The Wonder Years, “Sister Cities,” and finding refuge

There’s a small wooden torii gate in the middle of a busy intersection downtown. I hadn’t paid it any mind until a few months ago when this website’s favorite band, The Wonder Years, released a perfect teaser trailer for their upcoming album and, a few days later, released its title track “Sister Cities.” The song and the album are about interconnectedness in a world that seems increasingly to foster isolation, and since I first heard that single in mid-February, I’ve thought about the gate nearly every day. On the chorus of the track, frontman Dan Campbell sings “I’m laying low / a stray dog in the street / you took me home / we’re sister cities.” The torii gate is a monument to Fujiyoshida, Japan, Colorado Springs’s sister city, and I’ve been wondering if there’s a similar expression of Colorado Springs on the other side of the world, overlooked, but occasionally reflected on. I’ve been wondering if somebody in Fujiyoshida is wondering the same thing right now, their thoughts mirroring mine but neither of us ever knowing.

The Wonder Years came to Denver last week, and I bought a ticket the day I listened to “Sister Cities.” Their previous album, “No Closer to Heaven,” is very good, but I’ve never needed it the way I need “Sister Cities” or 2013’s “The Greatest Generation.” “Sister Cities” seems to contain all the things I needed to hear right at this moment. I’ve been thinking about the trajectory of life and about where I belong in ways that I usually reserve for birthdays and late Sunday nights. “Sister Cities” feels like it has answers, or at least the encouragement to let go a little and stop worrying about things you can’t control. In “Pyramids of Salt,” Campbell sings “I drew a line in the sand / you washed it away again.”

So I knew I needed to go see them live – this was the first time I’ve ever had the chance to see a band I love this much in their prime. It was a week night; I didn’t care. It was a perfect escape.

For me, The Wonder Years straddle the line between Evangelize Relentlessly and Keep To Myself because the content feels very private and personal even when it’s not indicative of my own experience. They fall just barely on the Evangelize side because I know that for a lot of people, their music will be the same strange refuge that it is for me. I got chills at the concert when Campbell introduced “Coffee Eyes,” saying “this is a song about a diner called Michael’s and a waitress named Patty…but most of all, it’s about a sanctuary.” And going into the first chorus, Campbell’s voice fell away and all I could hear was the crowd singing at the top of their lungs, “there’s always been a table for me there / through coffee eyes and blank stares / our late night affairs / there’s always been a table for me there / so you can try to forget or say it’s the past / you know you’ll always end up right back where you left.” Because of Campbell’s description of the diner’s comforting familiarity and the way it’s been an anchor for him even as he’s left home to travel the world, and the way that description feels a lot like the embrace of the band’s music, “Coffee Eyes” has taken on outsize importance in the Wonder Years narrative.

I’d normally be predisposed to annoyance at constant singing by the audience, but the way our voices mixed with Campbell’s felt special. It seemed like everyone in the audience knew all the words, and the other couple of chill-inducing moments were all assisted by the crowd. During “Cul-de-sac,” one of my favorite songs, the crowd took over the bridge as Campbell sang harmony: “If you walked me home / then you’d know how weak my arms got / I just can’t carry you / if you walked me home / you know that I’d have flashbacks / of snow angels and gut laughs.” The album version of “Dismantling Summer” features a cool harmony on the last line of a chorus – “if I’m in an airport” – and hearing it sung by hundreds of voices was oddly beautiful.

The set omitted a couple of songs that I really would have liked to hear live, like “Flowers Where Your Face Should Be,” “The Ghosts of Right Now,” and “I Just Want To Sell Out My Funeral,” but I realized that there were hardly any songs that I would have wanted cut. There are just so many great Wonder Years songs, and “Sell Out My Funeral” in particular might have been hard to pull off in concert. It’s a gigantic, sprawling closer for “The Greatest Generation,” reprising every song on the album and adding some critical connective tissue.

The album “Sister Cities” is full of vivid imagery and deeply emotional moments. To borrow a phrase from the teaser trailer, which somehow undersells the album’s impact, these songs transport you to places and feelings, and at times make you feel like you’re everywhere at once. Campbell is a supremely gifted songwriter, and he ties those places and feelings to others without ever beating you over the head with that theme. In “We Look Like Lightning,” Campbell sings “the beacon out there on the wing / it lights the clouds from inside out / from the ground we look like lightning.” In this album, the Wonder Years tell us that these tiny connections matter and that they add up to more than their sum. A kid on the ground looks up at an airplane and someone in the window seat looks down at the ground – without communication, those people share something in common.

