By Clayton Ambrose
In the realm of film criticism, there exists a genre named the “revisionist Western.” This is a sub-genre of Western films where cliches and running themes of the genre are subverted, often playing with grey morality and re-shaping or completely disregarding the messages inherent in the John Wayne-era’s shiny and heroic portrayal of the realistically bloody and depraved wild, wild West. Revisionist Westerns seem preoccupied with tearing down the idealistic and presenting it in a more sobered sight.
Now, the West has been paved and won and industry sprawls across the nation, spawning millions of suburban neighborhoods that spawn millions of young musicians itching to break loose from their middle-class constraints. Enter The Wonder Years, a pop-punk band originating from the other side of the country in southern Pennsylvania. The typical conventions of the pop-punk genre feature a romantic portrayal of breaking out of a boring, motionless hometown in Springsteen-esque stretch for the road, all but disregarding the actual town itself and avoiding the idea of questioning: “Why do I hate this place so much?” But not The Wonder Years.
With their 2011 album Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing, the band presents the image of a wayward pop-punk youth looking back instead of looking forward, analyzing the cracks and faults of a town that inspires scorn but is irrevocably a piece of the foundation that built Dan “Soupy” Campbell and his PA native bandmates. Much like Heaven’s Gate and McCabe & Mrs. Miller disrupting the expectations set by classic Western films, this album breaks free of the picturesque binary of the relationship to one’s home that dominates the genre, creating potentially the first “revisionist” pop-punk album.
The Wonder Years was formed in 2005 out of Lansdale, Pennsylvania as a transformation of half of the members’ previous band, The Premier. Their debut album, Get Stoked On It, was a goofy pop-punk romp through songs about cereal mascots, astronauts, and the first of many insights into the struggle of being a touring band. The album, which is now hated and disowned by frontman Campbell, is just another addition to the mound of synth-soaked uber-peppy pop-punk that would come to populate the genre in the coming years, but this initial direction for the band was cut down quickly with the release of 2010’s The Upsides.
The album was the first entry in an unofficial series of albums that Campbell retroactively called “a trilogy about growing up” just before the release of The Greatest Generation, and as such the music took a massive step in maturity, lyrically and musically. The Upsides isn’t an extreme departure from the motifs of the genre in terms of sound, but Campbell’s in-song discussions of depression and anxiety established a unique and refreshing atmosphere of authenticity through their bluntness and their honesty. The aforementioned commentary on the complicated relationship between hometown and native begins on this album with songs like “Logan Circle” and “All My Friends Are In Bar Bands,” but the cloudiness of Campbell’s pent-up angst ends up holding back the songs from reaching the clarity and nuance that the band would reach on their next album, Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing.
Suburbia takes its name from the first line of the poem “America” by Allen Ginsberg, which reads “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.” The poem is Ginsberg’s scathing critique of 1950s America as a nation riddled with paranoia and consumerism at beginnings of the Cold War, and the fact that several lines from the piece are interpolated into the lyrics of some of the songs is extremely telling of Campbell’s mindset when writing this album, perhaps with Campbell seeing this album as the suburbian remake of Ginsberg’s work. In “And Now I’m Nothing” he even sings the lines “I had dreams of myself/As the Allen Ginsberg of this generation/But without the talent, madness, or vision.”
With this as the setup, the album begins with Campbell starting from square one in “Came Out Swinging” as he moves back into his parents’ house. This song finds the band positioned as classic pop-punk heroes: feisty vagabonds who give their life to the road. But something here is different. Save for the final line of the song, there’s no indication in the lyrics that this is worth it, no idyllic words that indicate that this struggle is justified by the reward. With this establishing of the band’s mindset in place, the album continues on to more songs about Campbell’s inner turmoil and complicated relationships in the form of “Woke Up New” and “Local Man Ruins Everything” which are, again, very down-to-earth and thoughtful compared to the melodrama and angst that was rampant in the genre and, to some extent, The Upsides.
The album then brings us to its first of two short interludes that relate almost exclusively to Campbell’s hometown, and these songs hold more meaning in the context of the album than their length might betray. “Suburbia” begins by detailing a bowling alley arson that the owners claim was a cigarette despite everyone apparently knowing “it was for the insurance,” and ends with a short look into the landscape of the town’s other business where “every business on Main Street collapsed” and Campbell can’t blame the town for feeling “bad.” The view painted on “I’ve Given You All,” the other interlude, is equally as bleak, with Campbell and an acoustic guitar describing an incident where the town’s only homeless man was beaten to death in the park, while the police seem to have “stopped trying.” He then sings of the “old alcoholics that drink by the train” who ride Goodwill bikes and “[pull] at paperback 40s” with the song ending on a heartbroken Campbell admitting, “Man, I’m sorry.”
