Snow Angels, Car-Crash Rhetoric, a Hollow Midwest and The Wonder Years’ The Greatest Generation


On a Wednesday evening, I give Dan Campbell a call. When he picks up his phone, he’s in the middle of closing up the storage locker he and his band have been rehearsing in. The Wonder Years (Campbell, Matt Brasch, Casey Cavaliere, Mike Kennedy, Josh Martin, Nick Steinborn) are gearing up to kickstart a 25-date tour for the 10th anniversary of The Greatest Generation with Anxious, Sweet Pill and Action/Adventure on every bill with them. I ask Campbell how he’s feeling about the prep for the upcoming shows; he says the space smells like a fish market, but that none of the surrounding units are suffering from the same fate. “I know from playing a venue called Lost Horizon in Syracuse that something smelling like fish in a place like that is usually not fish,” he adds. “Instead, it’s dead rodents in the wall. So, that part, not great. Otherwise? Feeling pretty good. We sound great. I really was excited about how we sounded today.” Campbell and the guys are going to be playing two sets a night: First, they’re going to run through The Greatest Generation in its entirety. Afterwards, they’re going to run it back on everything else in their catalog—from The Upsides to The Hum Goes On Forever.

To get ready for the daunting itinerary that’ll consume their next two months, The Wonder Years have been going to a punk gym in South Philly and training together, doing box jumps and core work. Then, in their own routines, every member practices differently. Brasch tries to get as close to a real live set as possible, blaring music through his studio monitors with a mic stand stood up and pedalboards strewn around his feet; Martin listens to the songs through headphones and plays along in his apartment; Campbell sings the entire set while on a Peloton bike at 20 miles an hour. “The whole set is up a half-step from what we play live, so it’s like swinging with three bats when you’re on deck,” Campbell says. The Wonder Years have entered a period of their artistry where the sale of the art itself is not a sufficient enough transaction to live off of. Like many bands, they can’t survive by selling records—they survive by playing shows. “If we’re going to ask you for $27, we better fucking deliver, right?” Campbell adds. “That’s the exchange that’s being made here, so that’s the attitude we carry into it. That’s what we owe you. We owe you everything we have.”

We’ve entered a unique crossroads in music culture here in 2023 for Millennials, cuspers and Zoomers. Every record that made its initial mark on social media is now turning a decade old—a truth that, in most cases, would make me feel extra old. However, The Greatest Generation hitting the 10-year mark hasn’t moved me in such a way, and I imagine it’s because the record has endured as a timeless fixture in my life. In fact, I think I relate to the songs now more than I did when they came out—likely because I am now the age Campbell was when he made it, and we share the same narrative interests from a storytelling perspective. I’m not sure there’s a record that’s come out in my lifetime that has affected me as much as The Greatest Generation; it’s a perfect collection from front to back, scattered with Campbell’s own self-proclaimed imagery of “devils, ghosts, bombs, birds and pill bottles.” It’s an illustration of the American Dream’s relentless paradox—how the men who won the war came home and created a long-term world so inhospitable and improbable to succeed in. Interwoven within that tapestry of brutality, too, is an anti-pastoral about childhood, mental illness and lineage. The Greatest Generation is, just maybe, the quintessential album for someone in their mid-20s—especially those of us who might be considering the potential of getting married and having kids.

Perhaps you understand what it means to grow up poor and in the shadow of war. Many of us have had an obsession with the latter at some point—I even recently caught a TikTok of a comedian arguing that considering yourself a “history buff,” or being really fascinated by World War II, is a symptom of early-onset conservatism. Though the throughline is there for some folks, I’m sure, I have a hard time buying into all of that from my little box in the world. My mom’s dad served in the Marines as a cook and was deployed to Japan in 1945—only to not even make it to the island before the war officially ended. But yet, his military portrait hung in my grandmother’s house until she died; the American flag draped over his casket folded up and positioned on a bookshelf; a cavalry sword he brought back with him passed down to me when I turned 18, only for it to be stuffed behind a dresser soon after. It was like he’d gone away and come back a hero in dress blues. The truth of it was, he’d go on to be a barber for much of his life—working out of a makeshift shop he’d built in the back of the garage, barely making enough money to move the needle above the poverty line.

