For some reason, music isn’t classed by the wider world as art. It’s perhaps due to the homogenisation and overall dimensionlessness of the majority of what is in vogue, but it’s a largely unfair generalisation, especially when concerning bands like The Wonder Years. For the past few years they’ve been rising at a staggering rate, their efforts culminating in 2013’s stunning The Greatest Generation, an album brimming with soul, passion and innovation. And in a genre as deceptively easy to succeed in as pop-punk, that’s something to be applauded.
Somehow on No Closer To Heaven, they’ve actually managed to top it. The Philadelphia sextet have always transcended the boundaries of being ‘just another pop-punk band’, but on their fifth full-length they’re perhaps the furthest away they’ve ever been. More cues are taken from gruff-punk bands like Hot Water Music, and the most downbeat side of emo for an album that’s big on heavy sentiment throughout. It’s the sort of massively resonating emotion as well, making No Closer To Heaven even more compelling. The heart-swelling refrain of “I swear I’ll never let you down again” in first track proper Cardinals is stuffed with more passion than most bands can fit in entire albums, while there’s a swelling ineffability to Cigarettes & Saints that simply couldn’t be attributed to any other band tied down with the pop-punk tag.
While No Closer To Heaven‘s brilliance can’t be fully attributed to one band member in particular, it remains vocalist Dan Campbell’s contributions that are invaluable. He’s alternative music’s equivalent of Van Gogh – a tortured soul laying himself bare though his art. Vocally it thrives in catharsis, be it in the hushed sweetness of the title track or the close-to-tears intensity in the likes of I Wanted So Badly To Be Brave or A Song For Ernest Hemingway. That’s really the key word when discussing The Wonder Years – catharsis. It’s also the concept that sets them apart, certainly from other pop-punk bands, but from most other bands in general. Whereas other bands would be content with writing about the mundane, not a single second is wasted by The Wonder Years, with every sliver of feeling inflated to maximum capacity for a deeply, almost uncomfortably personal listen. The fact that Stained Glass Ceilings is a collaboration with letlive.’s Jason Butler, perhaps the only other musician with such a fervid openness on record, doesn’t speak volumes as much as trigger sonic booms – it’s the album’s best moment, a hushed calm before the storm building up to both vocalists exorcising their many demons. It’s not an easy listen by any means, but it kills any notions that any facet of The Wonder Years drifts even close to throwaway.
Still, amongst No Closer’s To Heaven‘s purging, there are pockets of positivity that are extremely welcome. There’s a ‘getting there’ optimism to I Don’t Like Who I Was Back Then which revels in imperfections, while the fuzzy romanticism of You In January acts almost as a spiritual sequel to The Greatest Generation‘s Passing Through A Screen Door, albeit from a more optimistic viewpoint. It’s moments like these that make The Wonder Years such a special band – the power to envoke such polar opposite emotions in adjacent songs and neither feeling forced or unnatural in any way. It’s what also makes No Closer To Heaven a special album – an album that has the power to bring out so many different feelings in such a way that can be interpreted in a completely different way for whoever listens to it. And that’s what art is, isn’t it?
For fans of: Hot Water Music, Transit, Real Friends
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘No Closer To Heaven’ by The Wonder Years is released on 4th September on Hopeless Records.