So, why do I think this group of six white men from suburban Philadelphia is better than all the other groups of suburban white men playing pop-punk out there in the world? I could easily write a long list, but in the end, it comes down to growth. The Wonder Years have allowed themselves to grow and evolve as a band as they’ve grown and evolved into adulthood, with all the messiness and complications that come with it. And they have trusted their audience to follow them on that journey.
Part of it, I think, is their longevity. The Wonder Years are going strong ten years into their career, while so many of their peers have burned out after a record or two in their early to mid twenties. But more importantly, they aren’t afraid of alienating their fans, of trying new things, of writing about their lives and the ways they move through the world.
Pop-punk as a whole is not a genre particularly known for its innovation and maturity. Take genre elders New Found Glory. Undoubtedly they are one of the most important pop-punk bands of the 21st century. Pretty much every band in the genre today cites them as a direct influence to some degree, The Wonder Years included. But for the past 20 years they have been making essentially the same record over and over again. (There was a minor diversion in 2006’s Coming Home, but it wasn’t anything more than a blip on the radar. 2009’s Not Without A Fight picked right back up where they had left off, pardon the pun). And that’s not to say that the one album NFG has been making all these years isn’t good, I own and enjoy every single one of them, but there has been no progression in their sound and in their lyrics. They’re late-30-something men writing the same songs they made in their late teens. And they are far from the only pop-punk band to do that. What makes The Wonder Years special, and worth spending a whole week writing about, is that they have grown. Their perspectives have changed and the songs they wrote when they were 18 are not the songs they’re writing now.
For a quick study in these contrasts, look at “Melrose Diner,” off their breakout album The Upsides and “You In January,” from their most recent release No Closer To Heaven. TWY don’t really write about love and relationships very much, an anomaly for the genre, but in the beginning of their career, Dan Campbell, the band’s singer and primary lyricist, was willing to disparage his ex as a way to disparage himself. In “Melrose Diner” he lists petty things he hates about an ex girlfriend, and he can’t stand seeing her with some other guy. His friends bag on this new dude, trying to make him feel better, but in the end he still wishes she was around. As far as pop-punk songs about exes go, it’s pretty mild, and in the end, it’s more about Campbell’s loneliness and wanting to push people away, but I still think it fits more within the paradigm than not. (Sidenote: there should be more pro wrestling themed music videos in the world. Get on that, music).
Five years later, on “You In January,” Campbell shares small moments of intimacy with his wife. The first day in their new apartment together, places they’ve traveled, running the dishwasher before he leaves for a long tour. And obviously the difference in tone from an ex to a longtime partner is a huge component in how these songs come across, but since pop-punk is such an overwhelming young genre, its love songs tend to be visceral, positively or negatively. “You In January” conveys love in its small ways, it has the nuance of growing up, the way “Melrose Diner” lacks.
So this week I’m going to look at TWY through the major themes they tackle in their music, and how they’ve grown in their perspectives. Their songs about mental health, loss, home, and trying to find out who you are and your place in the world are not, on their surface, a revelation; these are themes that have been tackled a million times in a million genres by a million bands. But the questions they ask and leave unanswered, the vulnerability they show are a revelation for a genre often still trapped in the confines of white suburban masculinity.