Pop punk is an inherently self-centered genre. Historically, the music has immersed itself in the most banal of subject matter, sometimes ironically, but most often earnestly. This sort of self-absorption is welcome in small doses, but as the years pass, it’s proper to yearn for something more.
The Wonder Years have served as the flagship band for a new, much more existentially reflective brand of pop punk that has risen to popularity in recent years. Their three-album arc of The Upsides (2010), Suburbia, I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing (2011) and The Greatest Generation (2013) told the story of coming to terms with self in early adulthood and finding one’s place in a world of confusion.
Those themes struck a chord with a substantial audience that shared in the experience, giving way to a new community of pop punk faithful. Nevertheless, ideas of hazy-eyed post-suburban reflection still live within a sheltered bubble that offers a convenient protection from greater trials and injustices that plague the world around us. Maybe that journey was necessary for us all to arrive at this point alongside the band.
No Closer to Heaven is the most challenging and important work that The Wonder Years have created. Yes, the band expands another step further in their progression towards gritty pop punk bliss, but the real story here is the band’s decision to turn away from the mirror and set their eyes upon the world around them.
The band’s sobering collective opening refrain of “We’re no saviors if we can’t save our brothers” sets the tone for a completely new path. Indeed, not only does the idea permeate the entirety of the record, the line itself is repeated at moments throughout. Who are our brothers? Vocalist Dan “Soupy” Campbell spins his personal experiences into nebulous stories that could apply to almost anyone, but at their most basic level, these are accounts of the fellow humans around us.
In surprising fashion, Campbell tackles subjects like class, violence and the need for social reform with as much grace as ever. These songs never feel disingenuous – instead it feels like a logical transition for someone ready to acknowledge the pain around them. On “I Don’t Like Who I Was Then”, Campbell belts a chorus of resolve, singing, “I think I’m growing into someone you could trust / I want to shoulder the weight until my back breaks / I want to run until my lungs give up”.
On a few tracks, Campbell becomes reflective on larger issues after pondering simple events – the death of a bird on “Cardinals” or a lift from a friend on “Thanks for the Ride”. At other times, he goes straight for the jugular without apology. No song captures this better than “Stained Glass Ceilings”, a powerful track with Jason Butler of letlive. about the societal evils that keep cycles of racial hate and violence alive.
“John Wayne with a god complex tells me to buy a gun / Like shooting a teenage kid is gonna solve any problems”, Campbell seethes before Butler adds, “It’s black or white and sometimes black and blue / It’s something we’re all born into”. These moments are a far cry from the confines of suburban existential crisis that have been the hallmark of The Wonder Years’ career. On “I Wanted So Badly to be Brave”, Campbell declares solidarity with a victimized friend: “You weren’t born my brother, but you’re gonna die that way”.
For all of the band’s newly focused determination, no song captures it as well as “Cigarettes & Saints”, a painful lament about a friend lost to drugs. By the time the song builds to it’s manic conclusion, capped with Soupy’s cry of, “We put our faith in you – you turned a profit”, the track has become much more than a critique of the pharmaceutical companies that play a role in such tragedies. It’s a raging anthem against corrupt systems of all kinds.
From a strictly sonic standpoint, No Closer to Heaven has The Wonder Years’ signature all over it, with a few new tricks thrown in for good measure. An ample soundtrack to the record’s theme, the band adds subtle touches to round out the songs. Delicate keyboards on “You in January” highlight a blissful track, while the sharp opening riff on “Palm Reader” adds an extra edge to the song.
There aren’t “fast songs” and “slow songs” on No Closer to Heaven as much is there is a constant movement, with each tempo change highlighting the song’s purpose. The Greatest Generation was chock full of instantly classic melodies that walked hand-in-hand with the weighty subject matter. The melodies on this record aren’t as instantly obvious, but with each listen, the notes make more and more sense within the context of the song. This is the sound of a maturing band.
On “A Song for Ernest Hemmingway”, Campbell contemplates the author’s experience of reading of his own death in the morning newspaper, singing, “I bet it was freeing to know / When you destroy everything worth chasing / There’s nowhere left to go”. If the devil in Soupy’s bloodstream still exists, he’s fighting like hell to not let its grasp shape his ability to take another step forward.
Campbell claims to not believe in heaven. He also admits to taking joy in imagining its existence as a place of peace for those that have none on this earth. No Closer to Heaven acknowledges how far we are from having that place of peace, but longs for its existence. Asking questions about how in the hell we get there is the only logical starting place. The Wonder Years are doing just that.
by Kiel Hauck
Kiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.