Sound — 8
A band's debut album always plays an important role, no matter how well or unwell it is. For every universally-acclaimed debut album (like Dead Kennedys' "Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables" or The Strokes' "Is This It"), there will always be debut albums that weren't as good, but still an important stepping stone (like Bad Religion's "How Could Hell Be Any Worse?" or Blink-182's "Cheshire Cat"). For Dan Campbell, frontman of The Wonder Years, he all but wishes his band's debut album, "Get Stoked on It!," could be wiped from existence. Considering it a mess, it was likely that unsatisfying debut effort for the band is what took them a while to get back on the horse - luckily, they did, as their follow-up album, 2010's "The Upsides," would do much better, and get them signed to Hopeless Records.
With the next couple of albums, 2011's "Suburbia I've Given You All and Now I'm Nothing" and 2013's "The Greatest Generation," working with "The Upsides" as a three-part concept series about millennial ennui and depression in the assumed societal safe space of suburbia, The Wonder Years made a substantial mark and turned themselves into a household name for pop punk in a relatively short amount of time.
Now that this concept series is complete, Campbell's new initiative is to grow in sound. His solo side project, Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties, let him dabble in indie folk (a fairly common choice for a solo side project), but with The Wonder Years' fifth album, "No Closer to Heaven," that desire to explore more sonic options also appears for the band's pop punk sound. With the album's composition showing a bigger penchant for appreciating the slower and somber moments, melody gets a bigger platform to elaborate upon. Guitars shine the brightest throughout the album, both with better conventional moments (like the lead riffs found throughout "The Bluest Things on Earth" and "I Don't Like Who I Was Then") and more experimental initiatives (like the post-rock guitar tracks in the opening "Brothers &," the hazy tremolo layers in the chorus of "A Song for Patsy Cline," and the dual guitar parts in the morose "Palm Reader"), and the synths play a stronger role as well (heard in the Postal Service-esque melodies in "You in January," and the intertwining synth/guitar melody in "Stained Glass Ceilings" that has a Minus The Bear circa "Planet of Ice" feel to it).
This main theme of somberness in "No Closer to Heaven" also leads to more intriguing songwriting overall. As opposed to the straightforward nature of The Wonder Years' previous albums, where loudness was delivered in either a low, medium or high gear, more gentle sections found throughout the album lead to better utilization of dynamic range (heard in "A Song for Ernest Hemingway") and negative space (heard in "Cigarettes & Saints"). But though this different side of The Wonder Years is the new attraction of the album, they still include plenty of purebred pop punk moments - from the stark "Thanks for the Ride," to "I Wanted So Badly to Be Brave," which feigns a morose intro before dropping into a happy uptempo pop punk rager, The Wonder Years still keep a firm grip on their specialty.
Lyrics — 8
After Campbell dumped out three albums worth of personal experience-fueled lyrics for the previous trilogy concept, he decided to create a fictional concept for "No Closer to Heaven," which has the unnamed main character struggling to cope with the realities and his own conceptions of death. With two of his friends passing away by tragic means ("Cigarettes & Saints" has the main character remembering the funeral of his friend who died of an overdose, while "Stained Glass Ceilings" has him remembering the funeral of his friend who was murdered), the main character writhes in grief over old memories of those friends and seethes in anger about how he wasn't able to save them - the recurring maxim "We're no saviors if we can't save our brothers" repeats as a way of reminding him of his failures.
In this grief, the main character starts to fantasize about and glorify his self-imposed death in the tragedy-baiting "A Song for Patsy Cline" ("My airbag light's been on for weeks / And I keep having dreams / Where I go through the windshield, but I don't fix it") and the suicidal thoughts of "A Song for Ernest Hemingway" ("I'm staring at Hemingway's shotgun"), as a way to both feel like he's in control of some kind of mortality and to see his friends again in the afterlife. But ultimately, he knows that no matter what he thinks about doing, whether for the sake of himself or his friends, the ending titular song has him acknowledging what little power he has in the grand scheme of things ("In a world that I can't fix / With a hammer in my grip / I'm no closer to heaven").
Overall Impression — 8
With the massive success of The Wonder Years' pop punk trilogy concept, most would continue to stick to the same formula to ride that momentum as far as it can go, even at the risk of growing stale. But in this new phase for their career, "No Closer to Heaven" freshens up The Wonder Years' sound at an optimal time. Not only diversifying their sonic repertoire to go beyond the general output of Taking Back Sunday-influenced pop punk, the more pensive songwriting found throughout the album goes hand in hand with its dominant lyrical theme of grief, further strengthening its cohesiveness. Ultimately, "No Closer to Heaven" is yet another reason why The Wonder Years are one of the more admirable names in pop punk today.