The Wonder Years’ pop punk opus ‘Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing’ turns 10
When pop punk exploded in the 1990s, punk purists saw it as a bastardization of the genre, the opposite of everything punk stood for, and a threat to the genre's reputation. The more popular, polished, and sugary it got, the hotter their hatred burned. But as the wave of the super popular turn-of-the-millennium pop punk bands started to die down by the end of the 2000s -- with many of the major players breaking up, changing their sound, or fading from the spotlight -- a new crop of bands emerged that didn't see pop punk as a watered-down offshoot of punk, they saw it as an entirely valid subgenre of its own. Love it or hate it, it makes perfect sense. Maybe you don't like music with gleaming production and confectionary hooks that can still get a circle pit going, but if you do, you're not gonna get it from the Ramones or the Buzzcocks or the Misfits or the Dead Kennedys; you're gonna get it from bands like The Starting Line and New Found Glory. It's an entirely different sound and energy than "pure" punk, and it didn't need to be tied to a certain era or exist only as a mainstream phenomenon. From their shirts to their music, bands like The Wonder Years, The Story So Far, Man Overboard, Transit, This Time Next Year, Fireworks, and others proudly waved the pop punk flag on a much more underground level than than the bands that half of them were named after were on, and they did so about a decade after the Drive-Thru Records era that they were inspired by.
One of those bands, The Wonder Years, started out as a literal joke band with their 2007 debut LP Get Stoked On It! -- a record that frontman Dan "Soupy" Campbell once called an "unmitigated disaster" and "almost like a different band" -- but they got serious on 2010's The Upsides, and proceeded to push the limits of pop punk more and more with each subsequent album, before transcending the genre completely on 2018's Sister Cities. The Upsides put The Wonder Years on the path towards greatness, but its 2011 followup Suburbia I've Given You All and Now I'm Nothing -- which celebrates its 10th anniversary today -- is really the album that solidified that The Wonder Years went far beyond pop punk revival. They were more like pop punk course correction, and they'd written a record that could blow the socks off plenty of the previous decade's biggest pop punk albums.
The Wonder Years of Suburbia were a polished pop punk band through and through, but they carried themselves less like TRL stars and more like a hardcore band (and, for that matter, there's plenty of screaming on the record). And though pop punk is often seen as youth-oriented or juvenile, the then-25-year-old Dan Campbell wrote painfully sincere lyrics with a sense of maturity and realism that still sound wise beyond their years a decade later.
Before you even click play, it's clear from the title alone that The Wonder Years had their eyes set on something bigger than pop punk. The album isn't named after an inside joke or a famous pop punk band of yesteryear or anything like that; it's named after an Allen Ginsberg poem. And it's not just one of those verbose literary references that doesn't otherwise relate to the actual content; the poem was really the catalyst for this record. "I’d lived in the city [Philadelphia] for years before that and now I was back in this suburb and I had no idea what the fuck I was going to write about," Dan told Noisey in 2018. "I started reading [Ginsberg's poem America] again and it just felt like some kind of sign to me, that I’d been looking for something to unite these ideas. [...] I remember thinking how this poem is saying these things about America that were echoing these much smaller-scale versions that I was seeing being back in my hometown for the first time, so I decided to write a record about that town and the relationship I have with it after being gone for years and coming back and seeing it again—looking at a place I love and looking at it really critically for the first time, in a way that said, 'There’s a drug problem here, the cops aren’t really doing the right things, all these business are dying. What’s wrong here?'"
And that's exactly what he did. The record opens with our narrator moving back into their parents' basement after a breakup forced him out of the apartment he and his girlfriend used to share. ("I guess you'd call this regression.") The very next song is called "Woke Up Older" and in the chorus of this one, Dan sings of "carrying two years in the bags under my eyes" and watches as his former partner leaves the room "receded like my hairline." These aren't songs written by adults from the perspective of kids; these are songs that sound ripped out of the pages of a diary of someone who's already been through way too much. They take place in airports, burnt-down bowling alleys, bars, thrift stores, churches, diners, and the ER after finding a friend "half dead in the parking lot." They refer to friends and waitresses and fellow musicians on a first-name basis. And yeah, there are references to veteran pop punk bands, but there are also references to Blacklisted, Bukowski, The Mountain Goats, and The Bible.
