(feat. track – “Local Man Ruins Everything” [spotify])
If Transit were the band to make the strongest move away from pop-punk this year, The Wonder Years were the ones to make the most ambitious statement within the genre, a deeply personal yet highly relatable song-cycle on band life and suburban roots that rewrites and interpolates Allen Ginsburg’s Beat Generation classic poem “America”. It probably shouldn’t work, but vocalist/lyricist Dan “Soupy” Campbell manages to never get too bogged down in concept for each song to shine on its own, and if he tends to get navel-gazey, he does so in a way where he’s still eminently relatable. (Hell, we’ve all got navels, right?) At a time when all the “grand statements” in punk seem to be outsized, Homeric epics (see: Green Day’s American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown; Fucked Up’s David Comes To Life), The Wonder Years crack the secret formula by keeping their ambitions manageable. (They might also be the only one of those to have actually made a punk album, but that can be another debate for another time). Suburbia isn’t a treatise on life and death, or the tale of a mystical journey; it’s just the story of one guy living and learning a bit, and it’s a damn fine one.
Meanwhile, the subject matter is perfectly suited to the band’s unpolished and scrappy take on the genre. The Wonder Years’ pop-punk is of the throwback variety; scuffed up, occasionally out of tune, too fast for the band to keep up with at moments. There’s no shortage of melody, but their hooks are kept compact, rolling Pennsylvania hills and valleys compared to power-pop’s Rocky Mountain highs. It’s more Jawbreaker than J-14. It’s wavering, not quite in control, a little uncertain of itself and yet often overconfident regardless. It’s a lot like being 22 again.
One a more personal note, for me part of their appeal is the way they embrace their Pennsylvanian heritage so abjectly (something I touched on here this past Summer). It’s done much to bond me to them, just as similar moves by Live and Fuel did in my formative years. I don’t live in PA anymore, and I don’t see myself ever moving back, but it’s still an ingrained part of me that I carry wherever I go. (I like to joke that I’m as thankful that I grew up in Allentown as I am thankful that I don’t live there anymore). Suburban eastern PA has a very distinct, if unremarkable, local culture that’s almost impossible to describe to outsiders. Maybe it’s just a feeling, a sense of kinship that grows out of the place’s minor quirks. Whatever it is, it’s special, and The Wonder Years have got it.
Put it all together and it’s easy to see why I had this album pegged for my list from the first time I listened to it this June. I had high expectations for The Wonder Years coming into this year; in a year where I frequently found myself let down by the albums I had built up in my head in anticipation, they more than exceeded theirs.