There and Back Again: The Wonder Years Find Themselves on the Road
The “travelogue” album: a nebulous idea, as hard to pin down as the roving musicians who tend to write from that sensibility. Aside from its being difficult to categorically define, there is also the question of what even qualifies for consideration. Must it be an album about traveling and seeing different parts of the country and the world? Perhaps it's an album that is written while the artist(s) are on the road? Or one that is neither of those definitively but imparts a sense of momentum and plays well on long car rides? It is not a stretch to say that there isn't an agreed-upon paradigm for this concept. And yet, we know one when we hear it… We know that Highway 61 Revisited is a quintessential outpouring of blues-rock that feels like a cross-sectional slice of Americana, boasting tracks like “Like a Rolling Stone” and “From a Buick 6” that each offer more than their fair share of traveling imagery. We know that Hotel California feels itself distinctly like a drive down the Pacific Coast, living “Life in the Fast Lane” and being the “New Kid in Town” before winding up at the titular establishment where the only logical thing to do is drown in a bottle of booze and lament all the “Wasted Time”. These albums may or may not be of the “travelogue” variety, but they certainly offer glimpses of the idea, each in their own way.
For The Wonder Years to come out with one in 2018 feels like both a logical next step and a surprising left turn for the band. Sister Cities wears its heart on its acid-washed denim sleeve as it catapults through a song cycle that slingshots the listener around the world (Kyoto, the Irish Sea, Montmartre, the Andes, an unnamed “prairie town” and more all make appearances) before pausing to reflect on a life spent never standing still while pensively gazing at the ocean’s uncaring rise and fall.
In a recent interview with Gold Flake Paint, frontman Dan Campbell discussed his desire to create a sense of “[being] in so many places at once and…skipping back and forth…if I can get you to shift where you are three times over the course of [a] song, that’s a huge success.” For many songwriters, the desire to do this might become a gimmick that turns into a crutch – like a plot-heavy movie with little regard for character-building, if you can keep the audience on the edge of their seat with scene changes then the pressure of showing layered character work is lessened. It is a credit to the band then that this never feels like the case and the perspective-shifting never feels like a party trick. Each change in locale comes with its own lived-in point-of-view that feels grounded in something (or someone) real, someone with a story to tell. The title track is a good example of this, as the narrator recounts a voyage from South America into the uncertain sociopolitical terrain of a new homeland where they feel disconnected and under a vague but constant threat – we see here that the human experience doesn’t change so much from place to place: fear is fear and connection is connection, no matter where you are.
Elsewhere, “We Look Like Lightning” paints a tableau of people who are physically in-between places but feeling a similar existential dread: “I’m suddenly aware of our speed…from the ground we look like lightning.” While in the act of traveling itself, we see ourselves in the faces of those around us – hopeful, scared, bored, excited, often combinations of all of these at once. In that setting, an impending disaster would feel, at least in some way, the exact same to everyone involved – and just like that, the myriad faces become so many mirrors.
This is the magic of Sister Cities as an album. Across its song cycle, we hear stories and are shown images of people who are different from us and come from different places. We are invited inside the thoughts of strangers in strange lands, and we are allowed to bask in a warm glow alongside characters in the profound comfort of a home, even if that home is a memory. In that same GFP interview, Campbell says that throughout the writing process, he “kept coming back to these themes of symmetry; of seeing myself in others and others in myself.” The defining statement of Sister Cities might well be this ability to create a work ostensibly about traveling that recognizes moments in which the human condition is reflected in the same ways all over the world – different people with different thoughts, values, and ideas, yes, but all yearning for connection and immediacy in the same ways.
In whatever pantheon may exist of travel-centric records, Sister Cities feels like a more-than-worthy addition and it comes at a perfect time in the band’s storied evolution from a solid-if-forgettable pop-punk mainstay into one of the new champions of a resurgent emo scene. And now, several albums in, it feels like the group is laser-focused on what they want to say just as they’ve arrived at the absolute height of their musical powers.
On Sister Cities The Wonder Years finds that no matter where they go, there they are.