The best creations are born of pain. A sad consolation prize for the inflicted, the result of life experience and raw suffering. As listeners, we judge music based on how much life and “realness” bleed through it, but we also don’t experience anything in a vacuum. Art is tainted by our own memories and experiences. It’s the reason that two nearly-identical albums can feel so different. It’s the reason you enjoy A while I prefer B. Memory is where it all comes into play, and it’s what we add to art as humans. In experiencing art we inject a bit of our own story in the listening process and add on to the creation in whatever way we can.
This is how our tastes, perspectives, and very personalities are formed: through interaction with both art and the world around us. While a positive experience, association, or context can improve our perception of an album, the inverse can also ruin something that’s otherwise objectively good. Think about any album, movie, or TV show that you used to recover from a breakup. Hell, think about a restaurant that once gave you food poisoning. Whether it’s well-founded or not, there’s probably a negative association and personal bias at play skewing your opinion.
I’m of the school of thought that traditionally “great” music starts as something you don’t necessarily love on the first listen, but becomes better over time. Music with depth and complexity that reveals itself with each subsequent spin. Challenging its consumer to be better. Most of my favorite albums were records that I didn’t think much of (or simply didn’t like) upon first listen, but gradually kept burrowing their way further into my brain.
And while memories often retroactively color our impressions of art, sometimes there are also individual works that are able to overcome our own mental hang-ups. Art that’s so strong it’s able to break through our negative associations and emerge from the other side, still enjoyable.
This combination of growth over time and overcoming an uphill battle of negative associations is one of the reasons that The Wonder Years’ second album The Upsides is one of my favorite records of all time.
From a South Philly Basement
Before I get into weird personal history: some quick background info on the band. Founded in 2005, The Wonder Years are a pop-punk act from Lansdale, Pennsylvania. Following two years of singles, split and EPs the band released their debut album Get Stoked on It! In 2007. Taking queues from the early 2000’s easycore scene, the band’s first record was a keyboard-heavy form of biting pop-punk. Get Stoked is problematic, but also very symptomatic of the year it was made. It’s not a bad record, but it bears very few resemblances to the rest of the band’s work and has been retconned by the band for good reason.
The biggest point against Get Stoked on It! Is that most of the songs were written about generic late-2000’s pop cultural buzzwords. You got a track about a ninja, one about a cowboy, one about zombies, and much more! This is in direct conflict with the band’s later hyper-earnest heart-on-sleeve meditations that pulled from real life experiences and heartfelt emotions (as opposed to funny songs about astronauts). There are still some tracks like “Racing Trains” and “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong” that foreshadow some of the band’s future stylistic leanings, but as a whole, the record is much more underdeveloped and juvenile than their later work.
The band would later go on to “decanonize” this release, publicly stating their distaste for it both in interviews and even referencing it in future songs. When a remastered version of the album came out in 2012, lead singer Daniel Campbell said “If you like the record, enjoy the new mixes. If you hate the record, I’m on your side” which is something I’ve seen very few bands do.
Within two years of their first album, original member and keyboardist Mikey Kelly left the band. His departure essentially represented a “soft reboot” for the band which allowed the remaining members to pivot the group’s sound and take their next album into a more “honest” direction. A year after Kelly’s departure the band released their sophomore album The Upsides in 2010, and my life would change forever.
B-rate Version of Me
In 2011 I went through a horrible breakup. It was my first real relationship, and it hit me as hard as you could imagine a 17-year-old being hit. I’d recently got my driver’s license, started my first job, and I was embarking on my final year of high school, so overall it was a turbulent time of change for me. One night midway through February I was spurred to purchase a digital copy of The Upsides on a whim based on a Tweet made by Amazon Music. This is something I never do, but I had just gotten off a shift at my job and wanted to fill the void with blind consumerism. The album was on sale for $5, so even for a cheap 17-year-old, there’s not much to lose at that price. I can’t even remember if I even previewed the album, but for whatever reason, that tweet was well-crafted enough to spur me into a purchase right then and there. I was in the mood for something new.
I downloaded the album, loaded it onto my iPod, hit play, and sunk into it.
