All the people I’ve graduated with,
All have kids,
All have wives,
All have people who care if they come home at night.
Well, Jesus Christ, did I fuck up?
Sometimes, a verse in a song really stands out and speaks to me. The lyrics above are from “Passing Through a Screen Door,” the lead single off The Wonder Years’ latest record, The Greatest Generation, and not only are they an encapsulation of what the album is all about, but they’re also a scarily accurate reflection of my own feelings on life: the feeling of longing for a life that I don’t have; the feeling that life has an endgame that I’m farther than ever from reaching; the feeling that everyone around me is closer to that endgame than I am. These are feelings that the members of The Wonder Years know all too well.
Eventually, every pop-punk band has to grow up. Blink-182 did it by delving into moody electronics. Sum 41 grabbed onto melodic hardcore and metal. And New Found Glory…well, they pretended to grow up, at least. By the time The Wonder Years hit the scene, all their predecessors had already made stabs are “growing up”; merely expanding their sound wouldn’t cut it if they wanted to achieve maturity in the eyes of the music scene. After all, they already had layered guitars and a hardcore edge. So they decided to confront the topic of growing up head-on, not as teenagers heading into adulthood, but as adults adrift in a sea of people who already seemed to have it all figured out. They left the snotty pop-punk of their first two albums behind with their third release, Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing, an album that was equal parts fury and nostalgia. If The Wonder Years’ career trajectory could be mapped to the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief, then the band’s first two releases would represent denial about having to grow up, and Suburbia would represent anger and bargaining – anger at having to grow up, and bargaining to reclaim their past lives.
The Greatest Generation retains some of that anger, but it’s an album full of longing and yearning, of helplessness and despair. It’s the representation of depression and acceptance, of realizing and coming to terms with the fact that you may have fucked up your life and there are no do-overs. Appropriately, it’s a more subdued affair than its predecessor – well, “subdued” is relative when it comes to pop-punk – but it’s clear that the band was less obsessed with frantic energy this time around. Songcraft was the name of the game here, and it has paid dividends. The Greatest Generation is a wonderful album (pun not intended) and proof that the band has surpassed their predecessors in both the quality and maturity of their output.
A couple of months ago, I expressed some skepticism about The Wonder Years’ then-upcoming album. I was worried that it would sound too similar to Suburbia, and to be fair, the band hasn’t departed much from Suburbia on The Greatest Generation. However, they have stripped back the hardcore edge off most of their tracks. Only “The Bastards, The Vultures, The Wolves” and “An American Religion (FSF)” flirt with melodic hardcore to a great degree. The rest of the album isn’t too far removed from a heavier, more layered Jimmy Eat World. Musically, this plays to the band’s advantage. Lead guitar lines snake in and out of the album’s fabric, each note imbued with a sense of longing that leaves listeners wanting more. The bass is big but not overpowering, and the drumming is tastefully restrained. Calling The Greatest Generation “technically proficient” sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, but I’m not. This is not an album that showcases virtuosity – although the guitar solo on “Chaser” is pretty nifty – The Wonder Years is trying to paint a picture with sound and words.
That picture is one of longing for the days of one’s youth (“We Could Die Like This”), watching a loved one struggle with disease (“Dismantling Summer”), and letting go of failed friendship (“Cul-De-Sac”). It’s a depressing picture to be sure, but it’s not one of generic angst. These are real problems dealt with by real people, and the songs about them are imbued with such sincerity you’d think that singer Dan “Soupy” Campbell was spilling his guts onto a page when he penned the lyrics. Campbell isn’t one for excessive metaphor or vagueness. His lyrics are potent and direct, but somehow poetic all the same, and the way he delivers them, it seems as if he’s teetering on the edge of an emotional breakdown.
As is to be expected from an album that tells a series of stories, there are musical twists and turns. Some songs, like the raging “The Bastards, The Vultures, The Wolves” are more uptempo. Then, there are midtempo rockers like “Dismantling Summer” and “Chaser.” The band also expands their sonic palette, ironically by slowing and stripping things down on “The Devil In My Bloodstream” and “Madelyn.” The former begins as a bare-bones piano-and-guitar ballad, but then the drums kick in, and the song becomes a sort of pop-punk power ballad, though not one that falls prey to histrionics. The latter is an acoustic-guitar-driven ditty whose only percussion comes from a staccato glockenspiel. The album’s disparate story threads are woven together in its closing track, the seven-and-a-half minute “I Just Want To Sell Out My Funeral.” It’s an apt thematic summary of the album, where Campbell and his bandmates look back on their lives and desperately wish that they’re good enough. But it’s also an epic finale, mixing together lyrics from the album’s previous 12 tracks so seamlessly that it took me several listens to notice the recycled words.
The Greatest Generation is not a perfect album. It could be faulted for losing some steam in its second half – “Teenage Parents,” “Chaser,” and “A Raindance In Traffic” all sound a little too similar – and it’s definitely missing some of the vigour and vitality of the band’s previous releases. But that’s to be expected of a more mature, focused album. The Greatest Generation shows us why pop-punk is still important, even in 2013. It can tell stories about the difficulties of growing up in an uncertain world. It can convey the feeling of being adrift in one’s twenties, unsure about how to progress into “real” adulthood. In the album’s closing track, Campbell sings, “I’m scared shitless of failure and I’m staring out at where I want to be.” Aren’t we all, man. Aren’t we all.