If you were to describe the course of The Wonder Years’ decade-plus career, you may find the word “growth” as the most fitting. The band’s breakthrough trilogy of albums (2010’s The Upsides, 2011’s Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing, and 2013’s The Greatest Generation) were all about growing up. Each release addressed various stages of getting older all while the band continually got better as musicians and songwriters. Which is why 2015’s No Closer To Heaven felt like such an aberration. Instead of taking the leaps that the prior three albums did, No Closer To Heaven sounded like a lateral move, an album unsure of which version of the band it wanted to be. It resulted in some half-baked, rushed ideas and were the pressure of “what’s next” might have gotten to vocalist Dan Campbell and his bandmates. That’s not to say that Heaven doesn’t feature some of the band’s best work ever (“Cigarettes and Saints”, “The Bluest Things on Earth”, and “Stained Glass Ceilings” are peak Wonder Years), but it was frustrating that the band didn’t fully dive in. Yet it’s that past frustration that makes the band’s incredible new album, Sister Cities, feel so rewarding and refreshing.
The Wonder Years have never been one to shy away from pushing themselves (one remembers the pre-release build for The Greatest Generation when the band played 4 cities on two coasts in 24 hours) and Sister Cities has the band pushing themselves beyond all limits and erasing the word “boundaries” from their lexicon. And for a group that always has a ton of expectations levied upon them, they wrote this record as if there were none. There are few, if any, traces of pop-punk on the album, as the Philadelphia sextet explore any and every sonic highway – the moments of urgency elegantly juxtaposed against the slower, more intimate moments on the record. Over the past two years, Campbell kept a journal of the band’s travels and adventures while touring the world – nothing too grand or too little to be chronicled. It’s the most prepared the vocalist has ever been for a Wonder Years record, which in turn resulted in his most confident performance ever – Campbell’s vocals seamlessly transition from soaring yells to hushed whispers and his lyrics perfectly capture how infinite yet connected everything is on this planet. It’s been well-documented how one of the band’s shows in Santiago, Chile was cancelled, leading to an instance of bonding and commiseration between a stray dog and Campbell in a bus station and how eventually that led to the band playing a small DIY show, thus inspiring the album’s dark but vibrant title track. And that’s just one piece on the tapestry that is The Wonder Years’ most daring and complex work in their entire discography.
Sister Cities opens and closes with the band’s most powerful songs ever, with both being done in completely different styles (we’ll get to the closer a bit later). “Raining in Kyoto” opens the record with driving guitar riffs from Casey Cavaliere and Matt Brasch while Campbell recounts boarding a plane to Japan while his grandfather passes away (“They’ll hold your service tomorrow/I’m an ocean away”). The song has shades of Thursday as it reaches some of the heaviest levels ever on a Wonder Years’ track, matching the song’s heavy subject matter. The colossal yet introspective “Pyramids of Salt” and the breathtaking “Flowers Where Your Face Should Be” are prime examples of The Wonder Years putting no restrictions on what a Wonder Years’ song should sound like, giving Sister Cities a sense of freedom unheard of on previous albums. “Flowers Where Your Face Should Be” showcases the band taking the song structures heard on 2017’s EP of re-imagined songs, Burst and Decay, and applying it to album’s center piece.
The sequencing of Sister Cities’ tracks cannot be understated, as the eleven tracks flow exceptionally well together. The ebbs and flows throughout blend flawlessly within the record’s overall theme of humanity and connectivity. There’s the feeling of being deserted on the frenetic indie-rock vibe of “It Must Get Lonely” or chilling realization of dying in an airplane crash on the devastating “We Look Like Lightning” (Josh Martin’s bass work is haunting throughout, setting the tone for the song’s crushing conclusion). Even if it’s an emotion you’ve never experienced, you most certainly can relate in some way and Sister Cities excels at capturing these very human feelings.
And even though the sound of pop-punk is largely absent from Sister Cities, there are still a few tracks that’ll ignite the hearts of diehards. “Heaven’s Gate (Sad and Sober)” includes one of the best choruses the band has ever written, while the penultimate track “The Orange Grove” has an intensity reminiscent of something off The Greatest Generation. But it’s the album’s final track that serves as the band’s finest moment. Clocking in at just over six minutes, “The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me” closes The Wonder Years’ most ambitious album with their most ambitious track. The song builds and builds over a swelling and richly textured soundscape (multi-instrumentalist Nick Steinborn and drummer Mike Kennedy absolutely shine here) – a culmination of the most grueling and rewarding 24 months of six men’s livelihood – but rather than end in some cathartic payoff, it results in what’s really a sigh of relief. A sigh of resignation and of accomplishment – one final moment of conflicting emotions coming to a head. Towards the end of the song, Campbell wearily but assuredly sings, “I miss everyone at once/but most of all, I miss the ocean” (a lyric bound to be littered on many twitter feeds and inked permanently on numerous inches of skin) and it beautifully sums up Sister Cities as a whole – the understanding of connectivity between different places and emotions no matter how many oceans are between us.
So if the first couple of Wonder Years’ albums are about the trials and struggles of growing up, Sister Cities is the battle of growing out of your surroundings, your city, your genre and expanding your world views. The funny thing is no matter how far away you go, those growing pains, those struggles, those insecurities can still follow you. The biggest difference, however, is knowing how to deal with those feelings instead of caving in. The growth from being a bunch of kids who came out swinging from a south Philly basement to the accomplished musicians behind this record is nothing short of staggering – it should be no surprise that Sister Cities is The Wonder Years’ magnum opus.