Sister Cities – The Wonder Years: Album Review

TW: Brief mentions of death

It took me a while to listen to the new The Wonder Years album, Sister Cities. It came out the Friday after I was admitted to hospital, and Dan Campbell’s songs about physical and emotional distance from loved ones felt a bit too close to the bone. Now, three weeks down the line, it has become a much-frequented album on my Spotify and an essential part to me beginning to recover and move on.

Dan Campbell, frontperson of the band, said on twitter in the days around the album’s release that this is the music the band have released that he is most proud of, and there’s a lot to be proud of. Many preorders of Sister Cities came with a full colour book detailling the writing and production of the album. Some came with a The Wonder Years ‘Passport’ that fans can take to gigs and get stamped or signed. My preorder came with a flag that now hangs proudly above my desk. And that’s just the merch. I decided to sit down and listen to the album front to back and just write what came into my head.

The songs are written in a way that makes you feel almost brutally sad about the past and present, but as the album progresses there is a definite theme of hope for the future. The album’s opener, Raining in Kyoto, is a poundingly rhythmic song about the passing of Campbell’s Granddad. It’s a tough listen, but it’s a familiar one too. The reality of a lot of modern lifestyles is that due to working and living conditions, and the physical and emotional distance those entail, many young people, or people working on the road, are forced to miss out on key parts of grief, closure, and acceptance.

Pyramids of Salt, the album’s second single, is also a deeply emotional listen. This one feels a lot more about emotional distance. The ocean is a constant theme in the album, with it being mentioned in almost every song. The chorus of Pyramids of Salt hints at feeling unable to help someone, or unable to be helped by someone. “I drew a line in the sand, with these worthless fucking hands/I drew a line in the sand, you washed it away again.”

It Must Get Lonely is a standout song for me. The opening lyric, “I’m a raw nerve in the sunlight/After two weeks in the dark”, rings very close to home. The guitars mesh perfectly together with the vocal melody, and despite the somber lyrics, there is a definite air of determination and resistance. It feels like a song about personal growth against the odds.

Sister Cities is an absolute banger of a single. An anthem about feeling at home when you are thousands of miles away from your house. It can often feel like the DIY scenes in various cities are struggling to survive due to the lack of money in digital media and the huge amount of stress and pressure that is put on bands, so it’s refreshing to hear this story of being welcomed to a scene so far from your own.

Flowers Where Your Face Should Be opens with a lyric about Costa Rica, a country I lived in for two years and where I did a great deal of growing up. “Bright blue hydrangeas/Lost in the weeds/Bus stops and barbed wire on the way to stare/At the heart of the earth from the Poas peak.” I know it’s not Campbell’s direct intention, but this takes me back to friendships forged on that same volcano and the intense beauty of the country. The song is about his wife, with lyrics such as “They don’t got much but goddamn they got love”, and it’s refreshing to hear a sentimental love song that does not objectify the person in question.

Although Raining in Kyoto handles the direct and instantaneous feeling of grief and loss that happens when you first hear of the passing of a loved one, Heaven’s Gate (Sad & Sober) deals with the more long term process of grieving, guilt, and growing. “I watched your memory fade/Shadows burned into the wall.”

“I’m suddenly aware of our speed/Sew the world together tightly/Cinch the gaps with pins and string.” This lyric, from We Look Like Lightning, feels like it’s about the paradox between how close things are in terms of hours because of plane travel, but also how huge that physical distance is. It’s reminiscent of The New Year by Death Cab for Cutie: “I wish the world was flat like the old days/Then I could travel just by folding a map/No more airplanes, or speed trains, or freeways/There’d be no distance that could hold us back.”

“I’m haunted by the ghosts of right now,” the final lyric of the chorus of The Ghosts of Right Now, is about watching someone you love slowly wither. It’s a harsh and difficult listen, but it feels honest and emotionally resonant.

The following track, When the Blue Finally Came, is both about a cliff diving trip in Sydney and dealing with the suicide of a friend. As with a lot of Campbell’s writing, the song uses metaphors to attempt to come to terms with some real horrors. “I made out your voice, but I can’t ask you to stay/Watched you walk into the woods/And start to levitate.”

The Orange Grove is a more difficult song to decipher, but it feels like it’s all in the bridge. “When your mom got sick so slow/Did you carry the weight alone?/When the bills started to grow/Did you carry the weight alone?” It feels like it’s about trying to help someone who is struggling to reach out, a similar theme to Pyramids of Salt.

The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me is a track that’s over 6 minutes long and, as Campbell told The Independent, it’s his favourite song they’ve written. Fundamentally it’s about the ocean, how it divides continents, but mostly how it connects them too. It’s about finding connection, regardless of distance. The chorus, “When I was in shambles/When I got too weak/The ocean grew hands to hold me,” is a haunting set of lyrics that feels extremely pertinent. I’ve begun to redevelop connections with friends I thought I’d long lost contact with. Friends who live thousands of miles away, and it’s amazing. Even through this blog, I’ve done interviews and made friends with people who live a long way from my home, but they are a constant source of inspiration for me. This song reflects this feeling for me, and it’s definitely one of the most uplifting tracks on the record.

Listen to the album here:


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