If you take a look back at where they were in 2010, when The Upsides came out, and fast-forward to today, you could argue that no band has had a more torrid rise to the top of pop-punk as The Wonder Years in the scene. From sweaty basements to the biggest clubs in the country, they’ve been crafting transcendant pop-punk tracks for three albums straight now, pushing the limits of the genre and themselves in the process. They’ve toured with the scene’s legends, and often outshined them, all while earning their place among them. What I’m getting at here is, The Wonder Years have nowhere to go in pop-punk anymore. They’ve put their stamp on a genre they helped bring back to the forefront of Warped Tour (for better or for worse), which begs the question:
On thier latest full-length, No Closer to Heaven, where do they go from here?
The answer comes in 14 tracks of reinvention, reimagination, and reclaiming the future of the band. While pop-unk tracks certainly serve a great purpose, their subjects and content are often very familiar, retreaded topics, with very few bands (including The Wonder Years themselves, at times) able to find a way to push the boundaries and allow the genre to be seen in a different light. While these labels can often be seen as a formality (and even a farce to some), they do carry a level of expectation with them. In order to avoid falling victim to these issues, The Wonder Years have been implementing different sytlings to their sound for a while now. This leads to one of the many reasons No Closer to Heaven is successful: it establishes the already well-developed fact that The Wonder Years are no longer simply a pop-punk band.
In leaving the genre they helped revitalized behind, The Wonder Years have opened themselves up to changing their formula a great deal. Their last two releases (2011’s Suburbia and 2013’s The Greatest Generation) featured raucous, memorable opening tracks. However, this time around, they opt for the slow-developing introductory track “Brothers &,” which leads directly into lead single “Cardinals,” creating a flowing one-two punch to open up the album instead of, well, you know, coming out swinging. On those same two albums, the final track was the longest on the album, and tied the ideas that vocalist Dan Campbell had been hashing out throughout the entire album. On No Closer to Heaven, that idea of bringing all of the themes of the album still persists, but this time it’s in the form of an acoustic guitar-driven track that bears the album’s title. These bookend tracks, which are near polar opposites of how the band began and ended the two albums before them, are a clear sign of the band’s initiative to rethink thier formula. It’s a testament to the confidence the band have found in themselves while headlining across the globe, and helps to keep the listener thinking for their entire experience with the album.
The tracks that come between the bookends provide a new depth and flair that The Wonder Years hadn’t tried before No Closer to Heaven as well. The slow-building “Cigarettes and Saints” doesn’t feel like any single the band have ever released, as it is based around a tale of a former lover who passed. As Campbell muses on the impact this person had on him, his band mates go from a slower tempo to a chaotic, crashing finale, which perfectly compliments the track. It’s a step outside the band’s typical formula, as the song contains no distinguishable chorus. It’s a story set to music, almost like a pop-punk La Dispute track.
Musically, The Wonder Years are likely always going to lean towards their pop-punk origins, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t grown. Stuck in the middle of a so-called “emo revival,” The Wonder Years let the developing trends in the scene around them influence their sound, as seen on “A Song for Patsy Cline,” which isn’t as loud and fast-paced as some fans might be used to. On the flip-side of that coin, “Thanks for the Ride” is one of the most straightforward pop-rock songs they’ve ever written, as the toe-tapping chorus sounds like it could have been written by the band’s label-mates in All Time Low. That’s not to say there aren’t sterling examples of pop-punk on No Closer to Heaven, as “I Don’t Like Who I Was Then” and “Palm Reader” will prove, but when paired with the vocal choir introduction to “A Song for Earnest Hemingway” and the insertion of letlive. frontman Jason Aalon Butler in “Stained Glass Ceilings,” it shows that the band have made a commitment to both honoring the genre they’ve nearly perfected and pushing themselves beyond the limits of it.
Where The Wonder Years truly begin to separate themselves from the pack of bands behind them in pop-punk is in Campbell’s lyrics, and the perspective he brings to No Closer to Heaven. For as great as it can be at times, pop-punk will always be susceptible to the same criticism it’s always had: it’s written by and for angry, immature people. Most of the songs deal with the anger of a failed relationship, the devotion you show to your friends, and the love/hate relationship you have with the place where you live. Campbell writes about all of these topics, sure, but he approaches them in a way that his peers are either to reluctant to write about, or incapable of writing about them in that way. Where most pop-punk songwriters write to make their audience feel a certain way, Campbell’s lyrics invite listeners to think about themselves, their loved ones, and the world around them. When listening to No Closer to Heaven, you will need to ask yourself questions that other pop-punk bands may not prompt you to ask. Sure, it’s great to listen to a song about how much you love your friends, but what happens when one of your best friends dies? Will you be able to come to grips with the fact that you may not have been a good a friend to them as you should have? It’s easy to listen to an angry, jilted-lover song, but what about a song that makes you realize that you were the one at fault? Will you be able to look yourself in the mirror, accept your flaws, and begin to work on them, or would you rather throw on an angry song and thrash around your room about it? It’s easy to say you hate where you’re from, but what happens when you look outside of your own town, see the bigger picture, and begin to understand the mass prejudice and injustice that’s plaguing our country?
These are all important questions a maturing adult (you know, like most of The Wonder Years’s fans are becoming) needs to ask themselves in order to understand what they need to do or change to become a better person. They’re all questions that Campbell ponders throughout the album in various ways, and in doing so, the band’s sound immediately matures because of it. This is where the true transformative process of The Wonder Years can be seen: Campbell’s lyrics tackling mature, thought-provoking matters, complimented by a band with a strong sense of both where they came from and the ambition to keep pushing themselves in other directions.
There may be a scenario where people don’t think No Closer to Heaven is the best album The Wonder Years have put out, which would snap the supposed streak of the band getting better and better with each release. This is fine; after all, the ranking of a band’s albums takes so much personal attachment into account. I’d rather not view the album like that, at least not yet. Instead, I’d rather look at No Closer to Heaven as an ambitious, worthwhile release from a band who have essentially become the gold standard of the scene. The Wonder Years have proven, yet again, that they are ambitious enough to keep things fresh from one album to the next, talented enough to branch out and push themselves in different directions, and humble enough to keep doing these things. When all is said and done, No Closer to Heaven is certainly in the conversation for the best album The Wonder Years have ever released, but it stands alone as their most important.