Dan is singing about his suburban hometown and his experiences, and by being so personal and so conversational, he came out with a record that's proven to be relatable on a very deep level for those who came from similar towns or had similar life experiences. In the very last verse of the album, he admits that he dreamt of himself as "the Allen Ginsberg of this generation, but without the talent, madness, or vision," before adding, "I guess it's looking hopeless." It would come off way too pretentious if it wasn't so humble and self-deprecating, and if Suburbia didn't capture the dark underbelly of the American Dream as perfectly as it did.
Suburbia was not only a lyrical triumph, it was also a noticeable musical progression from The Upsides and the perfect bridge between that album and its era-defining followup The Greatest Generation. Following The Upsides' release on then-burgeoning labels No Sleep and Run For Cover, Suburbia was the band's first album for the long-running, iconic punk/pop punk label Hopeless Records (home to classics by Dillinger Four, Digger, Mustard Plug, and more) and it was their first of three consecutive albums with producer Steve Evetts, whose work on albums like Jersey's Best Dancers and Through Being Cool helped define the sound of pop punk-adjacent melodic hardcore in the late '90s. At a time when other pop punk bands were relying heavily on auto-tune and other studio tricks to achieve a picture-perfect sound, Steve pushed The Wonder Years to their physical and emotional limits in order to achieve perfection in an entirely organic way.
"I threw up doing vocals a couple of times because he kept telling me to push harder," Dan said in that same Noisey interview. He'd record a take upwards to 60 times, just for Steve to tell him "It just didn’t have it." "Michael lost, like, four pounds doing the drums for that record because Steve would tell him he wasn’t hitting hard enough." As exhausting it sounds, the painstaking process worked, and it caused The Wonder Years to record three tight-as-can-be pop punk albums in a row with Steve at the boards. As on the two subsequent LPs, everything on Suburbia is about as close to perfection as pop punk gets. Every rapidfire drum beat, every down-strummed power chord, every vocal-cord-straining hook, every honeyed harmony -- it's all executed on a level that would make even the best '90s pop punk bands' jaws drop. Suburbia also found that Mountain Goats influence starting to seep not just into lyrical references but into the music too, with a few parts that hinted at the singer/songwriter direction they'd explore on later albums and acoustic EPs, and that Dan would explore even further with Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties and his solo career. (This influence is strongest on "Living Room Song," one of the three essential B-sides from the era that have since been included on the deluxe edition of the album.)
By making an album that was as polished, unforgettably catchy, and emotionally resonant as just about anything in the pop punk canon -- without ever sounding artificial -- The Wonder Years helped prove that pop punk truly is its own unique form of art, not a watered-down version of one. And they mastered that art form like few other bands in the history of the genre. If I had to draw a parallel between The Wonder Years and another artist, it wouldn't even be another pop punk band; it'd be Kendrick Lamar. Like Kendrick, they came to a genre of music in the early 2010s that had been perfected and popularized in the mid '90s, and they played that music on a level that rivaled the pioneers. Kendrick and The Wonder Years also led pretty parallel careers, with humble beginnings in the late 2000s, a genre-defining classic in the first half of the 2010s, and even more ambitious music later on. Suburbia is sort of their Section.80, which was also released in 2011, and which also laid the groundwork for the genre-defining album that was just around the corner. Like Section.80 did, Suburbia got swept under the rug a bit as the later albums transcended their genre, but listening back to it now, it sounds a lot closer to those later albums than it might have in real time. This isn't just "the one before the classic." This is a classic too.