It was a chilly day on Mar. 30 in Wicker Park, one I was thoroughly unprepared for after a four-hour drive into Chicago earlier in the morning. I clutched a copy of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” reading and shivering with my hands in my sleeves, waiting in a line that circled around the back of a storefront. Upon finally entering the shop — a pop-up put on by a band known as The Wonder Years in preparation for the release of their newest record Sister Cities — I approached a copy of the record’s accompanying poetry/photo book. Flipping through, I encountered an image spanning two of the book’s massive pages that immediately caught my eye: a photo of lead singer Dan Campbell crying in the rain on his knees in front of a shrine. I was forced to take a moment to recompose myself, blindsided by the visceral sorrow of the photograph.
I’ve spent the last five years of my life trying to explain to everyone around me why The Wonder Years are the best band to have ever existed. Five years that began with “‘Dismantling Summer’ is pure poetry, you need to listen to this,” which transitioned to “OK, so when ‘Cigarettes and Saints’ dropped I literally shut down for 24 hours,” and finally to, “Yes, I drove six hours to a small town in Illinois on a whim to see them play, it’s not that big of a deal.” After five years of this, I’ll be absolutely damned if The Wonder Years doesn’t shatter the punk ceiling with Sister Cities.
Accompanying the release of their sixth album is an intricate rollout comprised of the aforementioned pop-up shops in both Chicago and Philadelphia, and in-store acoustic performances across the East and Midwest. The hard work and detail of their efforts shows a band full of passion, earnestly giving their fans an intimate opportunity to experience their art through these curated mediums. Along with copies of the poetry/photo books, the shop space also included framed photos from the extensive traveling that largely inspired Sister Cities and unique merchandise. I was fortunate enough to attend both days of the pop-up shop in Chicago, and during a Q&A midway through the second evening’s performance, frontman Dan Campbell gave a simple explanation for their intricate promotional efforts as a way for the band to reach out to their fans: “Please, please come listen to this; come be a part of this.”
On Sister Cities we find a band shedding the introspection of their past records, looking out into a world they’ve toured twice over, the title itself suggesting a breakdown of cultural divisions. They’re moving beyond the sadness, guilt and frustration that mark most of their previous material, writing songs that appeal to human sensibility rather than their signature cathartic emotionality that might seem more niche. They’ve taken immense risks with their writing on Sister Cities, risks that more than exceed what has come to be expected of a punk-rooted band with indie-rock heart. Second single “Pyramids of Salt” reveals a newfound control over tension and volume, with some of the highest highs and lowest lows on the record; Campbell’s soft notes grace the verses while bellowing vocals burst from the chorus. The band takes this a step further on the closing song “The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me,” an epic, 6-minute track that swells and crashes as intensely as its namesake. “What strikes me most is the symmetry,” Campbell sings softly on “Flowers Where Your Face Should Be,” a song that tenderly reveals its gorgeous lyrical and compositional layers as it progresses. Campbell is referring to the symmetrical nature of the human experience — language, culture and race aside, we all share this common ground. Love, in all of its forms, is the symmetry of being human, and this is the underlying basis for Sister Cities. Because of love we feel loss; because of love we feel comfort; because of love we are the same.
The Wonder Years slowly revealed this theme even before the album was officially announced. A website was posted in late Jan. listing coordinates throughout the globe that lead to clues to unlock the album’s trailer. I happened to be in Manhattan when these arrived, and met a complete stranger also looking for the elusive poster in Chinatown. A small amount of mysterious seven inch records — one side containing “We Looked Like Lightning” and the other a poem in many languages — were sent across the globe to lucky fans. I watched, literally in real time, as fans frantically tried to translate the poem together over social media, a little shocked but more awe-inspired by how easily we are connected in today’s world. On the seven inch’s single, Campbell sings, “Sew the world together tightly / Cinch the gaps with pins and string,” something the band was able to accomplish with their fans all within a few days’ time.
And this is exactly what makes Sister Cities a one-of-a-kind album, a collection of songs cinching the gaps between me, you and everyone else. I mention this not out of grandiosity, but rather out of exactly what I have observed, emotionally and physically, throughout my years as a fan of this band. The Wonder Years, like the human experience, have connected people not just across state lines, but across borders and oceans.
The Wonder Years have written a record so universally resonant, so globally-minded, it’d be misguided to try and ignore it. With Sister Cities, the band has shattered the thematic expectations of their roots, reaching out to the world from their interior rather than focusing on it. I feel fortunate to exist in a world where, beneath political tensions, a constant stream of trauma and tragedy and a world that feels constantly on the brink of collapse, we have a band like The Wonder Years cutting through the divisive chaos to uncover a common, human heartbeat.