The Wonder Years have never been a band to rest on their laurels. Each record has shown significant progression from the last, and has shown the band develop from pop-punk upstarts, to the scene’s elder-statesmen.
On ‘Sister Cities’, the band have built on their solid base of pop-punk, without truly forgetting their roots. Nevertheless, they have definitely climbed beyond the constraints of the genre. Branching into soaring indie, expressive emo and ambitious post-rock; the Wonder Years will always know how to bring the hooks, but on Sister Cities, they’ve left the South Philly basement well and truly behind.
Album opener ‘Rain in Kyoto’ gets the album rolling with absolutely no fanfare. Despite its abrupt start, it’s a solid track to kick off proceedings, and hints at the record’s departure from the bands previous sound.
‘Pyramids of Salt’ is an alt-rock grower, which definitely improves with the benefit of multiple listens. It’s just one of many tracks on the album which demonstrates that the band seem to have learned to make full use of all three guitarists; Matt Brasch, Casey Cavaliere and Nick Steinborn. Rather than a barrage of power-chords, interspersed with the odd guitar riff or solo, all three guitarists act almost as a lead. The result is a channelled American Football effect, where different textures are allowed to meander throughout the verses, but are reined in just enough during the choruses, to ensure that the lyrics and tune remain firmly lodged in the listener’s brain.
Conversely, ‘Sister Cities’ is as close as the album gets to an outright pop-punk track. The sleazy guitar riff, combined with power chords, and a shout along chorus, is definitely a highlight, but to say it was typical of the album would do the record and band a disservice. It’s an interlude of simplicity on a complex and inspired album.
Frontman Dan Campbell’s voice seems to get better and better, record-on-record; and ‘Sister Cities’ is no exception to the trend. ‘When the Blue Finally came’ showcases Campbell’s talent perfectly: combing his delicate croon and anguished yelp to great effect. All the while, a minimal electronic baseline ebbs and flows-the audio equivalent of waves on a lonely shore.
‘It Must get lonely’ expertly covers the isolation of a friend who is lying about their heroin use; a source of inspiration that has served Campbell well over his years of song writing. The upbeat, cheerful, almost Goo Goo Dolls-esque guitars contrast sharply with the subject matter.
The lyrics on ‘Sister Cities’ don’t direct an emotional punch to the gut, as say, ‘Cigarettes and Saints’ from ‘No Closer to Heaven’. Nevertheless, the joy, the nostalgia, and the sorrow captured on this round the world trip of an album definitely hit the heart in the right places.
With the ambition on show, overproduction is an ever-present danger for bands trying to create a record which is this broad in scope. Thankfully, this is not the case for Sister Cities, as the production flourishes are used sparingly, but effectively, letting the instrumentation do the talking. The result is an album which is a sonic experience, quite unlike anything else in the Wonder Years’ arsenal, but still packing the lyrical punch that their fan base has come to expect.
Gone is the introspection, and personal existential crises of their earlier records, and in their place is something much bigger: a sense of one’s place in the universe. This record explores our connection to each other, and how every action is consequential. While it may not be as instantly relatable as the band’s earlier material; musically, ‘Sister Cities’ is the Wonder Years’ best album to date.
Sister Cities is out now via Hopeless Records.