Published Apr 02, 2018With a calculated mix of deft manoeuvring and brute force, the Wonder Years have broken the bindings of pop punk once and for all. Fans should have seen it coming over the last couple of albums, but Sister Cities is the first of the Pennsylvania heavyweights' records that outright refuses to be defined and pigeonholed. Yet it's also not anything that could drive fans away, but rather is the result of a gradual yet noticeable shift that preserves the band's distinct stylistic markers and singer Dan Campbell's emotive power while applying it all with greater maturity and deliberation.
The title track made for a solid first single, since it's an upbeat, certified rock tune that's immediately catchy. But dive into the album and it quickly shows its vast depth. "Raining in Kyoto" kicks off the record with power; its pummelling bridge and huge choruses show a band putting their backs into their emotional burdens. The harsh cuts between quiet and loud that were a weakness of No Closer to Heaven are expertly smoothed out here, with "Pyramids of Salt" especially nailing a balanced, holistic approach to their songwriting. They show their roots with "Heaven's Gate (Sad & Sober)" and "The Orange Grove," a couple of more straightforward songs that bring the Greatest Generation days to mind.
"Flowers Where Your Face Should Be" is gorgeously arranged, with cascading guitars and ornate string and xylophone parts; it sounds as if springtime were a song. "When the Blue Finally Came" has lush textures and rapturous harmonies, and it does something the Wonder Years rarely let happen — it stays quiet. Rather than exploding into an epic coda, it simply lingers in the air like morning mist. "The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me" closes things out in typical Wonder Years fashion — only one of their albums since 2010's The Upsides hasn't ended with a huge, triumphant grand finale — with a reverberant slow waltz that this time is layered and cinematic, sounding both mournful and hopeful.
The record documents weary travellers no longer haunted by the road, but rather by the reality back home. Campbell finds reminders of pain in places all over the world while trying to hold on to joy in life and love for the people around him. Fresh and ambitious without taking a step too far, Sister Cities is the Wonder Years' most fully realized work, and an artistic statement that deserves to be taken seriously. (Hopeless)