Philadelphia punks The Wonder Years have continually shown that they’re more than just punks. Since the release of Suburbia, they’ve never really had an adequate match within the Warped Tour scene that they’re often lumped into, and they don’t really mesh with the artsy DIY punk scene that creates artists like Long Neck or Pinegrove. This is all to say that even though Sister Cities isn’t their best, The Wonder Years are still in a class all their own.
Sister Cities being a road record is nothing new for The Wonder Years. What is new is that it’s the first time The Wonder Years feel completely at home while being away from their stationary homes. Frontman Dan “Soupy” Campbell constructs his lyrics of foreign cities to reflect aspects he sees of his life in Philly. “Flowers Where Your Face Should Be” is a touching moment, written for his then-fiance. “It Must Get Lonely” is about finding those you’ve lost in old structures, and “Raining in Kyoto” is about experiencing loss when you can’t be with those you care for. It’s a record about coming to terms with your own place in a world population, where we’re not all that different.
Even though so much of this album is personal, it’s hard to miss the political implications of an album about a global human experience. The opening few lines of “Ghosts of Right Now” can be seen as wanting to help those who are born into less fortunate situations, even if it is a song reflecting on death. The penultimate song, “The Orange Grove,” is a vicious assault on those that take advantage of people in difficult situations to push disgusting agendas:
You’ll watch it decay
Lie through your teeth and say you’ll resurrect a ghost
The paper tigers you made then swore to keep away
You’re a knife there at my throat
God, take me back to the orange grove
Where The Wonder Years really hit their stride on this album is their ability to write anthemic songs that don’t fall neatly within a structure. “Flowers Where Your Face Should Be”, “We Look Like Lightning”, and “The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me” are all the best examples of this. These songs all build and grow as they progress. Sometimes they fall to a clean resolve; sometimes they explode with fear. The album eventually pays off to the massive outro of “The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me.” Unlike on past releases, these neither need to feel like slow songs all the way through, nor do they need to end with a fast, loud ending. There are still plenty of loud, punchy tunes that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the band’s last two albums like the title track, “Heaven’s Gate”, or “Raining in Kyoto” that all explode out of the huge emotions that Wonder Years fans have come to expect from the band. Some of the albums most compelling songs are the mid-tempo ones though. The epic “Pyramids of Salt” is an early treat in the tracklist, but the band shines most on the major-key “It Must Get Lonely,” a bluesy ode to a friend.
The vast styles of the album mark another level of maturity in the band, as the styles coincide with the varying emotions felt in all these different cities. “Raining In Kyoto” and “It Must Get Lonely” expand on the death theme from No Closer to Heaven, but they take a more inward reflection while looking to foreign cities for comfort and familiarity. Campbell reflects on his grandfather’s death in Japanese temple, while rain pulverizes him, or he sees his lost friend in lone houses standing in destroyed towns in Spain. Even though we as Americans can be incredibly self-focused, it’s important to remember that so many of our experiences in our personal lives can’t be all that different from what we see. Campbell sings:
Raining in Kyoto
I’m starting to shake
They’ll hold a service tomorrow
I’m an ocean away
Reach into my pocket, found a small paper crane
It’s been over a year now
April turns into May
I barely stopped moving, I’ve been so fucking afraid
Too much of a coward to even visit your grave
The themes of death creep through again on “Heaven’s Gate” and “The Ghosts of Right Now,” though not as prevalent as on No Closer to Heaven.
The album closes with “The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me,” an enormous, atmospheric and tender song. Dan Campbell rarely closes albums on a negative note, but he’s never really definitively positive either. There’s often some sort of catch where he’s working towards being positive. “Ocean” actually has a really tender resolution that swells and recedes. When Campbell sings: “I miss everyone at once/But most of all, I miss the ocean,” you feel convinced that he’s satisfied with where his life has brought him, and he’s comfortable being a global civilian rather than just a Philly local. While this album may not be as groundbreaking as The Greatest Generation, it shows that The Wonder Years have comfortably shed their pop-punk skin and are ready to take on the world.