This was not an easy decision, nor one that I would have expected when viewing the list of albums to be released in 2013 in advance. A year ago, I had never even heard of The Wonder Years…well, at least not other than some old television show. Albums I expected to impress me in 2013, impressed me. The National’s Trouble Will Find Me was beautiful, sincere, and met all the expectations I had for it. Daft Punk created a brilliant departure from the wompy, dubstep-heavy dance scene of recent years with the throwback that was Random Access Memories. Boards of Canada created an ornate masterpiece with Tomorrow’s Harvest. And then there was the mastery of Miley’s Bangerz (#Sarcasm). In the music world of 2013 we had the earnest advent of the “Wop” and the return to boy bands with the widespread fangirl fawning over One Direction. We saw return of My Bloody Valentine, and the most elaborate Kanye album yet. It was a year dictated by new concepts, and yet, the album that impressed me the most, by far, stuck with the tried and true: guitar, bass, drums, and some killer lyrics.
I stumbled on The Wonder Years’ The Greatest Generation by accident. Being the music snob that I am, I was looking for music recommendations one afternoon last summer – on Metacritic. There, scattered amongst the usual culprits on Metacritic’s High Scores list (remastered oldies’ albums and crazy-experimental soundscapes), was The Greatest Generation. Familiar with the quote, I clicked and read the reviews. I was instantly stunned to see that the high-brow critics had bestowed an astronomical 96/100 on what I quickly learned was the work of a (gasp) POP-PUNK band. Needless to say, Fall Out Boy, Cartel, and New Found Glory usually didn’t find themselves in the company of Fleetwood Mac and The Clash too frequently. I was intrigued.
I cued up The Greatest Generation on Spotify, hoping to see what all the fuss was about. Like I always do with a new album, I sat down and listened to the album in its entirety, chronologically, one time through. I did more than listen, though. I felt this album. Maybe it’s cause I’m a fucked up twenty-three year old trying to find my place in this world, maybe it’s because I’m more interested in listening to what a song is saying than dancing to it, maybe it’s cause I’m a sucker for some palm-muted power chords and a catchy-as-hell chorus every now and then. Whatever it is, The Greatest Generation hit me in a way no album has since my all-time favorite: Jimmy Eat World‘s Clarity. The lyrics relate so perfectly to where I currently am in my life that I can’t help but scream along to every word frontman Dan Campbell screams over the crashing drums and frantic guitars. If you’re in your twenties and feel unsure of what this whole “life” thing means, this album is for you. Period.
The Greatest Generation starts off a little slow, with “There, There,” as Campbell laments “I’m sorry I don’t laugh at the right times” over a crawling guitar hook before the song picks up and the aforementioned line becomes a shouted plea. The opener ends on a high-note, and then rolls into the album’s first single, the excellent “Passing Through A Screen Door.” This masterpiece is what got me hooked on The Wonder Years. If you’re like me, a college graduate who is still figuring out what the hell to do with yourself, “Passing Through A Screen Door” will undoubtedly hit home from the beginning. Campbell’s harsh vocals come in before the music, and he soon hits his mark with the brilliance of “I’m conjuring ghosts on a 40-hour ride home/And they keep asking me what I’m doing with my life/While my cousins go to bed with their wives/I’m feeling like I’m falling behind.” The entire song is a musical and lyrical testament for how far The Wonder Years have come since their cookie-cutter beginnings. “Passing Through A Screen Door” tugs at the heartstrings and inspires the sort of angst you forgot you had in your twenties. When Campbell hits the end of the bridge, screaming out “Jesus Christ, I’m 26/All the people I graduated with/All have kids/All have wives/All have people who care if they come home at night/Well Jesus Christ, did I fuck up?” you can’t help but question your own direction as a young adult. That is what good music does; it makes you reflect on your own life, choices, successes, and failures.
After “Passing Through A Screen Door” ends, the album has, in succession, it’s two catchiest songs. “We Could Die Like This” is an utter sing-along, as “I wanna die in the suburbs” is sung enthusiastically throughout. You can’t listen to the song and not have it stuck in your head for several hours at a minimum, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Writing a catchy song without compromising its intellectual and emotional depth is not an easy task, but it is something The Wonder Years execute brilliantly throughout The Greatest Generation. Soon, “Dismantling Summer” comes on and challenges the previous track for the most instantly-accessible song on the album. The harmonizing Campbell and backup vocalist Matt Brasch accomplish during the bridge? Goosebumps, man. It made me nostalgic for the good ol’ days of John Nolan and Adam Lazzara, some of the first musicians my fourteen year old self loved. Ending the first half of the album are “The Bastards, The Vultures, The Wolves” and “The Devil In My Bloodstream.” The former is perhaps the fastest-paced song on the album, and provides yet another killer chorus. The latter is the sort of song that takes real musical and compositional talent, something 95% of pop-punk bands lack. Your older brother’s pop-punk bands could not have pulled off a song like this. “The Devil In My Bloodstream” starts slow and inches along with some awesome female backing vocals to complement Campbell’s soft crooning. About halfway through, though, the serenity of the song is interrupted as the piano ends and Cambell’s typical vocals blast in: “I bet I’d be a fucking coward/I bet I’d never have the guts for war.” These lyrics are regarding his feelings at a grandfather’s funeral, reflecting on his grandfather’s life in comparison to his own (a grandfather who was, to be sure, part of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation”). The theme of a devil in the bloodstream, some genetically predetermined curse we all face in our family’s lineage, is a recurring theme, and a brilliant metaphor.
