‘The Upsides’ is an album born of loneliness, anxiety and ultimately vocalist Dan Campbell and the Wonder Years’ collective experiences as a young touring band. The themes and lyrics capture that desperate and fleeting part of your formative years where the path laid before you is fraught with insecurity, hopelessness and ultimately a creeping sense of dread that before you’re too much older you may just manage to fuck it all up.
It’s a homage to the bubble bursting, an idyllic sense of calm snatched cruelly away by the reality of your situation. An ode to the hope, anger, joy, hatred and righteousness of your youth and ideals; challenged and stomped on by an establishment that exists only to grind you down. “I’m not sad anymore I’m just tired of this place”; a resigned and weary utterance from a man cynical before his years. The opening line is a harbinger of the Wonder Years’ philosophy on this record and it is a theme that is well developed and explored throughout.
The album seems to fluctuate between Dan feeling helpless to the point of apathy; but still managing to find solace in pretty small, inconsequential pleasures; a bowl of Lucky Charms and soy milk. It’s a record that demonstrates a level of self awareness beyond feeling disconnected from modern society; Dan sings that “I’m not as sad as I let myself believe sometimes”. There are brief flashes of hope buried within the rhetoric of his general disillusionment .
The Upsides is an a record that explores some pretty interesting themes around the human condition, but with a definite tongue-in-cheek humour. Whether they’re calling out religious fundamentalists on their questionable beliefs on ‘Dynamite Shovel’, or lashing out at an ex on ‘Melrose Diner’ it’s done with conviction and anger. Yet there’s an undercurrent of bitterness that is ultimately self-reflective; as much as the band directs their anger outwards, Dan acknowledges his own flaws and shortcomings.
It’s a theme that The Wonder Years develop with their subsequent releases; Dan’s struggle with depression and his family history (‘Greatest Generation’), his shortcomings as a friend (‘No Closer to Heaven’) and his own feelings of inadequacy in comparison to his peers. (‘Suburbia…)
It’s partly why the band themselves say they look back on their older material and cringe; as they’ve grown and evolved as people; so has their music. Despite this, ‘The Upsides’ is still an important point in history for the band; the pathos expressed in their early career is supremely relatable to audiences who find themselves in a similar point in their lives. The album is a preservation of their formative experiences and feelings; ultimately without them the band would not be who they are today. For posterity, it’s a collection of stories and ideas; an old tour and university journal to look back on and appreciate fondly.
As far as the musicianship goes, it’s a record that is tied together nicely with catchy, crunchy guitar riffs, frenetic drumming and of course an emotional and animated vocal performance that really mirrors the themes and subject matter of the lyrics.
‘The Upsides’ was written and and recorded quickly, it’s something that shows in the energy of the performance and arrangement. As a pop punk record it delivers the gritty, high register vocals alongside melodic guitar parts that really deliver a one two punch and create an atmosphere of rebellion. It’s an essential part of ‘The Wonder Year’ catalogue and lays the groundwork for an evolution beyond three chord pop punk that delivers something wholly more cerebral and satisfying.
Article by Theo Wildgoose