Of course, it’s not all fleeting coincidences – more than anything else, “Sister Cities” tells us that it’s okay to feel alone, and it’s okay to feel overwhelmed. The record assures us that we all have those feelings in common, and that there are always people willing to help us climb out of the dark moments.

The Wonder Years have an interesting knack for maintaining thematic and lyrical continuity between albums without peppering songs with obscure references that wouldn’t make sense out context. References to earlier albums add to the songs if you catch them, but don’t take away from them if you don’t. “Passing Through a Screen Door” from “The Greatest Generation” contains this lyric: “The highway won / I’m listening to traffic reports one-on-one / coming quietly undone,” a reference to “Me vs. the Highway” on the 2011 album “Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing.” The line works without any context, but with it, “Me vs. the Highway” sets up “Screen Door” as a reflection on the problems with romanticizing the past as a road map for the future. In “When the Blue Finally Came,” a short, haunting setup for the dramatic catharsis at the end of “Sister Cities,” Campbell quietly sings “watch the sun burn out and dig itself a grave / in the ocean south of Sydney, off the interstate / I hold out my hand trying not to shake,” a callback to the ending of “A Raindance in Traffic” from “The Greatest Generation:” “I used to have such steady hands / but now I can’t keep them from shaking.” There are a bunch of these nods to past songs and to overlapping inspirations, and all this connectivity adds to a pervasive feeling that Wonder Years songs are more than a little biographical.

It would hardly be an irrational confidence post for me without some reference to my love of Hawaii, but it’s extremely relevant this time. Some of the shots in the “Sister Cities” teaser are almost definitely from Hawaii, and the record’s closing song captures all the feelings of shelter and belonging that run through “Coffee Eyes,” “Hoodie Weather,” “Logan Circle,” and many other Wonder Years songs. “Sister Cities” ends with booming catharsis in “The Ocean Grew Hands To Hold Me.” There was never any doubt that this would be the last pre-encore song at the concert; it’s simple by the band’s standards, but it’s the most emotional song on the album. It feels like the thesis statement that’s been building for eight years, since the release of the first real Wonder Years album, “The Upsides.” Through struggle and sadness, Campbell learns to trust the people around him and the connections that link him to the rest of the world: “I trust in the current to pull you back in / I miss everyone at once / but most of all, I miss the ocean.”

I’m not traditionally a big pop-punk fan, and I know that a lot of people get turned off stylistically on first listen. But if you get into the lyrics or the guitar riffs or something, you’ll come to love the quirks of the genre and of Campbell’s voice specifically as you listen to the albums over and over again. My entry point was the opening track on “Suburbia,” “Came Out Swinging.” The chorus alone was echoing in my head for weeks: “I spent this year as a ghost and I’m not sure what I’m looking for / I’m a voice on a phone that you rarely answer anymore / I came in here alone, came in here alone / that doesn’t scare me like it did / I spent this year as a ghost and I’m not sure where home is anymore.” I probably listened to that song a hundred times and then thought, hey, maybe I should listen to the rest of their stuff, and was hooked after one full listen of “Suburbia.” It’s been fun to follow the band’s evolution, and I think the correct album catch-up order is as follows, if you’re interested: Suburbia, The Greatest Generation, The Upsides, No Closer to Heaven, and finally Sister Cities. “Sister Cities” and “The Greatest Generation” in particular stand alone really well.

“Sister Cities” (and Campbell’s songwriting in general) puts words to fleeting feelings that I could never hope to capture here, which is probably why half of this post is quotes. The Wonder Years are the band you never knew you needed, and if you’ve ever found yourself feeling lost or isolated or hopeless, you should give them a listen.

Going to this show alone was the right call; alone is usually the best way to listen to Wonder Years music. One of my favorite lines from “Chaser” goes like this: “when you clear out all the smoke / I guess everyone’s alone / when you clear out all the smoke / I don’t see why that’s so wrong.” “Sister Cities” amends this thought and tells us that it’s okay to be alone because you never really are.

Standing in that crowd felt foreign, but it somehow also felt like being home. It was a perfect microcosm of the album – I was tired, overwhelmed at work, and I’d arrived feeling nervous and alone, but I knew that so many other people there felt the exact same way. I didn’t say a word to anyone, but when I set out on the long drive home, I felt like I’d found a sanctuary.

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