As The Greatest Generation passes the halfway point, we are presented with “Teenage Parents” and “Chaser,” two more uptempo, if not upbeat tracks touching on many of the albums other recurring themes: ghosts, the ever-present past, and beating the odds to become a man you are proud of. If “Teenage Parents” is a cry back to Campbell’s turbulent, impoverished past, then “Chaser” is him trying to figure out how exactly to overcome the deck that was long-ago stacked against him. They fit flawlessly. After the gorgeous, harmonized ending to “Chaser,” my least favorite track “An American Religion (FSF)” comes on. This is not to say it’s a bad song, it’s actually still light-years ahead of what The Wonder Years’ contemporaries are capable of writing. Nonetheless, on an album packed with fantastic songs, “An American Religion (FSF)” fails to stand out, and feels a little bland. Thankfully, the next song, the anthemic “A Raindance In Traffic,” picks things back up with more catchy hooks and absolutely shining lyricism. Lines like “I was just happy to be a contender/I was just aching for anything/I used to have such steady hands/But now I can’t keep ’em from shaking” evoke the familiar feelings of a youthful optimism and exuberance that is being constantly replaced with the cold realities of the uncaring world we inhabit, or, as stated in “The Devil In My Bloodstream,” to be “at war with a world that never loved (you).” It’s a concept we can all relate to. After “A Raindance In Traffic” comes the most sedate and mellow track to be found on The Greatest Generation, the subtle, short, and sweet “Madelyn.” Campbell, seemingly near the point of a breakdown with each word, pleads “I don’t think there’s a god/I don’t think that there’s someone coming to save us/And I don’t think that’s the worst news of the day.” The Wonder Years have written the search for meaning as a young adult, and the holy text is this album.
Finally, we arrive at the home stretch. First, we have the penultimate track, “Cul-de-sac,” which is another battle cry to forget the past and adapt to the present. Seemingly about a relationship with a brother who has become addicted to drugs, “Cul-de-sac” is another exercise in letting the past die, and coming to terms with the actualities of your life instead of the ideals you had hoped for. Deep, touching stuff. Truly. At long last, the listener reaches The Greatest Generation‘s closing chapter, the mindblowing, gargantuan “I Just Want To Sell Out My Funeral.” I’ve heard plenty of concept albums and abstract songwriting techniques in my day, but I’ve never before seen a band do exactly what The Wonder Years do with this absolute powerhouse of a finale. Not only do The Wonder Years neatly tie together all the loose concepts from the album, the band actually recaps damn near every song preceding the finale, as the themes, choruses, and memorable lines from each track are all blended together in seven and a half epic minutes of musicianship and lyricism. Just when you’re mind has been blown by the recapitulization of an entire album in one song, Campbell breaks free of the repetitions, and, as if letting go of the album’s past and his own simultaneously, he delivers the verse that The Greatest Generation embodies: “Cause I’m sick of seeing ghosts/And I know how it’s all gonna end/There’s no triumph waiting/There’s no sunset to ride off in/We all want to be great men/And there’s nothing romantic about it/I just wanna know that I did all I could with what I was given.”
And, at the end of the day, isn’t that what we’re all striving to acomplish?
My Rating: 9.3/10
Listen to “Passing Through A Screen Door”:
1. There, There
2. Passing Through A Screen Door
3. We Could Die Like This
4. Dismantling Summer
5. The Bastards, The Vultures, The Wolves
6. The Devil in My Bloodstream
7. Teenage Parents
9. An American Religion (FSF)
10. A Raindance In Traffic
13. I Just Want To Sell Out My Funeral
Tags : Adam Lazzara, best of 2013, Boards of Canada, Canada, Daft Punk, Dan Campbell, Fleetwood Mac, Greatest Generation, Jimmy Eat World, Kanye West, Miley Cyrus, music, My Bloody Valentine (band), National, Random Access Memories, Wonder Years, year in review