The Evolution of Dan Campbell and The Wonder Years

Read this Spin piece: https://www.spin.com/featured/wonder-years-sister-cities-interview-profile/

Pop punk has gotten a bad rap, with certain critics taking issue with self-effacing or pitying lyrics and whiny vocal delivery. OK, I mean, that’s kind of fair. But as has been demonstrated time and again, the stereotypical acts that defined and were influenced by that sound grew into something more. The Wonder Years, and frontman Dan Campbell, is one such example. And look, I like the band’s “immature” debut, GET STOKED ON IT! (2007), a record that gets trashed by Campbell himself!

But sure, it’s typical pop punk silliness, represented best by the goofy “Keystone State Dude-Core” and “Let’s Moshercise!!!” There aren’t literally references to pizza (maybe there are at some point), but you get the picture. I think every track on the record is super catchy, and besides some questionable lyrical content, GET STOKED ON IT! is a fun listen. But it’s a far cry from the emotional and musical depths the group would explore with every subsequent release. THE UPSIDES (2010) was an evolved record of lyrical angst, eschewing a lot of the over-the-top humor of The Wonder Years’ debut; it’s still present, but we’re entering a “trilogy” of Campbell-driven “loneliness” albums.

SUBURBIA I’VE GIVEN YOU ALL AND NOW I’M NOTHING (2011) feels like the key transition point. The band’s wry humor is on display especially in “My Life as a Pigeon” and “Local Man Ruins Everything,” but everything is tinged with simmering disassociation that would come to the fore with THE GREATEST GENERATION (2013), fittingly the band’s best album. Although the previous two releases had been described as sort of “concept”-ish records, containing a unified sonic and emotional through line, THE GREATEST GENERATION truly congealed unlike any other Wonder Years album before it. And indeed, the two since have not congealed as well, although the thematic commitment has only increased on NO CLOSER TO HEAVEN (2015) and SISTER CITIES (2018).

In fact, NO CLOSER TO HEAVEN is totally and literally a concept album, following the loss of a loved one. Its release on the heels of Campbell’s solo debut as Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, the incredible WE DON’T HAVE EACH OTHER (2014), solidifies the clear demarcation of artistic inspiration that seems to drive The Wonder Years’ three distinct “eras.” Aaron West is a fictional character created by Campbell, and the “group’s” records (the sophomore release ROUTINE MAINTENANCE [2019] is on the way as I write these words) will chart the arc of his life. The whole project is sort of an epic pop punk TOMMY (1969) extension. But what’s most interesting about it is its step away from the pop punk sound, and that’s part of the appeal of the new Wonder Years records as well.

The evolution of Campbell and the band is not simply a turn to “darker” lyrics or more self-serious, inaccessible music composition. By NO CLOSER TO HEAVEN, the music has taken on an almost orchestral and choral quality, perhaps hammered home by the album’s art and its religious themes, as well as opening track “Brothers &.” It’s heavier stuff (at least musically) than the Aaron West work, however. WE DON’T HAVE EACH OTHER is much more rooted in folk rock, folk punk, whatever you want to call it, Americana tainted with a modern filter of anger and sadness; Campbell has cited Bright Eyes and The Mountain Goats as inspirations. It still has his powerful, pop punk voice, for which Campbell should also be praised. It’s come a long way from the deeper yet Tom DeLonge-ish drawl of GET STOKED ON IT!

The resonance of The Wonder Years’ and Dan Campbell’s angst is not lost on me either, a sad boi with a lot on his emotional plate. That incisiveness has only gotten sharper as the musicality of the group has grown increasingly complex, evolving beyond the relatively shallow depths of the pop punk stream. This is just a short piece appreciating one of my favorite bands and its frontman, who as part of a larger whole is not to be solely credited for The Wonder Years’ success (songwriting credit goes to the whole band for each album), but who as a lyrical force and a solo act deserves recognition. I’ve never cried listening to multiple Wonder Years/Aaron West songs, YOU’VE cried listening to multiple Wonder Years/Aaron West songs.

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