This review was originally published on AbsolutePunk.net on June 5th, 2011. It’s been ported to Chorus.fm exactly as it existed the day it was published.
If you’ve ever seen The Wonder Years play a live set, you can probably agree with me when I say the Philadelphia-based sextet puts on quite an enjoyable performance. But as good as their live shows are, those only last one night.
Frontman Daniel “Soupy” Campbell, along with bassist Joshua Martin, guitarists Casey Cavaliere and Matthew Brasch, drummer Michael Kennedy and guitarist/keyboardist Nick Steinborn, are also well-known for giving their fans tons of attention, from hanging out before and after shows to posting on this website. But those interactions only last a little while.
The Wonder Years also always go the extra mile and come up with other cool ways to interact with the community; most recently, a life-sized pigeon that hides in record stores and hands out free 7-inch records. But even those things only last a day, a week, or a month.
I’m not belittling anything here, but with the release of Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing, it’s obvious to me The Wonder Years know one thing very well: the record lasts forever. The records a band puts out are the only things that last forever. Every pluck of a guitar string, every booming snare drum, every thumping bass line and every drawn-out vocal note will be left behind as a band’s legacy for years.
With their third full-length, The Wonder Years have made a record that’s as timeless as they come. Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing has 13 tracks of what is undoubtedly The Wonder Years’ best musicianship, with a lyrical output from Campbell that matches the musicianship pound-for-pound. From the outset, two aspects of this record are most compelling: the fact that it’s the follow-up to The Upsides, which deservedly launched The Wonder Years into a new stratosphere of popularity, and the obvious realization that Suburbia is a concept album.
Influenced by Allen Ginsberg’s “America” (1956), Suburbia’s concept is outlined by the interlude-interlude-closer trio of songs that make up the album’s title. “Suburbia,” “I’ve Given You All” and “And Now I’m Nothing” provide the framework for the record, with the other 10 songs falling into place chronologically according to when Campbell wrote them throughout 2010. The album’s structure makes it as personal as The Upsides, although the lyrics aren’t necessarily as relatable. Regardless, the lyricism on Suburbia will still resonate soundly with fans of the band’s last effort.
Opener “Came Out Swinging” starts Suburbia off with a 30-second introduction that builds upon itself. First a steady guitar riff overrides some feedback, then a 50-year-old clip of Ginsberg reading “My mind is made up, there’s going to be trouble,” from “America” comes in before Kennedy bursts in with a drum fill. It all stops for a split-second before the whole band gets into gear and Campbell belts out, “Moved all my shit into my parent’s basement / And out of our old apartment / I know things changed but I’m not sure when / I guess you’d call this a regression / I left a “real” job and a girlfriend / I convinced myself that I’m brave enough for all of this / I spent this whole year in airports and the floor feels like home.” Just like that, the wait is over. The introduction to “Came Out Swinging” holds similarities to the beginning of “You Know How I Do” from Taking Back Sunday’s Tell All Your Friends. That energy is something that never fades – something that lasts forever on a record like this.
“Came Out Swinging” serves as a prelude to the album, sort of a bridge from The Upsides to Suburbia. This is most evident when things slow down in the middle of the track, as only a drum beat and Steinborn’s Rhodes accompany Campbell’s earnest plea of, “I came out swinging from a South Philly basement / Caked in stale beer and sweat, under half-lit fluorescents / I spent the winter writing songs about getting better / And if I’m being honest, I’m getting there.”
Before the first interlude, listeners get two more blistering tracks with “Woke Up Older” and “Local Man Ruins Everything.” The former is the more impressive number, with the catchiest chorus on the record. References to The Upsides start to pop up as well, though I won’t mention any in the review because listeners should enjoy discovering these on their own.
“Suburbia” (along with “I’ve Given You All”) serves as the “setting” for the record, and the first interlude fittingly is a song about the band’s hometown. The first two interludes connect to “And Now I’m Nothing” in several ways. These three tracks are the only ones on the album written in 6/8 time and the finale takes some lyrics from the songs that precede it. In between the two interludes, however, are the four songs that provide a chunk of quality in the middle of the album.
“My Life As A Pigeon” and “Summers In PA” are two essential cuts from the record, with the former being a different side of the story behind The Wonder Years’ rise to success. It’s addressed to the band’s fans (or maybe non-fans), when Campbell belts out lines like, “This is the shit that they don’t teach you how to deal with / Like an army of self-righteous kids that only like the 7-inch / I’m putting miles between myself and this bullshit.” The latter of the two tracks is most noteworthy for its bridge, featuring guest vocals from Dan O’Connor and Alan Day from Four Year Strong.
The intensity seems to be taken down a notch with the anti-Christian, half-tempo jammer “I Won’t Say The Lord’s Prayer,” but the scathing lyrical content might actually make the track the most intense one on the album. “Coffee Eyes” and “Don’t Let Me Cave In” sandwich the second interlude, two equally impressive numbers that show off The Wonder Years’ versatility a bit. Martin’s bass and Kennedy’s drums are highlighted in the build-up of “Coffee Eyes,” while the guitars take more of the focus in “Don’t Let Me Cave In.” These two tracks were among the first to be released to the masses, and surely listeners have realized notable differences between the sound of these tracks and the sonic qualities of The Upsides.
The most important characteristic of the new sound on Suburbia is the nearly perfect production. Campbell’s vocals have almost no editing on them, making for a more raw sound comparable to his voice at live shows. That raw sound complements musicianship that is simultaneously more blunt and intricate than we have grown accustomed to with the band. Recording with Steve Evetts was the most important part of the making of this album, as Evetts made all the right calls behind the boards. It’s the production of Suburbia that gives it the boost up in lasting value so many albums in the genre lack these days.
“You Made Me Want To Be A Saint” is a blink-and-you-missed-it fiery dedication to the memory of Mike Pelone that sets up a phenomenal one-two punch to close the record. “Hoodie Weather” is a great song, and it would be the highlight of the album if it wasn’t for the closer. Another phenomenal chorus and memorable one-liners like, “Growing up means watching my heroes turn human in front of me,” make “Hoodie Weather” a feel like a closing song. But that role is taken to a new level with “And Now I’m Nothing,” which is the best song The Wonder Years have written. From several instantly accessible lines to the epic minute-and-48-second outro, this song is everything The Wonder Years know how to do, executed as best as they possibly can.
When a teenager picks up a 10-year-old copy of Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing in a decade (or more likely just wishes for it before technology swoops it into his iPod UberNano), it might be “that” record for him. “That” record, the one that makes you fall in love with an entire genre. The one that makes a kid pick up a guitar or a microphone. No one knows what the pop punk scene will be like in a decade, but I can say one thing with confidence – Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing, The Wonder Years’ best record to date, will still matter then.