I don’t know how well I’ll be able to articulate the particular brand of slacker malaise I was engaging in at this time, but most waking hours that weren’t spent school were spent in my room playing video games listening to podcasts and music. I was pretty much distracting all my senses and escaping from reality as much as humanly possible without the use of drugs or alcohol. I wasn’t depressed, but I was in a state. Nothing really cheered me up, so it was more of an ongoing war of attrition with my own brain.
I credit The Upsides with single-handedly lifting me out of this post-dump funk and getting me back to feeling like myself. With years of reflection, I was being far more dramatic than I’m giving myself credit for, but I guess that’s kinda the point of being seventeen. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it felt like it… until this album came along.
A Pop-Punk Oddessy
Upsides begins with a bait and switch. Most pop-punk detractors dislike the genre for pretty specific (and valid) reasons. Maybe they don’t like the genre’s propensity for bitter lovesick lyrics, or they’re turned off by the whiny vocals, but in most cases, they probably have a cartoonishly-exaggerated version of the scene in their head. Thanks to the genre’s explosion in popularity during the mid-90’s, most people just think the music consists solely of whiny Blink 182-types when that’s not the case. While there certainly is no shortage of nasally lovesick songs, that sound isn’t representative of the entire genre.
For better or worse, Upsides begins with exactly what people would expect from the genre. Within the first seconds of the album’s opening track “My Last Semester” a nasally slightly-filtered Campbell sings over a twinkling electric guitar “I’m not sad anymore / I’m just tired of this place.” Within 15 seconds the singing ceases and the guitar strings sustain. An electric whir emerges from the back of the mix and quickly overwhelms the held guitar notes. Suddenly the entire song, album, and band spin to life, energizing the track with a cacophony of brash drum strikes, a biting guitar riff, and a driving bassline. Campbell, now singing at the top of his lung repeats the first lyrics with an angry vitriolic twist, and with that, Upsides has officially begun.
Those first lines of the album sound stereotypical (great, another white dude talking about how sad he is) but upon closer inspection, they’re actually a beautifully-constructed phrase that flips the listener’s expectations on their head by talking about the futility of those sad feelings. It’s a notion that’s devoid of nostalgia, firmly present, and anxiously self-aware. This specific idea of not letting sadness win is a recurring theme throughout the album that the band circles back to frequently. The mantra comes full-circle on the album’s star-studded closer and is even developed further on subsequent releases. But in this first song, the singer articulates this concept by listing all the reasons he could be sad, but then explains that he opted to find the silver lining in his situation: his music. Campbell would go on to address this later in an interview explaining:
“I thought that I had kind of beaten my issues, but when you struggle with depression or anxiety, you never really win. You always carry it with you and the point I learned isn’t to win. The point is to keep fighting. It turned out that ‘I’m not sad anymore’ wasn’t a victory speech. It was a battle cry.”
The opening line pulls double duty by acting as the album’s thesis statement while also serving as the band’s new mission statement. This represents a far tonal shift from what we last heard on Get Stoked. They’re not the same group of 18-year-olds who were singing about pirates and zombies three years ago. They elude to this with the meta line “college hit those dudes like a ton of bricks.” The band did a lot of growing up since we’ve last heard from them, and they are guided by a new creative north star.
Art Imitates Life
The foundation that the band began to flesh out with this record (and would expand upon over the course of a trilogy of albums) is a style of hyper-intricate, self-referential, and pop-culture-obsessed rock that depicts the good and bad sides of a life well-lived. Early on the band used the term “realist pop-punk” when describing the sound of their artistic rebirth. Call it what you want, but it’s still one one of the most refreshingly honest and true approaches to music I’ve ever heard, and it was an absolute revelation to me at seventeen.
There’s beauty in simplicity, and sometimes real life is more compelling than anything you could ever make up. TWY’s music doesn’t revolve around sweeping epics, chasing material goods, or even the other, it’s all music that’s firmly told from one perspective and all bears the insecurities and imperfections that come with it. The focus of the music varies from song to song, but this singular perspective allows for a cohesive vision that the listener can simultaneously empathize with, and project themselves onto.