After my grandfather passed in 1993, my grandmother lived on her own pension—a menial stipend a month. She bought her groceries at Dollar General and lived on Hershey’s Kisses, coffee and McDonald’s cheeseburgers. When I stayed with her, I ate Campbell’s soup out of dented cans, cheap frozen pizza and hoarded saltine crackers from diners. My father’s parents also shared an affinity—or, perhaps, a must—for bottom-dollar, accessible wares and pantry fillers. They shopped at Aldi, bought gifts from JCPenney catalogs once a year and kept a Zenith television set in their house until my folks practically forced them to get a flat-screen. It was penny-pinching, but I only knew it as normal. While the refrigerator at home was always stocked with Coca-Cola and Oscar Mayer products, I didn’t blink twice at the drawers and cupboards full of off-brand goods elsewhere. It all felt like a spoil of riches every time to my kid brain, as I especially had no pre-requisite for what it meant to put a quarter into a shopping cart in order to get your groceries or to buy in bulk to save.

I always thought I’d grown up middle class—until I got to college and learned the hard truth that, in fact, there is no middle class in America anymore. The first 13 years of my life suggested the opposite, though, as my family would go on vacations every other year, I’d get everything I asked Santa to bring me and I didn’t live in either of the trailer parks in my town—which was used as an unreliable benchmark of low income back then (and still is). It was easy to scapegoat the kids who had to live in mobile homes and congregate by the dozen at a bus stop as less fortunate or beneath the rest of us; it’s what kept the facade alive that everyone else—save for the three or four kids whose parents were doctors, veterinarians or insurance agents—had a meal waiting for them the next day. I can’t exactly pinpoint when straddling some sense of a median became a benchmark of success, but even that was a false prophecy I unknowingly believed my family had fulfilled. I didn’t have siblings, which I’m sure made it much easier to believe there was financial stability in my family; less mouths to feed can make things much more comfortable cosmetically—albeit, not by all that much.

When my dad lost his job in the early 2010s the three of us, quickly, had to face the uncomfortable realities of survival through unemployment. We lived in a town of less than 4,000 people that neighbored a city with a high influx of overdoses and houselessness. The average cost of living in that area was not insurmountable if one parent had a full-time job that paid decently. On my mom’s public school teacher salary, we managed to make it through winters with heat—but I quickly had to start combing through my older cousin’s hand-me-downs and taking shirts or shorts he had no more use for. On “Teenage Parents,” Dan Campbell ruminates on that. “All we had was good will. You always said it would get better, ‘When you’re young and you’re poor, they hang on your failures,’” he sings. “And you always said it would get better.” To grow up in a rural space is to fight tooth and nail to outmuscle the destiny of poorness, of living paycheck-to-paycheck and having a future worth dreaming about. It’s a cruel truth that I felt in rural Ohio, that Campbell felt in Philadelphia and that 38-million people (likely more) across the United States are feeling right this instant.

The Greatest Generation was the start of Campbell’s focus turning deftly onto a lot of the systematic flaws in the Western capitalist, warmongering culture that we live and exist in. The record came at the genesis of those clickbaity, “Millennials are ruining __” op-eds that were ransacking the internet. “The participation trophies, the lazy millennial who wants higher minimum wage and student loan forgiveness—the generations preceding us wanted to call us soft and entitled,” Campbell says. “They set up a world that would be difficult for us to succeed in—where productivity and the minimum wage were no longer tethered to one another and jobs were being automated away; where higher education had become exponentially more expensive and wages had stagnated and the housing market became more expensive and has stagnated, and healthcare is more difficult than ever to get. We’re seeing the actions of our government in these foreign countries and they don’t feel like the stories were told of us in World War II—where you’re fighting an oppressive and all-encompassing evil. [The Greatest Generation] was me realizing that I won’t let a prior generation define what success for my generation is. We will define success for our generation on our own terms, with the knowledge of the life that we’ve led that has brought us here.”

You can draw the throughlines of greatness from the 1940s up until some very now, all political campaign slogans included—and now, 60 or 70 years removed from its initial inception, we understand just how much of an exclusive history that accolade has been in America. A title like “The Greatest Generation” carries so much weight and privilege—especially when you consider how kids who were born into a Great Depression were then shipped out to a global war as their adulthood was only just beginning. The Greatest Generation, while songs like “Teenage Parents” and “Cul-De-Sac” are these portraits of Campbell’s upbringing, largely bypasses Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers—at least thematically. The record is a mass exodus of the internal parts of us that are hereditarily built into us and trick us into believing we are helpless—the pieces of DNA transposed across centuries of living. It all comes to a boil at the end, on “I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral,” when Campbell proclaims: “I know how it’s all gonna end. There’s no triumph waiting, there’s no sunset to ride off in. We all want to be great men and there’s nothing romantic about it. I just want to know that I did all I could with what I was given.”

