Around 2005, pop-punk’s glorious infusion with emo sensibilities and subject matter reached its artistic (and commercial) peak. With albums like Motion City Soundtrack’s Commit This To Memory, The Starting Line’s Based On A True Story, and Copeland’s excellent pop-punk foray In Motion, 2005 was a loud, triumphant year. That being said, “emo pop-punk” (if such a thing exists) seemed to die a sound death around 2007 or 2008 when the poppiest, punkiest label of all time, Drive Thru Records, was shuttered for good and bands on other labels shifted to more experimental styles. As a skin-tight t-shirt-wearing, uncut bangs-having scene Junior in high school in 2005, this moment in emo felt like my moment. The explosive power chord-driven choruses (The Starting Line’s Kenny Vasoli screaming “I’ll be your friend in hell, until then I despise you”), palm-muted verses, and ample pick slides spoke directly to my bruised and bleeding teenage heart (cue hair flip). For whatever reason, maybe because of my completely arbitrary obsession with the Drive Thru catalogue, I never really picked up on The Wonder Years, a band that cut its teeth on the same suburban streets of Philadelphia as The Starting Line (both bands have a not dissimilar sound, something to do with the scene in Philly?). This is a shame because they’re right up my alley.
Recently, I came across a reference to The Wonder Years while reading Hanif Abdurraqib’s incredibly illuminating essay collection The Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. Abdurraqib’s description and analysis of how The Wonder Years’ Suburbia: I Have Given You All And Now I’m Nothingperfectly captures an honest sense of what it means to be from somewheredrove me to listen back to what seems like a relatively forgotten relic of the pop-punk era. If you’re like me and just now discovering The Wonder Years, Suburbiashould be your first listen. It’s a perfect entry into their catalogue and to emo pop-punk in general. Before I move on with this album, it’s important that folks who listen to this kind of music read Abdurraqib’s bookas it frames several examples of genres and artists from the perspective of a person of color (and fan) in America today, a perspective that desperately needs visibility in any off-shoots of punk/hardcore where the feeling of “counter-culture” often reigns supreme with little to no acknowledgement of its inherently white racial narrative.
What’s important and beautiful about The Wonder Years is that they’ve kept the faith. While they’ve clearly grown, matured, and shifted throughout the years, it’s refreshing as hell to hear a band explode into a power chord-charged chorus in 2018 (a year when not a single rock band was nominated for album, artist, or record of the year). Listening back on their discography, this is a band that has damn-near perfected the pop-punk formula. What makes Sister Citiesspecial in particular is that that formula doesn’t feel tired (a la post-Louder NowTaking Back Sunday or post-Under The Cork TreeFall Out Boy) or out of place. Though The Wonder Years are certainly in the company of other early 2000s musicians who are all pushing forty and getting the same kind of cautious reexamination from the youth of today that bands like Taking Back Sunday and The Early November are receiving, The Wonder Years have never had to backtrack their sound or account for unfortunate experiments with style (post-What It Is To BurnFinch comes to mind as well as The Early November’s disastrous and bloated The Mother, The Mechanic, And The Path). This is a band that knows what they like, knows what they’re good at, and have worked tirelessly for the past decade to hone that sound to a fine edge, letting the “maturation process” bands put so much (unnecessary?) stock into play out in the shifts in Dan “Soupy” Campbell’s surprisingly nuanced and impressive lyrical output.
From the edge and shimmer of Campbell’s lyrics and impassioned delivery, the comparisons to The Starting Line’s Kenny Vasoli return. Like Vasoli, Campbell’s lyrics and delivery oscillate between the bitterly poetic to the bitingly honest. The portraits in these songs are beautifully drawn, and Campbell’s willingness to wear his heart on his sleeve with dramatic shifts between quivering rasps and belted growls is exactly what brings the listener into the song. The divergence between these two Philadelphia bands becomes most clear in The Starting Line’s ill-advised move to Virgin Records in 2007 (again, is this when emo pop-punk died?) where the edge and passion of their music was belt-sanded into a squeaky-clean pop sound (most nauseatingly obvious on album single and Billboard hit “Island”). The Wonder Years, on the other hand, through maintaining a decidedly indie path on No Sleep and then Hopeless Records, have been able to stay true to their sound. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Sister Citiesand The Wonder Years as a whole is how they have sheltered themselves from the sad decline so many emo-ish bands have experienced over the past decade. A true testament to the importance of indie labels and self-reflective honesty, The Wonder Years is a band that keeps the hope alive for me. Plus, and this is perhaps just as important, this album rocks like nothing else in 2018.