Finding Solace in the Music of The Wonder Years

While the chill of winter may still be far from over, we can trust that the sweet dawn of spring will come with new music from The Wonder Years. Last week, the Lansdale, Pennsylvania, pop punk act announced the release of their upcoming album, Sister Cities, on April 6. I have yet to watch the new trailer the band released to promote the album, nor do I have intent to do so.

That’s not to say I have no interest in new music from The Wonder Years, it’s just that their music carries an intense kind of baggage for me, something I only fully realized while spinning my vinyl copy of The Greatest Generation this weekend. I’ve long believed that The Wonder Years’ albums should be listened to in full, from front to back in one sitting, but there’s a bit more to it than that.

“I don’t have roses in the closet / But I’ve got pictures in a drawer / And it’s everything left in me not to stare at them anymore”

I was aware of The Wonder Years amidst their 2010 breakout with The Upsides, but didn’t dig in deep with the band until the following year, with the release of Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing. That album came fresh on the heels of my divorce and brought a mean kind of comfort. I’d venture to say that I’ve only felt such a deep, personal connection with an album a handful of times in my life.

So vivid are my early memories with this album that I can remember every moment of the night-time car ride I took with Suburbia on the evening I purchased it. I can still remember the click of my turn signal while sitting at a stoplight on Bardstown Road in Louisville, Kentucky, dead inside, as the first verse of “My Life as a Pigeon” tore through my soul.

Everyone who knows me knows about my hyperbolic habits, and yes, I believe Suburbia to be one of the best pop punk albums ever written, but it’s more than that to me. It’s the story of a year I spent as a ghost, not sure where home was anymore. It’s the soundtrack to an upheaval of my life, and how I slowly, painfully, wonderfully found the ground again.

“I’ve been acting like I’m strong / But the truth is, I’ve been losing ground”

It wouldn’t take long for Dan Campbell and crew to cross paths with me again. Their next album, The Greatest Generation drove headlong into my continued fight with depression, made even more bitter by my mother’s unexpected battle with cancer. Like it was yesterday, I can remember the tears streaming down my face as I sat quietly at my desk at work with “Dismantling Summer” playing through my headphones.

Alone, in a room full of people, hundreds of miles away from my mom in a hospital bed, Soupy’s cries of, “What kind of man does that make me?” still haunt me to the core. My mom would go on to make a full recovery from her cancer. I’m still working on my depression, but The Greatest Generation is a blunt reminder of another period of my life in which The Wonder Years sang the songs and questions of my heart.

I’m writing this partly for therapeutic reasons and partly as a continuing examination of the role of music in my life. I’m eternally grateful for the music of The Wonder Years, even if I can only revisit it infrequently. What makes the music we love truly great? The songs we play relentlessly, finding repeated joy in the moment, or the songs we return to carefully and cautiously, knowing the ache attached within? In my experience, it’s a little bit of both.

I’m excited about what new sounds Sister Cities will bring, but content with the idea that the band’s music has done enough for me already. I have no deep expectations, other than the hope that this new album will provide a similar salve for someone else.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel 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.

Five Years Later: The Wonder Years – Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing

The-Wonder-Years-Band-photo

As weird as it is to talk about the pop punk “revival,” it’s impossible to ignore what The Wonder Years were able to accomplish in 2011. Coming off of one of the most unexpected debut breakthroughs in recent memory with The Upsides in 2010, the Pennsylvania punk act staked their claim in scene lore the following year with the release of Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing.

You can buy Suburbia I've Given You All and Now I'm Nothing on iTunes.

You can buy Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing on iTunes.

Five years later, the album still digs at uncomfortable memories and painful trials from my past. Part two of a trilogy of albums, the record deals with the fallout of young adulthood and broken promises related to societal expectations. It’s a millennial anthem if there ever was one – I tried, I failed, I don’t know where to go from here.

Fresh off of a painful divorce and hitting the reset button on nearly every aspect of life at the ripe old age of 27, I found myself mesmerized by Dan Campbell’s ability to connect deeply with my frustrations and fears. On Suburbia, Soupy became the voice of a generation of young adults looking for answers – unwilling to let the defeat of depression drag them away, but unable to find hope to cling to.

In the midst of Campbell’s confusion, I found common ground. “I spent this year as a ghost and I’m not sure what I’m looking for,” he cries on “Came Out Swinging” – a mirror image of my life experiences in 2010. On “Local Man Ruins Everything”, he relents, “I’m not a self-help book; I’m just a fucked up kid”, an admission that became my thesis in 2011.

Like many of you, Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing is a deeply personal album for me – one that got me through many late night drives; a coping mechanism at the end of lonely double shifts. To this day, I’ve yet to encounter an album that personally impacted my life and walked alongside me quite like this one did. It hurt to listen, but over time, it mended my soul in the most therapeutic of ways.

I was apparently not alone in my experience. Suburbia kick started a tidal wave of pop punk mania, reigniting a genre that had turned stale. The Wonder Years deserve all of the credit in the world for lighting that fire, but for all of the great music that has come in the past five years, none of it has touched my soul quite like Suburbia did.

For the past few years, I’ve been writing a book in my head and in notebooks that mirrors the chapters of Suburbia – a work of creative non-fiction that journeys through the most difficult part of my life with the album as the soundtrack. Maybe one day I’ll get around to writing it. If not, The Wonder Years still spoke every word of my experience to near perfection. For that, I can never thank them enough.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel 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.

Five Year Retrospective: The Wonder Years – The Upsides

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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_catKyle 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.