Think about it for a second: Is there currently a band in the Warped Tour realm of alternative rock as unflinchingly consistent, wildly passionate or taking bigger, necessary risks than the Wonder Years?
Time and time again, the Philadelphia-based pop-punk outfit has broken countless genre barriers and stylistic constraints to make them more than just any run-of-the-mill act. Reinventing themselves with every release, the band has already unswervingly navigated through the muck that is post-college uncertainty (The Upsides), quarter-life crises (Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing) and the hope that we’re all still striving for significance (The Greatest Generation). With lyrics drenched in rich, personal turmoil, yet still relatable to anyone that happens to listen in, vocalist Dan Campbell seamlessly walks the line between personal achievement and public therapy, all without alienating the listener. Add that in with the dynamic, progressive work of guitarists Matt Brasch, Casey Cavaliere and Nick Steinborn, bassist Josh Martin and drummer Mike Kennedy, and you have yourself a practically invincible sextet, changing the world one brash yet earnest album at a time.
Enter the band’s fourth LP—technically fifth, if you count the band’s flippant debut Get Stoked On It!—and arguably biggest leap forward as a band: No Closer To Heaven. Abandoning the narrative-based trilogy of their last three records, the Wonder Years explores the overarching idea of existentialism on Heaven, showcasing the desire to cover new ground previously unexplored on former releases. No Closer To Heaven undoubtedly takes the biggest risks, but resultantly reaps the biggest rewards, all of which the listener will find throughout its duration. While not perfect and may not go down as the definitive, or even “best” Wonder Years record, it’s clear the band’s ambition is in the right place, making it more than deserving of an emphatic recommendation. By this point, it may sound like a broken record to say, “The Wonder Years have done it again.” But that’s exactly what they’ve done.
Unsurprisingly, where No Closer To Heaven soars lyrically, musically and sonically are at points in the record where all expectations can be set aside, where any preconceived notions about what the band’s next step in their career will be are thrown out the window. These are the moments where the Wonder Years reaffirms their status as the best band to come from pop-punk’s resurgence. Reminders of this fact come from the mid-album showstopper “Cigarettes & Saints.” A softly strummed remembrance turned monumentally moving ballad, the track begins solely as commemoration for a close friend who loses his life to drug addiction. However, as the song progresses, we see his admiration turn to fury when the direction shifts to the pharmaceutical companies that led him to develop his dependence. No Closer To Heaven is chockful of three-dimensional songwriting like this, painting a bigger picture than ever thought possible, even with expectations so high. Look no further than tracks like the powerhouse lead single “Cardinals,” the sincere, lovelorn “You in January” and what may be the most ambitious song in the band’s discography to date, “Stained Glass Ceilings”—a track that looks to tackle the complex ugliness of systematic racism and the lives it sadly claims. The track is made particularly more poignant when a much welcome cameo from letlive.’s Jason Butler takes place, upping the intensity tenfold. “Glass Ceilings” in particular, like all of the Wonder Years’ material doesn’t alienate its listener, even with the subject so heavy, but still isn’t afraid to be forward with its message. It doesn’t provoke rage, nor does it look to intimidate—it simply wants you to listen.
Musically, the band has never seemed more motivated to stand out, with all six members finding even more room to breathe on No Closer To Heaven. As expected, the band is able to channel their fervor into both the expected and unexpected with their new material—all while pushing the genre forward in the direction in needs to be pointed in. All throughout No Closer To Heaven, the band finds themselves, once again, combining their usual flavor of pop-punk with some new, unexplored elements. Deep cut and album highlight “A Song For Ernest Hemingway” features an upstart mid-tempo beat with Beach Boys harmonies peppered in that, oddly enough, give the song a lot of personality. Furthermore, songs like “I Don’t Like Who I Was Then” and “Thanks For The Ride,” while covering familiar ground at times, still capture the energy and vehemence the band has proven themselves to capture so well. Not to mention, vocalist Dan Campbell has never sounded better than on the fantastic “The Bluest Things On Earth,” hitting some of the highest notes he’s ever attempted and does so with commendable ferocity. By the time you’ve long memorized these songs, you’ll be begging and pleading to see them performed live.
With all of that said, there are some problems to report—not many that are major, but are still enough to prevent calling No Closer To Heaven an immediate masterpiece. Sadly, the production on the record fails to impress on a number of tracks, as the lyrics and vocals of Campbell can get lost in the mix. Tracks like the underwhelming “A Song For Patsy Cline” and anticlimactic near-closer “Palm Reader” ultimately fall flat in comparison to the record’s stronger moments. For a band whose lyrics are one of the driving forces of their success, one can’t help but wonder why the weight of the words are often buried behind a impenetrable wall of sound. While some tracks come through crystal clear lyrically, like “I Don’t Like Who I Was Then” a majority of the time you’ll find yourself backtracking to decipher what was actually said.
Furthermore, the record can feel a little choppy at times, mostly due to the lack of a naturally cohesive flow from track to track—something that their past releases have done so well. Like mentioned earlier, “Palm Reader” doesn’t leave the biggest impact as the last full-band song on the album, though the eponymous closer does admirably leave the listener on more of an ambiguous note than one of closure. Furthermore, on this record, I found myself skipping around a lot after the first few listens, simply because there wasn’t much to look forward too to warrant uninterrupted listening. Songs like “Cigarettes & Saints” and “Stained Glass Ceilings” that evoke major reactions show earn the placement they deserve—as a lasting impression, similar to how “And Now I’m Nothing” or “I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral” did so.
However, despite these grievances, they shouldn’t stop you from giving No Closer To Heaven your undivided attention. Though these nitpicks seem to be major, they don’t distract enough from the power and poignancy that a majority of the songs possess—some of which are among the best in the Wonder Years’ discography. Admittedly, the record may be a hard sell for those expecting a by-the-numbers offering from the genre, but for the rest of us, there’s a very good chance you’ll fall in love with how grippingly complex, thought-provoking and tear-jerkingly beautiful No Closer To Heaven is often capable of being. We may not be closer to heaven, but when all’s said and done, we’re certainly no further.