By Vasilis, contributing writer
When The Wonder Years, the sextet from suburban Lansdale Pennsylvania, released their widely beloved sophomore album The Upsides in 2010, the group went from a bunch of guys cracking jokes and making happy-go-lucky comedic synth-fueled pop punk to the voice of a new generation of anxious, awkward and misplaced teens/young adults looking for their place in the world. The album tackled every touchy subject from life on the road to growing up to battling depression and was also considered by many as the new bar of what pop punk could be and what it should aim to be.
That same bar was then broken in 2011 when they released their acclaimed album Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing. The conceptual follow-up album recounted life in suburbia told loosely through Allen Ginsburg’s poem America, equipped with several references and call-backs to their prior album. It was grittier, rawer, and dripping with as much passion and emotion as its predecessor, but with even more refined instrumentals and an improved vocal performance from vocalist and lyricist Dan “Soupy” Campbell. So understandably, expectations could not be higher for their new album The Greatest Generation.
And I just want to say this album did not set the bar. Rather, it grabbed the bar and snapped it in half, shattering even the highest of expectations with the 13 strongest songs the group has put out to date. The result is the final part of a three part trilogy that followed the evolution of The Wonder Years both as people and as musicians, and additionally the growth of the fans who have been listening to the group. The band has never confined itself to a specific genre. Each track is not strictly pop punk and each song builds off the last, culminating in the final two tracks which perfectly capture the feelings of maturing and taking what the world gives you and finding your own path to success and happiness.
The album kicks off with Soupy’s subdued vocals on “There, There” as he laments, “You’re just trying to read/ but I’m always standing in your light/ you’re just trying to sleep/ but I always wake you up to apologize/ I’m sorry I don’t laugh at the right times” before building into a furiously unapologetic cacophony reminiscent of late 90’s emo, serving as a bridge to the album’s first single “Passing Through a Screen Door”. Soupy contemplates not wanting his kids to grow up like him before realizing he’s 26 and is still single while so many of his friends have a family already.
What attracts so many to Soupy’s lyrics is his uncanny ability to write about his life in a way that elicits the thought of your own. We see this in “We Could Die Like This”, where he contemplates the fate of dying in the suburbs while shoveling snow by evoking the smell of Coppertone and the cigarettes his grandmother smokes and watching the ‘92 Philadelphia Eagles. The song’s pulsing drums, delivered by the consistently strong Mike Kennedy, lay the foundation for the track under crunchy punk guitars. “Dismantling Summer” addresses Soupy’s difficult time dealing with his grandfather in the hospital while on tour, lamenting “If I’m in an airport/ and you’re in a hospital bed/ well, then, what kind of man does that make me?” The track revisits the sound of late 90’s alternative groups like Weezer and Lit.
Never wanting to adhere strictly to a pop punk structure, the group introduces an emotional piano ballad with “The Devil In My Bloodstream”, a hushed track featuring vocals from Laura Stevenson of Bomb The Music Industry that builds into an eruption of angst as Soupy shouts “I bet I’d be a fucking coward. I bet I’d never have the guts for war.” The fully acoustic “Madelyn” sees Soupy tackling religion once again, proclaiming “I don’t think there’s a god. I don’t think that there’s/ someone coming to save us and I don’t think that’s the worst news of the day.” “Teenage Parents”, “Chaser”, and “An American Religion (FSF)” represent a trilogy of fast, heart-pounding punk tracks that displays the group in their natural element and exhibits the album’s tight production (courtesy of Steve Evetts) and the group’s improvement as musicians.
But the real reward of the album comes in the last two tracks, “Cul-De-Sac” and “I Just Want To Sell Out My Funeral”. It seems each of their albums features the two best songs closing the album, and that is very much done by design, as both tracks create a nostalgic for the emotions and topics of the album and the trilogy. “Cul-De-Sac” again paints the lonely picture of suburban life equipped with empty homes, the cold suburban concrete, and the gas station where Soupy and his friends used to shoplift. The track is a relentless rush of memories told by a person who is not afraid to air it all out in song and let us in to his world.
The album and trilogy culminate with “I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral” a nearly 8-minute long track that could have its own review. Like the final chapter of a good book, this song makes you want to immediately reflect on everything you heard in the past 48 minute and how you’ve grown from having experienced it. In typical Soupy fashion, he perfectly captures an idea we’ve all had: the thought of living a life that would make our family and friends feel proud, and how we do every single thing we do for that sense of pride and validation, portrayed as selling out our own funeral. The song features lines from past songs like “I was kind of hoping you’d stay” and “I’m sorry I didn’t laugh at the right times,” strategically placed throughout. The song is just as heartbreaking as it is optimistic. Instead of just admitting defeat, Soupy encourages the listener to fight, as he does throughout the entire album, pleading that instead of making excuses for not being great, we go out and try to change the world like the greatest generation did in the 40’s. It is this theme that sticks with the listener and makes the album so strong.
Like a good novel, The Greatest Generation holds a very specific narrative that you can follow from start to finish. As a result, it is necessary to listen to each track in the context of the album. Imagine reading the chapters of a book out of order and that’s the feeling you get listening to each of these tracks out of the album’s context. Each track is made more meaningful by the preceding track. The conflicts and themes of the album are perfectly represented by the immediacy of every note the group has recorded and every word Soupy has penned. Combined with their two prior albums, this makes a wonderful trilogy that will leave you feeling nostalgic and make you remember the times you had listening to this band and of your life in general.
With The Greatest Generation, The Wonder Years have completed the trilogy in a grand fashion, begging the question, “What’s next?” It’s a scary question, but what’s scarier is the fact that they’ve improved as musicians and storytellers with each album. The Greatest Generation shows a band that has a keen awareness for their place in today’s scene and it’s that knowledge that helps them flourish. A change of pace could be in order with their next album, but for now it’s time to put their newest album in the car stereo and crank it up with all the windows open and to enjoy where you are.
Songs of Interest: I Just Want To Sell Out My Funeral, Cul-De-Sac, We Could Die Like This, Chaser