On the last The Wonder Years album, lead vocalist Dan Campbell was struck by the realization that his music had taken on a life beyond him and his bandmates. With the release of 2010’s The Upsides, an ever-growing fan base around the world latched onto Campbell’s stories and turned them into pop-punk mantras for a new cohort of scene kids. On albums like The Greatest Generation or No Closer to Heaven, The Wonder Years wrote about dealing with grief or coming of age in Philadelphia with expertise, complemented by perfect spots of humor or appropriate tension. With a combination of lyrical truisms and absorbing details, Campbell became the spokesperson for a specific type of pop-punker, sitting somewhere between The Menzingers’ musings on aging and the bombastic whininess of Real Friends.
With the aforementioned 2018’s Sister Cities, the band provided their most vigorous release yet: The guitars felt sludgy but dynamic, the songcraft was downtrodden but still resonant, and Campbell was guiding us through another series of astute tragedies, realizations and reflections on songs like “Pyramids of Salt” and “The Orange Grove.” Most important was the atmosphere, with a huge and dense collection of soaring choruses and pounding drums working hand in hand to push Sister Cities forward. It immediately seemed like the biggest The Wonder Years album yet.
Other People’s Lives, the new folk album from Campbell, is an attempt to recalibrate and move on from the sheer intensity of Sister Cities. During early quarantine, Campbell asked for stories and snippets of information about several people in his life and then attempted to translate that to a collection of songs. With this album, we’re given glimpses into the lives of strangers. From the portrait of a couple falling in love on “My Break in the Rain” to the nostalgic “The Kings of Halloween,” these songs’ universality makes them immediately appealing, but deeply vague. If the last The Wonder Years album occasionally drowned out some of Campbell’s most familiar qualities as a songwriter—his melodic sweetness and occasionally cloying lyrics, for one—then Other People’s Lives puts them on display for everyone to hear.
As if to explain what was intended with this album, the opener “Conversations with Other People” kicks off with plucked acoustic guitars and a carefully placed violin. Over that lethargic, folky background, Campbell sings lines like “I’ll carry what you taught me, I’ll hold it close until I’m gone” until hints of drums and harmonies attempt to make the soundscape more exciting. It’s the sort of drowsy, generic tune that Campbell could write in his sleep. What’s unfortunate about Other People’s Lives is that it mostly consists of similar songs. The intent behind these tunes is noble, but the production is lifeless, Campbell’s typical roar as a vocalist has been reduced to a passive mutter, and his lyrics have never been more saccharine. With a Wonder Years song, a giant chorus melody or an impassioned vocal performance would save a line like “It’s getting harder to find new words to describe the ways that I miss you all the time.” On this album, Campbell’s worst lines stick out like sore thumbs.
Part of what makes Campbell’s debut solo album so disappointing is that Campbell has worked well in an indie-folk vein before with his side project Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties. Where Aaron West’s “Our Apartment” discussed the side-by-side anger and sadness of divorce with a plethora of engrossing specifics—“I found enough of your hairpins to build you a monument,” goes one of the best lines—Campbell’s songs on Other People’s Lives about falling in and out of love don’t conjure up many memorable images. He sings lines like “I just wanted to be tethered to you endlessly” without much conviction, while truisms about distance being cruel appear often on monotonous songs like “Flight No. 5.” Even the rare appearance of strings and brass can’t bail out the sleepiest moments here.
At its best, Other People’s Lives finds some compelling pockets of energy hidden within its instrumentation. When the album isn’t stuck in ballad mode, there are small moments of levity and excitement. “In Love in Various Rooms” spruces up its second verse with a palm-muted electric guitar, which comes after we’re given the album’s best opening line: “In my broke-down Honda Civic, the piece of shit barely drives.” There’s even a bit of punkian roughness to Campbell’s vocal delivery here, as well, which helps liven things up. A melancholic chord progression and plucked electric guitars help elevate “I Love You. I Miss You. Goodnight” beyond a generic waltz and into a solid closer.
There isn’t much in terms of extravagant arrangement on “My Break in the Rain,” but the strummed guitars give it a boost, while the touches of tambourine and banjo keep things upbeat. It’s probably the best song on Other People’s Lives, but that’s a concerning fact when we consider how great of a songwriter Campbell usually is. By stripping things down to singer/songwriter basics, Campbell accidentally made an entire album centered around his weaknesses.
Ethan Beck is a writer from Pittsburgh who is currently living in Manhattan. His work can be found at Bandcamp, No Ripcord, and others.
Revisit The Wonder Years’ 2020 Paste session below.