The Wonder Years’ sixth studio album Sister Cities explores themes of grief, helplessness, addiction, hope, and nostalgia that hang beautifully over dynamic instrumentation.
With this album, the band is leaving behind their signature pop punk sound for a grittier, more emotional tone.
Sister Cities was written over two years of travel across five continents. Vocalist Dan “Soupy” Campbell describes the album as “a record about distance or maybe how little the distance matters anymore.”
On the opening track, Kyoto, Campbell’s grief strikes the listener fast setting the tone of the album. Taking place in rainy Kyoto, Japan, Campbell attempts to cope with the death of his grandfather while being in an entirely different continent.
“Confused and alone and taking pills to sleep, they soften your absence but they don't let me dream,” Campbell moans softly over the steadily beating guitar and drums. It’s tracks like Kyoto and the following Pyramids of Salt that sincerely translate the grief from the writer to the listener.
Pyramids of Salt is one of the more emotional tracks on the album along with songs like Flowers Where Your Face Should Be and When the Blue Finally Came.
On Pyramids, Soupy touches on the feeling of being helpless to those you love. With timid vocals and somber instruments on the verse, Campbell yearns, “There’s a bird inside your rib cage, he screams so I never forget.” Soupy shoulders the weight of his demons just two tracks into the album.
This album comes in waves of emotion, giving little time to catch your breath but it’s in the titular track, Sister Cities, where the encompassing theme of the record is explored. Stranded in Santiago, Chile, the band was offered help by Chilean fans who set up a last minute show for them.
Despite the band being far from their hometown in Pennsylvania, they were able to rely on the kindness of strangers in a time of need. So, the theme of “sister cities” is much broader in its message.
As Campbell described the album, we don’t realize how close to everyone and everywhere else we really are. “The Andes hold me close, a mother’s only son. I feel weightless in the valley, like I’m everywhere at once,” Soupy confesses.
It Must Get Lonely seems to be somewhat of a homage to the bands former sound musically. This song reminds me of summer, a guitar melody that pushes itself into your brain and lyrics that evoke contemplation. This song begins to poke at the theme of addiction with Campbell pleading, “If you gotta tell me you’re not using, it’s probably ‘cause you are.”
The feeling of nostalgia is hard to escape as it looms large over a few tracks in the album. Massively in Flowers Where Your Face Should Be and The Orange Grove. In Flowers, Campbell’s voice floats over a bright guitar melody as he’s able to find pieces of home in his foreign travels, “I feel further from home than I've ever been. These thin lines of light across space tether you to me, they pull in my memories, back to our apartment on 2nd Street.” What’s haunting about these tracks is the way they’re composed to feel nostalgic yet dismal. Campbell is almost crying for help when he sings “God, take me back to the orange grove that I found deep in the desert. The air sweet as a miracle, it can’t survive but grows. West Texas is dying slow.”
The loose ends of the album are anything but that, as they are all unique in their composition.
However, they’re still able to relate back to the central theme of the album. Tracks like Heaven’s Gate, We Look Like Lightening and The Ghosts of Right Now helm their own complex message.
What The Wonder Years are truly known for are their affinity for blossoming and interlacing final tracks.
This album is no different, as The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me ties up this album brilliantly. In this triumphant confession, faded into through reversed instruments, Campbell admits “I stopped making deals with God right around when you left. I said that I would start believing if they made you well again.”
Though it’s in this same song where he realizes that it would be futile to fight the fate that life hands you.
It’s evident that Soupy’s found solace in relying on those around him - putting his trust in strangers.
In which the ocean not only symbolizes everyone but the connection to everywhere else. Campbell’s final words of this album echo loudly, “I miss everyone at once and most of all, I miss the ocean.”
Driven by vulnerable lyrics and gracefully bold instrumentation, Sister Cities is an adventure spanning 44-minutes that will leave you missing everyone.