It's easy to be dismissive of pop-punk. While the genre has enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in recent years, there's still a sense of it being overcrowded. Bands with dreams no bigger than playing on Warped Tour - an institution now mired in controversy after this summer's events - still clutter the scene, and it takes more than a generic sound to make an impact. The Wonder Years are veterans of the pop-punk world, and mark their tenth anniversary with an album that proves they have the confidence and ambition to make their voices heard elsewhere.
2013's 'The Greatest Generation' was both literally the conclusion to the trilogy of albums chronicling lead singer Dan 'Soupy' Campbell's growth and maturation through much of his turbulent 20s, and figuratively the conclusion of the Philadelphia sextet's first phase. 'No Closer to Heaven' signals a shift to a darker, tougher sound that suits them down to the ground. It's a wide-ranging record, particularly lyrically, its title reflecting an imperfect world and focusing on a desire for change.
There are, as ever, moments where Campbell looks inward, with counterparts 'A Song For Patsy Cline' and 'A Song For Ernest Hemingway' tackling mortality from contrasting viewpoints, with the suicidal ideation of the former ("My airbag light's been on for weeks, and I keep having dreams where I go through the windshield, but I don't fix it") set against the existential questions of the latter, sparked by learning that the famed author read about his own death in the paper: "I bet it was freeing to know - when you destroy anything worth chasing, there's nowhere left to go."
Looking outward, the ideas of morality and toxic masculinity are explored on 'Palm Reader' and 'I Wanted So Badly To Be Brave', respectively, with the latter's opening imagery of two children forming a blood-brothers pact leading to altercations that cause the protagonist to reflect on his humanity ("They kicked you out to teach you what a man is / I don't think I'll ever know what that means ... We've got a chance to break the cycle / We could be the heroes that we always said we'd be"). In a scene that continues to have issues with its hierarchy and power structure - still primarily a male-dominated space - the desire for change takes on a new context. Campbell has been famously outspoken in the past, so to see it fully reflected in his writing is a refreshing change from the previous internal struggles.
Musically, the pop-punk sound has been largely abandoned (save for, perhaps, recent single 'I Don't Like Who I Was Then') in favour of something more forceful and nuanced; the gutsy riffs of 'Cardinals' and 'Thanks For The Ride' possess enough power without overdoing it, while 'You In January', the band's first ever flat-out love song, is euphoric, providing a counterpoint to the likes of 'Stained Glass Ceilings', one of the darkest tracks they've written to date. It's a rumination on racial violence and America's obsession with guns, which features a coruscating guest feature from post-hardcore outfit letlive.'s Jason Aalon Butler) It sounds colossal, which is to say nothing of the devastating album centrepiece 'Cigarettes & Saints', a sky-scraping eulogy for Campbell's departed friend Mike Pelone, which also takes aim at the US pharmaceutical industry.
'No Closer To Heaven' is the work of a fearless band who are capable of tackling topics most of their contemporaries wouldn't dare touch. They've all but left that scene behind, beginning phase two of their career in style and producing an album that deserves a much wider audience.
Words: Gareth O'Malley
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