[Album Review] The Wonder Years - Sister Cities
You're probably reading this on a mobile phone; this probably means that the majority of your close family and friends are only a few seconds and several dial tones away. The entire world is resting in the palm of your hand, easily accessible regardless of the distance between yourself and those confined within. But, there remains distance all the same. In an age in which connection is easily-achievable, there is always distance. The Wonder Years' sixth LP, Sister Cities, is a record about distance. It is also (to a lesser extent) about family, about grief, about love, and about locales. The eleven tracks which comprise it are marked at eleven different points on a map that fits into your back pocket but extends to a canvas international in scope.
Vocalist and lyricist Dan Campbell understands the scale of distance more than most, you'd expect. As a touring musician the road, up to a point, leads away from home, and sometimes the journey back covers more kilometers than the outbound flight did. This position, torn between home(s) and torn between people, provides the central emotional conflict on Sister Cities, and it allows Campbell to write some of his most compelling lyrics to date, rich in imagery and emotion. Throughout, they border on poetry, and it's easy to see why the deluxe version of the LP ships with a book. This lyrical and emotional backbone, which props up the record, is its most compelling element.
A narrative develops very early on, and every subsequent song piles on the weight, sometimes by the kilograms, and sometimes by the milligram. At the offset we find Campbell boarding a plane to Japan in "Raining In Kyoto" while his Grandfather's health deteriorates, and the resulting song is every bit as heavy-hitting as you'd expect from such subject matter. Bristling with all of the intensity of a Japanese monsoon, The Wonder Years hammer out one of their heaviest songs to date, setting the scene and tone immediately. The air in Kyoto and in its other 'sister cities' is stagnant with a sense of saudade, and that same mood permeates the majority of songs here. The record is weighted, but it is always moving towards higher ground, even though the journey is strenuous.
The emphasis of Sister Cities is about capturing a process through movement; there is wisdom to be found in the positioning of feet upon foreign ground. There is a world of hurt also. Movement here, offers understanding - be it movement through continents or movements through thought processes or through emotional stages. The connections which bind us to those we love are made strikingly clear, and these eleven songs capture the pains of being away alongside the beauty of simply being able to connect to another individual at all, be it in the past or present tense. On occassion, both occur simultaneously, and dissociation and absence are abundant on tracks like "It Must Get Lonely" and "The Ghosts of Right Now," both of which address those remembered in another lifetime. Sister Cities drops the pronoun "you" as consistently as Frank O'Hara collection does - there is always somebody off stage.
It's a record about reaching out and reaching within, which stems from a certain perspective on the passing world. The achingly romantic "Flowers Where Your Face Should Be," for example, observes a couple on an anonymous sidewalk and then finds Campbell and his soon-to-be-wife mirrored, ending with his own intentions to wed under "driftwood from Crescent City." It is these temporal moments - the small reflections of ourselves in others - coupled with an attention to "the lines across space" tethering us, to which Sister Cities is so finely attuned. Campbell and co. strum these lines like guitar strings, and the reverberations spark an abreaction which ultimately unifies.
Lyrically and sonically, Sister Cities marks a sublime maturation for The Wonder Years, and this coming-of-age establishes further distance between themselves and their east-coast pop-punk origins. Sister Cities does not belong to the same genre as their five previous outings, though songs such as "Sad & Sober (Heaven's Gate)," "The Orange Grove" and the titular track still fizz with an earnestness typical of the genre. If anything, their sixth LP is dynamic alt-rock, and this makes for a shift in songwriting which moves away from big choruses and catchy hooks to melancholic introspection.
Prior release, 2015's No Closer To Heaven, was a record full of singles; Sister Cities is not. It is far more self-conscious and, on several occasions, the band chooses to skirt an emphatic climax for a slow-fade, as is the case on "We Look Like Lightning" and "When The Blue Finally Came" - two later cuts. Nothing is lost, but you sense that something is gained. The steady progression which has characterized their timeline comes to a head on Sister Cities, and it's easy to appreciate. However, for those relatively new to the band, there may exist a longing for previous anthemics, but for those who've grown likewise over the last decade, Sister Cities is a triumphant culmination. There is no merit in faulting a band for evolving and, thankfully, there is little to fault here, because The Wonder Years in 2018 are stronger than they've ever been.
This strength, be it lyrically, vocally, or sonically, is fully present on closer "The Ocean Grew Hands To Hold Me," a final track which brings to a fore the records many themes, binding them tightly across six-minutes brimming with a stunning sense of catharsis. Gradually building to a revelatory final line (which will likely go down as the year's most memorable), the instrumental zenith which closes the track is the sound of breaking through. It brings everything which preceded it into focus and, in doing so, Sister Cities transitions from an excellent record to the bands best. Despite a few songs which don't always impact the same way upon repeat listens, the LP, taken in one sitting, is cinematic in content. Paying close attention, a listener navigates the terrain and arrives at the resolution of affirmation at the same time as the Philly outfit. The reward is akin to the sensation of lift-off which begins "Raining In Kyoto." The record ends, but the sensation remains.
Sensation is easy to come by; you've probably read this on a mobile phone. In a world in which an entire lifetimes-worth of music is a tap or two away, Sister Cities stakes its claim as an essential inclusion.