowdy enough to break some beer bottles. The Upsides based itself in loud pop punk that allowed itself to ease and flow as the lyrical content needed, something that gave the lyrics the energy to be fight back against the world and soften enough to have translatable meaning.
The Upsides is a story about understanding and overcoming when you feel out of place in the world around you. College angst, the paralyzing loneliness as your closest friends move away or settle into their lives, the upheaval of relationships and trying to remember what home felt like. Songs like “This Party Sucks” and “It’s never Sunny In South Philadelphia” base themselves in depression, especially with lyrics like, “We stopped standing proud a year ago now / What you see is just a shell of who I used to be / I can’t believe I got this weak”. However, the context of this type of darkness is just a back story that helps lead to finding your bottom and pulling yourself up.
The connection that this album made to listeners is that it felt real. The term gets thrown around with a lot of music these days, but it’s a concept that has come to be one of the staples to TWY’s music, and this was the first time it had started to bud from them. The lyrics read like a novel in the way that it mentioned ‘characters’ (Dave and Spiro), everyday experiences like “talking shit in diners” and “sitting on the roof with Matt and Molly”. Tangible locations like Logan Circle, or inside jokes (“the Blue Man Group won’t cure depression”) became a focal point to ground the story. These concepts, in their simplicity alone, are based on real memories and interactions that everyone has had.
The Upsides is a therapeutic concept album for sure, until you realize that it’s really not meant to be. It’s just an album written by some guys who aren’t trying to be more than just that – friends trying to get a band off the ground while maintaining their sanity. Vocalist Dan Campbell wasn’t the best singer at this stage of his career, and further away from how good he would become than might be comfortable. He’s loud and often times off-key, but it only makes him sound more genuine.
As if that weren’t enough, the music is incredible. The chord progressions and riffs are unique in that you can tell how much they’d learned about writing music since the release of Get Stoked On It!, but were just beginning to harness the energy and talent for the writing of Suburbia I’ve Given You All and The Greatest Generation. While pop seemed to overpower the punk side of it, the songs were ravenously loud behind such words of encouragement instead of shouted rebellion.
The closer, “All My Friends Are In Bar Bands” is savagely simple, but one of the most profound songs the band has written. After nearly an hour to singing about trying to stave off depression and fight back against a world that wants to take you down, the final piece just wonders aloud what all of their friends are doing at home and runs down a list of names. During one verse, Campbell sings a line that hit me as a universal truth to start on the road to overcoming sadness: “I’ve spent twenty-two years just wading through bullshit, and hey, it’s worked so far / I don’t know why I’m here but I know who my friends are”.
The Upsides isn’t the best Wonder Years album. Its imperfect in many ways and even somewhat sloppy in execution, but it’s a genuine rebellion against giving up that nothing else can even come close to. They’ve grown exponentially as a band since its release, but everything since then (Suburbia I’ve Given You All and The Greatest Generation) has stemmed directly from this, written as a retrospective trilogy and references to the songs from this album spread throughout. The Upsides was the exact album needed for the beginning of a new decade that started in the slumps.
by Kyle Schultz
Kyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and has seen Wonder Years almost every time they’ve been near the city for the last few years. He is an obsessive maniac who hasn’t been able to go a week without listening to one of their albums since The Upsides reinspired his love for music half a decade ago.