“The whole world wants you to be miserable. It wants you to put your head down, sigh to yourself and give up on being happy, and I know just as well as anyone that sometimes, giving up seems like the only option, but if you take one thing from this record I hope it’s this: Don’t give those mother-fuckers an inch. Stand your ground every chance you get because everybody deserves a chance to be happy.”
Those words, scribbled on a crumpled up piece of paper pictured on the middle of the vinyl record, conclude a lengthy passage regarding The Upsides. In those four sentences, The Wonder Years’ frontman Dan Campbell sums up everything that this record has to offer. As much as it is an album of sadness and exhaustion, it is more importantly an album of positivity and perseverance. Above all else, The Upsides is an album of hope, hope that still resonates five years later.
Our favorite records are, more often than not, products of not only the music itself, but the context in which we’re first exposed to them. When The Upsides was released in January 2010, I was starting my last semester of high school. Growing up in the rich, white suburbs of Houston, I was equally ecstatic and terrified to leave the comfy, yet claustrophobic confines of my hometown to go to college. With those conflicting emotions constantly rattling through my conscious, The Upsides became the soundtrack to those last few months.
It was a huge step in shaping my taste. The Upsides was fast and in your face, but also introspective and had depth to it, something new to a kid who’s main pop punk influence at that time was Blink-182 (forever one of the most important bands ever to me, but lacking the emotional drive I found in The Wonder Years). I give a lot of credit to The Upsides for leading me down the long emo road to a world today where my paychecks go directly into the pocket of whatever #emorevival twinkle daddy band is blowing up. I had been enthralled by this music scene since buying my first CD, Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American, and was always in tune with the lyrics and messages behind the songs, but The Upsides was essentially the first album that felt like it was speaking directly to me and my life. Campbell may have been speaking from a slightly older perspective, but it all translated perfectly to my own world. The Upsides changed the way I connected with music and I am a better consumer of music because of it.
After one last summer at home with the friends I had lived my entire life with, it was off to college, and as different as the environment was, the impact of those songs remained the same. My tenure at school was far from tumultuous; I enjoyed some of the best years of my life there. But in those inevitable tough moments, being able to turn on “Hostels and Brothels” was a comforting reassurance that “I guess my dad was right”.
A few weeks into my first semester, one of my best friends drove four hours on a school night to meet me in Austin to see The Wonder Years open for Four Year Strong at Emos (old, rad Emos, not new Emos. RIP Old Dirty Emos). As one of the few people I knew who was into the same kind of music as me (most of my group of college friends listened to shit like Tool. Yeah, I don’t understand how those friendships happened either), it was great to share the passion for The Upsides with someone, even just for that one show. Being just a few months after its release, the band’s set was dominated by cuts from the new record and, despite my already unflinching love for it, that specific performance amplified my adoration for The Upsides exponentially. As powerful and moving as the album is on its own, when it’s screamed from a group of like-minded people at the top of their lungs, it takes on a life of its own. The band poured every ounce of their soul into playing those songs and the crowd reciprocated. As impactful as “Washington Square Park” is on recording, hearing Campbell’s voice crack as his vocal cords strain to their very limit to bellow the final refrains of “If no one’s in my corner/Since everyone left/I better make it worth it” is something that forever changed the way I heard that song and the rest of that album.
Fast forward five years and I have graduated from college and moved across the country to a state where I didn’t know a single person. Those feelings of anxiety that I had before college have returned magnified by thousands, as being 15 hours away from home is a hell of a lot farther than being three hours away. But as different as those two situations are, as different of a person as I am now, my escape is the same. It’s as though The Upsides is growing as I grow. With each subsequent listen I find myself discovering new things on this record that didn’t speak to 18-year-old Nick the way they speak to 23-year old Nick. The message of optimism and the outpouring of emotion that emobdies The Upsides is something that will always affect me, no matter the situation, and that makes this album truly special in my eyes.
I would be lying to you if I said it was the best record the band has made. The Wonder Years have simply become a better band with each release, and I don’t doubt that that will change as they move forward and continue to take over our music scene. But regardless of the band’s technical growth, the complete package of The Upsides, from the music to the lyrics to the message to the live performance to the indescribable feeling it exudes, is something that I will carry with me forever, undoubtedly returning to it for that same comfort at every valley to come in life. It is a reminder of hope and a reminder that “I’m not sad anymore”.