Saturday, April 14, 2018

album review: 'sister cities' by the wonder years

So here's something as a music critic I'm very conscious of, but I doubt is noticed by anyone else: the 'token' album. And even if you're not a critic you've probably seen evidence of this in "I don't like x genre but I like this". Now on the one hand the records that typically fall into this narrow category can hit universal appeal that even those who might not be fond of the genre can't deny the greatness, but when you have musical subgenres that don't tend to get critical respect, there's an air of condescension that comes with these picks that can be pretty obnoxious. Now I've already mentioned this can happen with artists like Kacey Musgraves, but she was making an obvious play for crossover appeal - what we're going to be talking about today are artists who are damn great within their own genre and yet get picked up as critical darlings as the 'token band' by folks and critics who'll never deign to go deeper.

And yet with a band like The Wonder Years, you'd think critics would have learned. Coming from the fertile intersection of pop punk and the 2010s emo revival, their early work may have been slagged as formulaic, but by 2011 they had hit a serious stride with Suburbia I've Given You All And Now I'm Nothing, tapping into the decay of American suburbia and existential teenage angst on a much broader, more universal scale. This is a group that fused the layered, personal detail of emo with the huge hooks of pop punk, and it was a synthesis that won over fans of the genre very quickly, especially on their follow-ups The Greatest Generation and No Closer To Heaven, records that are pretty damn great even if I personally prefer Suburbia. But those records started to get picked up by some critics as their 'token' pop punk or emo act on year end lists, and as much as that could feel galling from the outside, it did mean their newest record Sister Cities was starting to pick up a lot more attention... which might have come a rough time, as many of the longtime fans were saying this record didn't quite hold up to earlier releases. But hey, I still wanted to cover it given that I've been criminally late to the party with this group before, so how is Sister Cities?

Well, I certainly get why so many fans have considered this a step back from their last few records - but I'd also argue that's very much the wrong way to consider Sister Cities. Because make no mistake, this is a really damn good, frequently great listen, but it's also a transitional one in both production and songwriting, pivoting slightly away from the emo and pop punk scope to something bigger and heavier, with the sort of pitch-black and impressively mature perspective you'd hear from, say, Deaf Havana's last record than anything from Sorority Noise. That's a bold step, and one that'll almost certainly challenge and potentially alienate diehard fans... but honestly, I think they pulled it off, even if I might personally prefer All These Countless Nights a little more.

And this means we have to start the conversation with the sound, because at least in comparison to their past three records, this album is decidedly not as bright or immediately anthemic. The hooks are more restrained and play with more minor key progressions, the guitar lines don't have the same colour and are allowed to get either a little more liquid and melodic or fuzzed-out and jagged, the contrast between Dan Campbell's quieter clean singing and desperate screaming has never felt more pronounced even when they tilted more towards emo. It's by far the least pop-punk the band has ever been, with some even drawing parallels to post-hardcore... which I'd be hesitant to apply, because the one thing The Wonder Years kept from pop punk are pretty straightforward compositions and a commitment to solid hooks. What stands out significantly more are the diversions into tones and tempos that resemble alternative rock: faint fizzy drum machines that open 'We Look Like Lightning' and the choppy strumming that provides some vestige of uneven foundation, a more subdued, atmospheric vibe, even hints of tremolo picking on the solo of 'The Orange Grove'. And it is bleak, not so much the immediate shot of self-flagellating sadness you see across a lot of emo with moments of howling release and catharsis, but dour and teetering on the edge of burnout that only comes from an act that's seen and done entirely too much too quickly, with the sort of bone-deep weariness that makes the soaring hooks and scattered major chord melodies shine out all the further, even if the subtext is still pretty melancholic like on 'It Must Get Lonely'. 

And again, not for the first time I can easily sketch the comparison to All These Countless Nights, but there are definitely more sparks of vibrancy that careen off of Sister Cities... even if I wouldn't quite the hooks are quite at the same level as their best. And look, that's something you can really only say about this record coming off of three supremely catchy records, because tunes like 'Pyramids of Salt', the thrumming bass-driven hook of the title track or even 'The Orange Grove' are catchy as hell. And even then, The Wonder Years are working the loud-soft dynamic about as hard as any vintage grunge act... which can be tricky, especially given that Campbell's vocals are not really layered consistently in a way to ride those heavier riffs, and on songs like 'Heaven's Gate (Sad And Sober)', 'The Ghosts Of Right Now' or the second half of 'We Look Like Lightning', he can definitely get drowned out - a shame, because his vocal delivery on those last two songs has a ton of intensity. It's genuinely fascinating, because it seems like so much of the vocal production was prepared for the more atmospheric and spacious tunes, so when you get songs that are playing in a noisier mold, unless the main guitar melody is higher and cleaner, the thicker riffs bulldoze everything in their path and don't quite deliver enough to show for it.

Of course, the larger story with The Wonder Years has been the songwriting and lyrics, and what's important to note here is that it's less that Campbell's writing style has changed and more his focus. His choice of words and imagery has always had a knack for fine observational detail and a comfort with abstraction, but Sister Cities casts its eyes to a much broader horizon than drama closer to home. Which, yes, by extension can make the stories a little tougher to engage with, especially when you factor in the dramatic stakes of these stories are not really his alone like you would see in most emo - more often than not he's an observer or at least has a degree of separation from those suffering or passing on, sometimes from addiction like on 'Pyramids Of Salt' and 'Heaven's Gate (Sad And Sober), sometimes through the ravages of cancer on 'The Ghosts Of Right Now', or even just the passage of time like 'It Must Get Lonely'. And just that step to have the maturity to empathize shows The Wonder Years expanding their scope, but the key juxtaposition comes with the other underlying themes: namely that for as scattered as his path has been all around the world, he's experienced genuine kindness - sometimes through cultural exchange and traditions he doesn't pretend to understand like in the Japanese shrine on 'Raining In Kyoto' or the help given while stranded in Chile on the title track, but also defying the cynicism you'd think would come to the forefront in the face of so much suffering he cannot change. And when you consider the deeply held insecurities that he can't quite believe he's deserving of any of it, it leads to a powerful interwoven thematic core in highlighting the value of that generosity and compassion even when it doesn't result in tangible change, if only just a balm of security and support. And that's what gives songs like 'When The Blue Finally Came' and 'The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me' such tangible power, because when facing that bone-deep tiredness and depression with your walls firmly entrenched it can be so damn hard to open yourself up to that world that is often far better than we give it credit, especially if it gives you just a ray of hope... or to quote the band, a record about distance, or maybe how little the distance matters anymore'. 

So to wrap all of this up... you know, I understand why a lot of The Wonders Years fans are cooler on this record, because it is definitely a step away from a sound and style they damn near perfected - and on top of that, I can't really say it's one of their best, as there are definitely thematic detours that don't quite pay themselves off, with 'We Look Like Lightning' being the most pronounced example. And there is definitely a part of me that would love to see the band continue to innovate within the space of emo and pop-punk rather than feel they have to shift genres to expand their scope. At the same time, for as transitional as this record is I think it's been underrated - the thematic core is very rich, the hooks are still strong against tones that would naturally push them down, the lyrical detail is excellent, and I can't help but feel a record like this opens doors for The Wonder Years creatively, if only just in terms of subject matter, and if they can keep it as emotionally resonant, that's tremendously powerful. As such, I'm giving this an 8/10, and while I don't quite know if this'll grow on me as much as All These Countless Nights did, I'm really looking forward to finding out. For everyone else, especially diehard fans, you'll want to give this a lot of listens - trust me when I say it's worth it.

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