The Wonder Years – Sister Cities – Album Review

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The Wonder Years 2018

On Sister Cities, The Wonder Years‘ sixth full-length album since forming in 2005, the Pennsylvania group’s vocalist and lyricist Dan Campbell is preoccupied with space.

Almost every song on Sister Cities is dotted with geographical detail. References to Shinto shrines in Japan, the redwoods of Northern California and Oregon, waterfalls on the outskirts of Sydney, the Poás volcano of Costa Rica, and many more are woven into Campbell’s intimate stories. His lyrics, however, do not read like a travelogue; these vignettes inform and frame the narrative in often meaningful ways and are essential to communicating the album’s thesis.

Speaking recently to Gold Flake Paint(, Campbell explained that Sister Cities is about bridging distances imagined and sharing the beauty of the world. “When you don’t go very far and don’t meet a huge amount of people, the world can feel unstoppably massive. When you only hear about another culture on the news or in a textbook, other countries can feel like other planets. The thought of visiting them makes you feel like you’d be an alien on their planet,” he said, describing the type of worldview the record aims to address.

Musically, this new album features The Wonder Years’ most accomplished and ambitious songwriting to date. Far removed from the pop-punk sounds of their earliest records, Sister Cities treads in moody post-hardcore that openly flirts with alternative rock. Opener “Raining In Kyoto” starts with churning guitars and martial tom and snare rolls, before erupting into a sky-scraping chorus melody courtesy of Campbell. The song deals with the grief felt by the vocalist when he learned of his grandfather’s passing while touring in Japan and therefore being unable to attend his funeral. “Raining in Kyoto” is a mission statement, putting forward some of the band’s heaviest and emotionally draining music, including a percussive hardcore-indebted bridge that is reprised as the song’s coda.

“Pyramids of Salt”, the second track, opens with an ominous synth line, gently picked post-rock guitars and subtle percussion, before building to a sprightly clip in the second verse. It features one of the album’s most memorable choruses, as Campbell wails “I drew a line in the sand with these worthless fucking hands,” speaking to past failures in dealing with friends in need.

One of the album’s few misfires is “Flowers Where Your Face Should Be”, Campbell’s torch song for his partner. While the lyric is lovely and evocative, with references to the singer’s recent wedding, the song’s saccharine arrangement piles on syrupy strings and a precious glockenspiel, effectively robbing the tune of its grace, while needlessly overemphasizing the already potent writing. Sister Cities’ other ballad, the haunting environmental paean “When the Blue Finally Came” is much more successful. This is in no small part due to its restrained arrangement, consisting of little more than a buzzing organ and some chiming guitar.

wonder years sister cities review

The record’s back half sees The Wonder Years widening their scope, with songs shifting from their usual explorations of personal tragedy, addiction, and vulnerability, in order to fold in broader environmental concerns. “The Orange Grove” specifically addresses climate change, while many more tracks are rife with reverence for the splendour of the natural world.

“While my cousins go to bed with their wives, I’m feeling like I’ve fallen behind,” Campbell once mused on “Passing Through a Screen Door” from 2013’s *The Greatest Generation*. 5 years later on Sister Cities, it seems that The Wonder Years have caught up, reconciling youthful abandon with meaningful personal relationships and a mindfulness of the world around them. These are some of the best songs of their career, and fans of emotional rock music of all stripes would do well to listen.

Review – Jean-Michel Lacombe

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