If you were to tell The Wonder Years, back when they formed in 2005, that they’d someday be writing a record with deeply-rooted themes of classism, drug use, and religion, they’d probably find it very hard to believe. Back then, the band was still pretty much considered by its own members a joke, a way to let off steam by writing synth-heavy pop punk songs about Cap’n Crunch, zombies, and how tough it is to be in a committed relationship with a ninja.
Nevertheless, No Closer To Heaven, the band’s fourth “serious” release and possibly their most thematically mature one to date, covers all the aforementioned topics and more, with a sense of emotional transparency that’s only become more and more prominent in the band’s music with each release. The source of this brutal, uncompromising honesty is vocalist/lyricist Dan Campbell. Though he may not consider himself the centerpiece of the The Wonder Years, his lyrical style and passionate delivery represent everything that separates the band from the “typical pop punk” landscape of today, creating a final product that resonates with the listener at a deeper level than just heartbreak and homesickness.
Of course, when writing for a band like The Wonder Years, following up each succeeding release proves to be a more monumental challenge every time. As an answer to the sprawling middle-class epic Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing, the band put out The Greatest Generation; an album based primarily on personal reflection via weightier thematic material. It was a giant leap for a band once known as “the dudes who wrote that one song about ‘moshercising’”, but it paid off exponentially, giving the band the freedom to explore creative territory never even dreamed of by another pop punk band up until that point.
The result of this thematic boundary-pushing is No Closer To Heaven, a record that essentially picks up where The Greatest Generation left off and pushes everything it did well into the stratosphere. There is, perhaps most importantly, the heavy subject material – Campbell covers everything from how he fears he may die to the death of others, to classism and societal limitations of what the underprivileged can accomplish, to the concept of heaven and where the friends he has lost may be at this very moment.
The most prominent of these friends is the late Mike Pelone, a close companion to the band who lost his life to a drug overdose in 2010. While the band has written about and dedicated songs to Mike in the past (most notably “We Won’t Bury You”, released shortly after his death), No Closer To Heaven is full of references – “Cigarettes and Saints”, for example, is an intricate tale of the guilt, grief, and pain that comes from losing a loved one.
That guilt, grief, and pain is what really defines No Closer To Heaven as a complete package – although not every single song is about death, the subject is hinted at time and time again in different ways. Whether Campbell is talking about his feelings on religion or how he personally feels he’ll be judged in the “afterlife”, death seems to be looming over the record like a dark, ominous cloud. It doesn’t always make for a depressing thematic result, however, it definitely works to provide a backdrop of harsh reality that makes the more jovial sounding tracks still feel like they’re a part of the larger theme.
Instrumentally, while the band has progressively gotten further and further away from the groovy, hook-heavy pop punk sound that defined their early work, a lot of elements of that particular style still remain. This isn’t at all a bad thing, however, as the band’s knack for songwriting that draws the listener in with accessibility helps them to access the message and theme of the song as well. It may not sound exactly like a New Found Glory or Motion City Soundtrack record (although those bands are two of The Wonder Years’ biggest influences), but it doesn’t need to – No Closer To Heaven is grown-up pop punk with a grown-up sense of where it’s going and where it’s been. It’s not exactly a common sound for a band to have, but it’s not too farfetched to say that it’s exactly what the genre needs right now.
In short, then, The Wonder Years made the exact record they needed to make with No Closer To Heaven: mature, focused, and dynamic, while still drawing in new fans all the same with it’s powerful-yet-infectious sound. For a band that always seems to be firing on all cylinders, they’ve certainly outdone themselves this time, releasing an album that separates itself from the pack with a sense of urgency – perhaps to get the stories told on the record out to the world, or perhaps to speak to the notion that we’re all slowly running out of time.