The Wonder Years – No Closer To Heaven
Emo became a pejorative at some point in the past ten years. I first encountered the word describing a grouping of bands who were described as “the sensitive young man’s answer to riot grrl”, which included such acts as The Promise Ring, early Jimmy Eat World, Texas Is The Reason, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Jawbreaker. It was punk rock with style and grace, with hectoring vocals about girls. Heartbreak, struggle, trying to get over loss, but ultimately about the opposite sex.
At some point this became twisted and emo became redefined. Someone who’s “emo” now dresses in black, has a hairdo that only hair spray and a staunch defiance of gravity could create, cakes on the makeup, and likely bears the scars of cutting themselves. They listen to Pierce The Veil and Black Veil Brides. It’s a fashion statement rather than a particular subgenre of punk, and even though punk rock itself is a fashion statement more than a genre, it’s become a widely derided form. Bands that once rocked the emo label now go by the much safer “post-hardcore” and pretend that other term never existed.
The Wonder Years are a band that is firmly of the older version of the word “emo”. They’re a band whose music has often relied on the tropes pioneered by those bands from the late Nineties; 2011’s Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing was a spearhead in the so-called “emo revival”, coming off as a somewhat poppier Sunny Day Real Estate. Their lyrics were, of course, about growing up, and girls, but they structured it in such a way that it felt searing and sincere rather than pop-cheesy like the spawn on My Chemical Romance. Between that and 2013’s The Greatest Generation they’ve made a name for themselves as an accessible entry point for neo-emo, or post-hardcore, or whatever people are calling it nowadays.
No Closer To Heaven changes up the recipe a little. Their previous three albums – The Upsides, Suburbia, and The Greatest Generation – were a trilogy that examined Dan Campbell’s coming-of-age, with all of the inherent fear and loneliness that came along with it. There was a poppiness to them that allowed for singalong choruses and that dreaded word “accessibility”. No Closer To Heaven, however, is not poppy; it’s a collection of heart-wrenching pieces with bare nods to accessibility, full of midnight confessions, long bridges, circular patterns, and everything that made an album like Diary great. Amidst this are two homages to great artists who died young: Patsy Cline, who predicted her own death in a 1963 plane crash, and Ernest Hemingway, the great author who, ragged from shock treatments, shot himself in his Iowa home in 1961. “Song For Patsy Cline” is particularly haunting: “My airbag light’s been on for weeks / And I keep having dreams / Where I go through the windshield but I don’t fix it / Patsy Cline came and sang to me / She told everybody / How she knew she would die soon before she did”. It’s a fitting setup for the theme of loss that runs through the album. “Cigarettes & Saints” is the most explicit of the examples of this theme, being more or less a eulogy for Campbell’s departed friend Mike Pellone, who died of a drug overdose before No Closer To Heaven was completed. “Twice a week I pass by the church that held your funeral” he sings, “And the pastor’s words come pouring down like rain / How he called you a sinner and said now you walk with Jesus / So the drugs that took your life aren’t gonna cause you any pain / I don’t think he even knew your name / And I refuse to kneel and pray / I won’t remember you that way”. “Thanks For The Ride” talks about another friend that died in a car crash; instead of dwelling on her death, he pretends that they simply lost touch after college, and that she’s living in California, married with a new baby. These themes get tied up together on the final track, “No Closer To Heaven”: dead birds, Patsy Cline, car crashes, Ernest Hemingway, and wandering in circles.
No Closer To Heaven is a summation of everything that the neo-emo/post-hardcore “movement” stands for. It builds upon the bones of much older bands and builds something raw and real out of them, adding on to the canon of those bands rather than engaging in rote recreation of their music. In moving away from the pop-punk end of the emo spectrum they prove their artistic bona fides and set themselves apart.