The common theme between these two songs is Campbell empathizing with a downtrodden town and its ailing inhabitants, which is a level of insight and nuance that most pop-punk bands weren’t even coming close to reaching with their black and white portrayal of hometown life. The songs even hint at deeper running class issues that cause businesses to fail and the death of a homeless man to go uninvestigated, revealing a band that has shed youthful rebellion for an adult perspective. They, unlike many, understand the deep rooted social and economic issues that ruin communities and inspire young musicians to seek escape through other avenues.
However, there eventually comes reconciliation, at least to some extent. Campbell sees the faults that run through his home and the socioeconomic stagnance it faces, but even with that in mind, he still finds a poignant acceptance of this place and all its flaws. On “Coffee Eyes” he reminisces on a diner in Lansdale that seems frozen in amber, remaining the same and holding the same hospitality as when he and his friends would populate it in their younger years. In the chorus Campbell belts, “There’s always been a table for me there,” with the rest of the band joining in gang vocals at the climax of the song. The album features the band at its most nostalgic and genre-aligned on “Summers in PA,” which is an ode to coming home and immediately falling back into place in your young ruffian ways.
Both of these songs treat home as something that never truly leaves you, like you’re the piece that fits back into a unique and designated hole in the puzzle that is where you’re from. Despite the town’s glaring issues, the band can’t seem to separate themselves from it, turning into the pop-punk underdogs found on Get Stoked On It, who were just looking to get by and make some chaos along the way. In most of the genre of pop-punk as it is known, there is never really a return to the past, there’s just a longing for separation and, if the band is lucky enough, a celebration of the escape. But Campbell, along with most people, know it’s more complicated than that.
This idea culminates on the penultimate track “Hoodie Weather,” which features Campbell ultimately admitting his irreversible ties to Lansdale. In the pre-chorus he sings, “I’ve got my grandmother’s veins in the back of my hands/And just a hint of a south Philly accent/I was born here/I’ll probably die here/Let’s go home,” presenting an accepting, yet somewhat bleak view on his current position as a prodigal son of sorts. The bridge of this song contains what is most likely the crux of the entire album, beginning with the self-aware statement, “Growing up means watching my heroes turn human in front of me/And the songs we wrote at 18 seem short-sighted and naive.” Campbell acknowledges the the romantic ideas that he and countless others like him held before coming to understand the complexities that come with growing up and seeing things as they are and not as you remember them. The song, and the entire album, culminates in the last line of the bridge, which has Campbell crying out, “I won’t run away, run away/’Cause as f***ed as this place got, it made me me.”
Then the journey comes to an end at “And Now I’m Nothing,” completing the Ginsberg reference with “Suburbia” and “I’ve Given You All.” The song serves as a thematic wrap-up for the album by touching on almost every concept presented in the rest of the songs. Campbell begins the song with the admission, “I can’t help myself/I keep ending up in Memorial Park,” which builds on this idea that he is constantly being drawn back to his origins, despite the fact that this is where the death of a homeless man goes uninvestigated — the exact same park, even. He even finds a colloquial charm in the fact that someone steals the baby Jesus from the manger scene in the park every year, affectionately calling it “a nice tradition.” With this rectification, Campbell is now independent and ready to recover, and in the chorus he sings rebelliously against his roots in true pop-punk fashion, “Suburbia, stop pushing/I know what I’m doing.” Finally, on a much deserved and long-awaited note of hope, Campbell ends the album with the final Ginsberg reference in triumphant fashion: “I’m putting my shoulder to the wheel.”
Suburbia takes the entire album length to create this world in which the band exists, where they constantly battle with the moral dilemma of returning home and what that means for your perception of yourself and your perception of the place where you grew up. These pop-punks, in the midst of a scene cluttered with break-up anthems and teenage defiance, decide to stop running away and confront their hometown and, by proxy, themselves. “And Now I’m Nothing” is the final verdict, the last stand, and Campbell and company make the choice to accept their blood and their history with all its blemishes, because it’s just as much a part of them as the youthful angst and musical rebellion that drove them away from it.
Ever since the release of The Upsides, The Wonder Years have consistently played the part of genre outliers willing to look at pop-punk tropes with a more contemplative, mature lens. Like Unforgiven’s retired outlaw Will Munny, Campbell is thrust back into a position where he and the band must revisit their respective histories, creating a sense of cognitive dissonance that forces our protagonists to remedy the fractures between the memory of the past and the reality of the present. With this narrative against Suburbia’s straightforward pop-punk sound, The Wonder Years shed the structures and motifs of their forefathers and peers.
This doesn’t mean that these more transparent pop-punk bands like All Time Low and Man Overboard are lesser by any means; not every album should carry the expectations of transcending the genre. But every so often the oversaturation of genre cliches necessitates a work to come along and breathe new life into old veins, putting established conventions into a perspective that changes the mindset of the artist and the consumer. Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing, with its nuanced discussions on the socioeconomic factors that shape our origins, the ennui that comes with adulthood, and the search for coexistence between who you are and who you want to be, is that work for the genre of pop-punk. Above all, this album eschews the youthful idea of escaping your past and heritage. Why should you run? There’s always been a table for you there.