“Pop punk…is a fusion music genre that combines elements of punk rock with pop music to varying degrees …The music typically combines fast punk tempos, chord changes, and loud guitars with pop-influenced melodies and musical themes.”
-“Pop punk” entry on Wikipedia.org
There was any number of wonderfully challenging and underappreciated albums in the year 2013. Post-hardcore stalwarts letlive. gifted us with the violent, blisteringly ambitious The Blackest Beautiful. Kanye West abandoned the lush, multilayered bombast of his previous records for the spastic, industrial-tinged insanity that was Yeezus. Old-school emo (of the Sunny Day Real Estate/Texas Is the Reason variety) saw a mini-revival of sorts in wonderful releases such as Have Mercy’s The Earth Pushed Back or Whenever, If Ever by The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die (yes, that is their honest-to-God name.) Also, Miley Cyrus realized that she had a really long tongue and wanted to show everybody.
Yet for all these wild experiments and throwbacks in genre, the record that I grew to love the most, that touched me deepest, that hasn’t really left my car stereo since June, belongs to that most evergreen of musical genres. The one built on simple chords and fast drums and huge choruses. The genre that birthed blink-182, the band that was arguably the entry point into music for every male aged 18-25: pop-punk.
It might also bear mentioning that a yearly tradition of mine is picking up the new Warped Tour compilation. The Warped Tour is an all-summer-long music and skateboarding festival, sponsored by footwear giant Vans, and is a showcase for primarily punk and hardcore bands, though they’ve got a place for damn near everything these days. Every year, before the tour, they release a compilation: 2 discs, 25 songs a piece, each song from a different band that will be on the tour that summer. And while these releases have become mired in a few too many shitty br00t-core bands lately, I know that there will always be at least one song from one band I’ve never heard of that will rock my world. Of course, they also serve the function of allowing me to listen to bands I’ve heard of but never really considered, or more importantly, reintroduce me to bands I had previously written off. The Wonder Years is just such a band.
The Greatest Generation is the third in a trilogy of loosely connected albums, starting with The Upsides and followed by Suburbia: I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing. The connection is more thematic than anything, albeit with a few callbacks to other Wonder Years songs sprinkled throughout, and chronicles singer and lyricist Dan “Soupy” Campbell’s anxieties about growing up and his struggles with depression.
Of course, catchy, fast-paced songs about anxiety and broken hearts are par for the course in the pop-punk, and thought I’d heard some Wonder Years songs prior and enjoyed them (“Don’t Let Me Cave In” and “I Was Scared and I’m Sorry” in particular), I wasn’t convinced they were distinct enough to hold my attention for a whole album. That is, until I heard “Cul-de-sac,” an impassioned goodbye to a childhood friend who’s succumbed to drug and alcohol addiction. Over frantic drumming and roiling guitars, the chorus zings back and forth from proclamations as defiant as “I’m letting go!” to as defeated as “I thought my kids would call you uncle/I thought we’d never be alone.” Does it reinvent the wheel musically? Absolutely not. But the band demonstrated a tightness in their musicianship that I hadn’t heard before, a tightness that supported the already strong lyrics in such a way as to really, really get to me. So, to quote Gandhi, I Spotified that shit.
The Greatest Generation opens with a musical curveball in “There, There” (no, not the Radiohead one) which is easily the softest song in The Wonder Years’ repertoire, as Campbell gently croons “I’m sorry I don’t laugh at the right times” over a bed of gently strummed guitars. Even when the song picks up, it maintains a soothing melancholy (if that makes any sense.) It’s short but sweet, and easily one of the album’s highlights, though it soon gives way to more familiar territory with “Passing Through a Screen Door.” Another gem on an album filled with them, its rollicking punk rhythms are also home to the lyrics (and the bridge) that hit me most squarely in the chest on the whole record:
“Jesus Christ, I’m 26/All the people I 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?”
In fact, Campbell’s lyrics have a way of using specific details to create universal emotions, whether he’s invoking times and places by “Staring out at snowplowed mountains/In the parking lots of churches” on “We Could Die Like This” or remembering how “My mother wore her sundress on the day that she got married” on the frantic, heartfelt “Teenage Parents.” And though the music slides from loud to quiet to manic to soft, it does so organically, a trait best embodied in “The Devil in My Bloodstream.” Opening over a somber piano keys, Campbell ponders how “We wiped out all the buffalo/Around the turn of the last century,” before around the two-minute mark he lets his existential angst surge forth, bellowing “I bet I’d be a fucking coward!/I bet I’d never have the guts for war!” It’s a track the really serves as the cornerstone of the album, a meeting place of all its musical and thematic ideas.
The Wonder Years also wrote The Greatest Generation with big-ass refrains in mind and a will to use them. Strangely enough, they stick majority of their most memorable in the bridges, whether it’s the steady thump of “I was just happy to be a contender/I was just thankful for anything” from “A Raindance in Traffic” to “Dismantling Summer’s” soaring “If I’m in an airport/And you’re in a hospital bed/Well, then what kind of man does that make me?” Unorthodox placement or not, that these songs manage to be so catchy and kick so much ass would be achievement enough in its own right. But The Wonder Years pull the hattrick of bringing it all back around in “I Just Wanna Sell Out My Funeral,” a seven-minute epic that starts out as a brilliant song in its own right but at the 3-minute mark starts bringing all the other songs on the album together with jaw-dropping unity.
Though the ease with which these melodies connect might suggest that the tracks blend together, that is certainly not the case, though a couple of songs (“We Could Die Like This”, “The Bastards, the Vultures, the Wolves”) don’t do quite enough to distinguish themselves in the face of such other infectious melodies. In fact, the album’s only real bum note is “Madelyn”, a ballad for a girl haunted by the same demons as our Campbell’s. It’s as excellent lyrically as everything else on the album, but it adopts a jangly folk-song approach that the band isn’t well-versed in enough musically and that Campbell lacks in his range vocally to pull off.
Still, these are minor quibbles on what will no doubt be seen as a masterpiece of the genre. For as close as this album lives with despair, The Greatest Generation is successful not because it wallows in it, but because it knows it and has come through the other side. It knows what it’s like to have been low and to be stuck and to struggle and struggle and struggle just to get out of that place. The Wonder Years know the cautious optimism that comes with getting yourself to a better place, but also the uncertainty of what comes next, and on The Greatest Generation, they convey that knowledge with warmth and understanding. As well as some kick-ass tunes.
After all, as the final strains of “The Devil in My Bloodstream” goes: “I wanna be strong/But it’s not easy anymore”
I think I’m actually gonna use a star rating system for albums. And that rating is…
4.5 out of 5