Any fan of pop-punk, be it a casual listener or a devotee, would admit that they go in with pretty low expectations for the originality of the guitar parts. No one really bats an eye at the fact that the same chord progressions are used over and over again–it’s foundational to what puts the “punk” in pop-punk. So for a band whose greatest strengths are the drums and the lyrics, it’s frustrating to listen to an album like No Closer to Heaven, where the mix of three electric guitars and a bassist drowns out everything else and makes a cluttered mess out of every song.
Interestingly, The Wonder Years made its fifth album with the same producer as the band’s previous three records, most notably The Greatest Generation, where singer Dan Campbell’s lyrics were always as clear as a window. Perhaps a lack of clarity was the band’s point this time around, with lyrics on “Stained Glass Ceilings” stating that if a window is too clear, a bird will fly straight into it. Campbell has clarified in pre-release interviews that the album’s general thesis statement is how people can never hope to have full clarity about the world, the titular “heaven” referring to the sort of enlightenment where everything in the world makes sense.
Allowing this viewpoint to dictate the record’s sound, however, forces listeners into a corner. (While this is only an assumption, the mixing agent Phil Nicolo probably isn’t to blame; as one half of the Butcher Bros., he’s won a Grammy and mixed records for artists ranging from Title Fight to John Lennon.) In this corner, there are only two ways to enjoy this record: blast the record as mindlessly fun background music, or sit down with the CD booklet to actively read along with the otherwise indiscernible lyrics. Take the first option and listeners end up with an enjoyable pop-punk album that only occasionally surprises, such as the Beach Boys-esque a cappella intro to “A Song for Ernest Hemingway” or the darkly melodic chorus on album highlight “Palm Reader.”
Take the second option, however, and listeners (readers?) will realize this album is attempting to create something bigger than an “enjoyable pop-punk album.” The lyrics contain stabs at pharmaceutical companies, ruminations on death, and criticisms of the American Dream, while the guitar work hints at post-rock and prog, from the steady build of the aforementioned “Stained Glass” to the dual guitar solo in “The Bluest Things on Earth.”
Even if the band remixed No Closer to Heaven, The Wonder Years still wouldn’t be sitting on a perfect record. A song as great as “Slow Dancing with San Andreas” being delegated to bonus-track-status makes the band appear afraid to sound too pop-punk on this record, even though that’s still what the band does best. Likewise, Campbell isn’t as convincing writing about these larger lyrical themes as he is when writing about the tiny details of life. His complaints about the American economy seem like a retread of The Blackest Beautiful by letlive., which is only magnified by a guest spot from letlive.’s vocalist Jason Butler. Meanwhile, the delicate love song “You in January” hits home, albeit simultaneously feeling out of place from the rest of the album, with lines like, “You were the one thing I got right,” “When you tell me you love me/I can actually see it,” and “I ran the dishwasher this morning/I wanted there to be clean plates for you tonight.”
Overall, too many of these songs feel like they weren’t lived with long enough, practiced long enough. There are too many words, too many guitar parts fighting for space, all lacking in subtlety and the tasteful playing that can only come by a band practicing songs over and over. Campbell in particular comes across as unedited to a fault, his lyrics like mouthfuls and his melodies uncomfortably similar to those from older Wonder Years songs. Some songs here could have also benefited from staying small and never building to the big explosions that this record is littered with. Both the album and alternate versions of “Palm Reader” prove that the band can make unrivaled pop-rock as well as beautiful soft rock. Next time around, The Wonder Years should consider a long overdue change in producers, a change in aesthetic by having keyboardist/guitarist Nick Steinborn adjust his role to strictly a keyboardist, and an agreement among all involved that making interesting pop-punk doesn’t mean trying so painfully hard not to make pop-punk.
3.5 stars out of 5
Note: Prior to writing this review, I’d listened to the album on headphones and car speakers that all consistently made the album sound terrible. Now, I’m listening to the album over my MacBook’s internal speakers and I can actually understand the lyrics just fine. These cheap speakers do a solid job of compressing the instruments. Time will tell if this changes my thoughts on the record. Still, this record doesn’t have the craft, emotionally wrecking lyrics, and musical surprises that allow The Greatest Generation to continually amaze me and sound fresh two years after its release.