Remember when The Wonder Years used to sing about Cap’n Crunch and the Kool-Aid Man duking it out in a no-holds-barred grudge match for childhood nostalgia supremacy? Me too. That was a hell of a lot of fun, wasn’t it?
A lot’s changed since then. Their frantic pop-punk stylings have been refined into rock music that displays control, intent and maturity. Their lyrics have shifted from sarcasm sprinkled with light pathos to laments on sadness, death and lost innocence.

On the other hand, there’s quite a bit that hasn’t changed. These guys have a deathgrip on a spirit that suggests they are having more fun than anyone else. They’re more honest with what they are and what they sing about than most bands could ever hope to be. And, at this point in their relatively short career, there’s no telling where The Wonder Years will go next because of the leaps forward they’ve taken with every release. Until they take another massive musical leap forward, however, No Closer to Heaven is their defining album.

Considering their roots, the opening track, “Brothers &,” comes as a bit of a shock. Ambient and beautiful, the piece concentrates on enormous atmospherics to set the somber, but oddly hopeful, sound. Equaling the power of Explosions in the Sky’s cinematic drama, The Wonder Years make it their own by adding a gang vocal chant that harkens back to their more aggressive tunes of old. Out of character, but not out of left field, this is a perfect introduction to what comes next.

“Cardinals” begins where “Brothers &” leaves off. A quiet opening riff starts off slow and sad, but the song quickly explodes into massive guitars on top of a pounding drum beat. Dan “Soupy” Campbell yells/sings to match the fury of the music while bringing along his pop-oriented sensibilities to turn a sad tune into an infectious singalong. It’s a heartstring tugger. It’s a new spin on their old energy. They manipulate and remold their pop-punk roots instead of relying on them. It separates No Closer to Heaven from their previous material without forsaking the old stuff.

Title aside, “I Don’t Like Who I Was Then,” is one of the few new tracks that bring back the speed they used to spend much their previous records’ runtime exploiting. They do, however, approach it from the same headspace in which the earlier tracks on this album were crafted. The riffs are sadder, and the hooks are less bubblegum. The song is a progression regardless of the mixture of old tactics with new techniques.

“Cigarettes & Saints” is one of the finest tracks on No Closer to Heaven, if not one of the finest songs The Wonder Years have ever written. Campbell tempers the weightiness of the lyrics with atypical imagery that maintains the integrity of the subject matter. He sings, “I’m sure there ain’t a heaven/ But that don’t mean I don’t like to picture you there/ I’ll bet you’re bumming cigarettes off saints/ I’m sure you’re still singing/ But I’ll bet that you’re still just a bit out of key/ With that crooked smile pushing words across your teeth.” Brutal, sad, but hellishly listenable, “Cigarettes & Saints” is that special sort of track that could be the fodder they use to grow their future material.

The Wonder Years never veer too far from what they put on display earlier in the record, but they also don’t try to recreate anything they’ve done before. They rely on enormous drum sounds, guitar tones that run the gamut between balls-heavy and jangling twang and Campbell’s prowess with melodies and his ability to turn a phrase. All of these elements show they’ve struck a balance between new and old while managing to keep total reinvention out of the equation. This isn’t a reinvention; it’s a natural progression.

Everything The Wonder Years has done in the past has informed No Closer to Heaven. Each step they’ve taken, record to record, has led to their best work. Many bands are unable to produce this much relevant material, but The Wonder Years may be taking that trend as a challenge. Changing in increments, growing up but never forgetting their roots, they’ve been lacing these elements into their music since the days of “Keystone State Dude-Core” and “Let’s Moshercise!!!” It seems they won’t ever fully look back to their beginnings for inspiration, but they also haven’t forgotten where they came from. And if that’s their key to making great records, let’s hope they hold onto that ethos because No Closer to Heaven is a massive success.

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