Pop-punk tends to get a bad rap. Most of the time, it’s from people who just heard their peers ragging on bands like Green Day and Blink-182, and jump to conclusions. Many chalked it up to being too formulaic or too heavy; too whiny or too screamy. I’ll admit I was one of these people when I was younger. But every once in a while, a band comes along that challenges the definition of genre, pushing the boundaries toward something completely unique. For pop-punk, the answer comes in the form of Philadelphia’s the Wonder Years, a band you’ve probably never heard of, with a rabid cult following akin to that of Brand New… and with good reason: This band is so f**king good.
Just over a decade after the band’s inception, a lot has changed. The band now embarks on sold-out tours regularly, and inspire fans to journey from all over the country — and sometimes the world — to see them play live. Gone are the days of sleeping on floors or touring in vans that run the risk of breaking down at any minute. The band’s six members are now older and wiser, some having settled down and gotten married, while others have moved away from their home-base of Philadelphia. The resulting life changes are reflected in the band’s latest effort Burst & Decay (An Acoustic EP), which sees the band taking a step out of their comfort zone and continues to prove that they aren’t just another pop-punk band.
For the EP, the Wonder Years refocused the attention of older songs, reinterpreting six of their hard-hitting punk tracks to bring frontman Dan Campbell’s lyricism and vocals to the forefront. With the stripped-back instrumentals, a casual listener is able to dive deep into the meaning of the words, to understand Campbell’s story in a capacity similar to that of a die-hard fan. This reveals layers to the lyrics listeners might have previously missed, and goes on to further showcase the incredible nuance of Campbell’s writing talent.
It should be noted that on Burst & Decay, the band didn’t simply just remove their rhythm section and play the songs on acoustic guitars. Instead, they all got together in a room and rearranged and added and subtracted to create a new life for these songs. Perhaps the most glaring — and absolutely gorgeous — example is No Closer To Heaven ballad “You In January,” the first true sappy love song the band has ever released. The track was translated from brash electric guitars to piano and strings to accompany Campbell’s ode to his now-wife, yielding an emotional, gorgeous interpretation of an already beautiful song, and one that Campbell noted has already been used to soundtrack a couple’s first dance at their wedding, after the band agreed to send them the track a few days early for the occasion.
Wonder Years shows are typically frenetic and explosive, an hour of catharsis for both the band and the audience. Bringing these stripped-back tracks to life at the Burst & Decay tour opener in Detroit proved to be a different experience for all involved. Instead of thrashing around the stage, the band spent the entirety of the set seated, with Campbell keeping his glasses on his head and a watch on his wrist, something he noted he would never do at a typical show for fear of losing both.
The band’s core six were also joined on stage by a couple of guests, including tour mate Laura Stevenson to provide beautiful harmonies with Campbell on a series of songs, including The Greatest Generation‘s epic “The Devil In My Bloodstream.” For the stripped-back version of 2011’s breakneck “Coffee Eyes,” they were joined by a trumpet player who played a brand new lead melody over the track’s bridge, bringing the track into a new light.
While tracks from the new EP were the focus of the reimagined live set, the band didn’t stray from attempting to play fan favorites in this new setting, closing the set with a heart-wrenching rendition of the already-devastating “Cigarettes & Saints” that culminated in Campbell stepping out from behind the mic and screaming, giving everything he had as the crowd sang back the chill-inducing final lines of the track: “You can’t have my friends, you can’t have my brothers, you can’t have me, no you can’t have me.”
After a string of four near-perfect albums that have continually dismantled the preconceived notions of a pop-punk record by dealing with thematic intricacies like living up to the legacies of those who came before and how to honor one’s fallen friends, Burst & Decay shows the Wonder Years at their most vulnerable, providing listeners with a (much quieter) invitation to join them on their journey.