Throughout The Upsides, singer Dan “Soupy” Campbell flexes his now-well honed writing ability, making it obvious he’d time between albums studying and working on his craft. One of the most under-appreciated aspects of his style is his acute ability to write minuscule details. Small observations and references that add a layer of specificity that makes the album feel more realized and lived-in. Each line adds onto the story that the listener is building in their head until an entire narrative is formed around the character. You’re fleshing out your own universe built on the language of the album and developing a one-of-a-kind relationship with its narrator.
Sometimes The Upsides tackles big psychological issues like post-college listlessness, relationship dynamics, and even death. At other times they zoom down to view life on a macro level and vignette the little scenes that happen in life like a broken down car or going on a midnight pretzel run to the stand behind your house. Sometimes it’s funny and biting social commentary on the Westboro Baptist Church or the shitty fist-pumping people you meet at parties. It’s an album that encapsulates the life of a post-college 20-something from every possible dimension.
To me, the quintessential song on the album is the Deluxe Edition’s penultimate track “Logan Circle: A New Hope.” The song is a stripped-down reworking of the album’s second track “Logan Circle” that echoes many of the original track’s sentiments but also serves as an incremental update on the life of Campbell. “A New Hope” is redone in a slower, more pensive approach that allows the lyrics and instrumentation to shine through and glisten to their full potential, highlighting both the brilliance of the lyrics and the proficiency of the band members.
The first verse of the original “Logan Circle” contains a lyric that hooked me for the rest of the album: “We just can’t blame the seasons / The Blue Man Group won’t cure depression.” The line resonated with me originally because it’s an obvious Arrested Development reference, but it also doubles as a bit of life advice about optimism and outlook. This all circles back to the cliched idea that this album is something I needed to hear at the time. I wasn’t hopeless, but I needed something hopeful. I needed to be told how to handle these feelings I’d never felt before. I needed to be told how to combat them and move on with my life, and that’s exactly what The Upsides did for me. It was musical therapy.
Though I didn’t consider it at the time, I’ve only recently come to realize that pop-punk has been the genre that I’ve listened to for the longest in my life. It’s partly a byproduct of when I was growing up (thanks, mid-90’s) but also it just happened to be one of the first genres that I really explored. As a result, there was something comforting about sinking back into the genre after spending some time away from it. I feel like It’s cheesy to admit an album about not feeling sad helped me stop feeling sad, but Upsides was instrumental in my emergence from sadness in the wake of this first relationship.
It wasn’t just the optimistic messages, it’s that the songs found the optimistic messages in the face of everything else. Feelings of sadness are not invalid, but with enough distance, you realize that there’s no reason for them, there’s nothing to be gained from them, only energy wasted. It was a realistic portrayal of exactly how I was feeling then. And more on-the-nose, the album’s breakup song “Melrose Diner” served as both a validation of my feelings and a cautionary tale about becoming the shitty, bitter ex.
My love for The Upsides grew exponentially with each listen, and within a year it became my most listened-to album of all time, a title that it still retains to this day. In fact, my love for Upsides grew with each subsequent album that the band released as future songs would call back to lyrics contained within their earlier works. By fall of 2011, I’d begun my first term of college and the band had released their third album Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing.
The Upsides marked the beginning of a three album “trilogy” that depict the arc of Campbell’s struggles with anxiety and depression, and with the trilogy’s conclusion in 2013, the band cemented themselves as my favorite act of all time. With three releases that were all equally impeccable, I’ve now spent roughly 12 days of my life listening to the band’s various releases, a number I wouldn’t take back if you paid me.
At the end of the day, The Upsides is one of a handful of albums that changed my life, and there’s no higher praise I can hoist upon it than that. It’s a well-crafted and powerfully intricate release that rewards close listens and spawned its own mythology. It engages the listener in a way that few other pieces of art do. There are lots of albums in my life where I can point to a clearly-defined “before” and “after” period, but Upsides is an album that changed my entire way of being. It shifted my world one step towards a more positive existence, and I can’t thank the band enough for that. It’s a radical powerhouse of a record that I still listen to nearly every week, and I can’t fathom my life in a world without it. It’s a beautiful creation, and the world is a more beautiful place for it.
Thank you for everything, Upsides.