It feels as though The Wonders Years have always strived to transcend the pop-punk scene they started in, and they’ve almost consistently succeeded. Alongside A Day To Remember, they’ve been one of the scant few bands to take the genre into bold new directions that have always reached fantastic results; it’s no surprise that 2013’s The Greatest Generation is still one of the most creative, captivating albums the genre has ever produced. But even though it left significant cracks in pop-punk’s glass ceiling, it was 2015’s No Closer To Heaven that fully smashed through, an emotional juggernaut of an album interwoven with threads of emo and Dan Campbell’s stunning lyrics and full-throttle delivery.
As becomes evident on Sister Cities, that album was the turning point for The Wonder Years, the point where one of pop-punk’s more mature acts graduated into a truly phenomenal rock band. Because that’s probably the easiest catagorisation for them now; there’s still a lot of emo and alt-rock that makes up this album, but among that, this is a band free of any genre constraints that had previously held them back. Thus, Sister Cities now has the room to be The Wonder Years’ most detailed, emotionally rigorous album to date, and the vast majority of the time, that’s something they can achieve, and pretty fantastically at that.
And the great thing about that is, even though this is sonically a less adventurous direction that the band have taken before, there’s a remarkable level of density that makes every moment hit as hard as possible. Right from the gravelly churn of Raining In Kyoto‘s guitar, The Wonder Years never miss a bit in terms of crafting the might and emotional nuance that an album like this benefits so greatly from. Pyramids Of Salt and The Ghosts Of Right Now seethe and contort under Campbell’s frayed howl and do so excellently, but Sister Cities‘ greatest moments arguably come in quiet vulnerability. When The Blue Finally Came and The Ocean Grew Hands To Hold Me careen with liquid tones embedded with darkness and an explicitly cracked veneer, and Flowers Where Your Face Should Be is utterly flawless in its crescendo with a single spine-tingling moment that’s unlike anything this band have ever done before. Besides the programmed percussion on We Look Like Lightning, there’s not one moment that feels out of place here; from a compositional standpoint at the very least, Sister Cities shines brightly among The Wonder Years’ entire catalogue.
But of course, the crux of what makes The Wonder Years such a force has always been Dan Campbell, and once again, Sister Cities sees intense pain and fiery catharsis channelled into a phenomenal performance across the board. There’s a weathered, open roar to the title track and Heaven’s Gate (Sad & Sober), and the feelings of helplessness intertwined in Pyramids Of Salt couldn’t be more tangible. There’s a presence in this vocal delivery and range unlike the vast majority of other artists, and it benefits the almost uncomfortable rawness of this album perfectly. Just look at The Ghosts Of Right Now, where Campbell screams his lungs with the flaming power and intent of an all-time great, with an aching tremble that isn’t obvious but remains noticeable. Then there’s his subtlety, the cracking low range that gives It Must Get Lonely and Flowers Where Your Face Should Be the gut-punch impact that only the most nakedly personal tales of loss have, and which Campbell rides in truly stunning fashion.
Honestly, there’s not a lot to really mark The Wonder Years down for here. In their continued evolution, Sister Cities has seen them forge a new peak in their already stacked pantheon of highlights, and though not the genre-defining to-be-classic that The Greatest Generation was and still is, as an older, more real band, it’s hard to think how anyone could top this. The pathos and pain is immense, moments of blistering catharsis and broken vulnerability are played just as fantastically as each other, and for an already stellar package to be topped off with moments of true perfection is just icing on the cake. The Wonder Years have done it again, distanced themselves even further from their humble roots on their path to becoming one of the best bands on the planet, and right now, there can’t be much more proof needed for that to be the case.
For fans of: Jimmy Eat World, Hot Water Music, Sorority Noise
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Sister Cities’ by The Wonder Years is released on 6th April on Hopeless Records.