“You tell yourself these stories, like ‘I’m incapable of more than this, because I am so depressed and that depression runs in my family—and there’s almost nothing I can do about that,” Campbell says. “So, it’d be very easy to let that overwhelm you. Or, the stories that we’ve heard told about ourselves: ‘you’re white trash, your family is poor, you’ll never be anything.’ You look at these private school kids and then you think, ‘Okay, well, there’s a ceiling on how far I can go and because it has been put on me.’ At the end, the realization that I had was: What I really want out of life is to do absolutely everything I can with absolutely everything I have available.”

When Campbell elected to title the album The Greatest Generation, his intentions were to reframe that slogan for Millennials and Zoomers. “These people have decided that that is the greatest generation who will ever live, but we have the opportunity to create our version of what that looks like. We have a fucking planet to save,” he says. “If we can’t lower our reliance on fossil fuels or rid ourselves of that—if we can’t find renewable energies or cut down on carbon emissions—the world’s gonna fucking end.” Campbell references the early debates for the Democratic nominee hopefuls in 2015, where the politicians on stage were asked what the biggest security risk to America was. “They said some collection of North Korea or Russia, but Bernie Sanders said the impending climate disaster—and he was the only correct one in the bunch,” he adds. “We have the opportunity to build the actual equitable, just future that we would like to see that, to me, would be the hallmark of a ‘greatest generation.’ That’s why I’m so excited about our generation and a lot about Gen-Z—they seem fired the fuck up to do it, and that’s exciting to me.”

The Greatest Generation was one of those records that—along with Modern Baseball’s Sports, the Front Bottoms’ Talon of the Hawk, State Champs’ The Finer Things and The Story So Far’s What You Don’t See—caught a spark on Tumblr. I’m not going to sit here and proclaim that the app was responsible for the album’s success, but, if you were there back then, those posts—the stock-photo floral arrangements and lyrical text—were like gospel. The mass interactions of reblog chains put songs like “Passing Through a Screen Door” and “There, There” on the radars of many, many folks. When I bring it up to Campbell, he is quick to acknowledge that, even though he knew of the attention the record was getting on Tumblr at the time, he and the band had no part in drumming it. It’s become a common thread in retrospective pieces, I’ve noticed—how the Tumblr machine is a self-sustaining, fan-led one.

The Wonder Years, however, were tuned in with social media on The Upsides and Suburbia, I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing, the two records that preceded The Greatest Generation. The band would come up with hyper-focused campaigns to get folks excited around the releases. MySpace was a big contributor in The Upsides finding an audience, especially. “The label found out—which was really just a guy named Chris at No Sleep—how to set up our MySpace so that, if you tweeted something and hashtagged it #TheUpsides, it made its way into the top of our MySpace as a feed,” Campbell says. “We were encouraging people to, if something bad happened in your day, tell us what it is but, then, try to find a silver lining in it and hashtag it with that. That was a really big driver of that record early on in the weeks and months leading up to it coming out.”

When Suburbia came around, the band had just introduced their now-beloved mascot, Hank the Pigeon. Back then, they’d have someone wearing a pigeon costume and, despite pop punk’s propensity for schoolyard theatrics, it was one of the first instances of an artist taking that creative leap. “We did a whole campaign where we mailed the costume across the country to all of these different cities,” Campbell notes. “Then, we would have our friends dress up in it and hide somewhere in that city and tweet about where they were via a special account. If you found the pigeon, the first people to find him would get a variant of the ‘Local Man Ruins Everything’ seven-inch—which was never otherwise printed or available—and a couple other people would get guest-listed for Warped Tour, or something.” When it came to The Greatest Generation, the promo online was thin. The band’s big move was doing four shows in 24 hours and a pop-up shop. The idea was to bring a marketing aspect into the physical world more than they ever had before. “We were like, ‘Let’s, on the week of the release, physically be in these spaces, because we have the means and ability to do that this time around.’ And it made a bigger impact,” Campbell adds.

When it was released, The Greatest Generation was considered to be the third piece of a trilogy about growing up. The notion was brought up when the band was interviewing each other for the album’s trailer—and that idea about a cohesive storyline now reaching its end became the catalyst for the record’s rollout. But, 10 years later—and the fact that The Wonder Years pulled so much of The Greatest Generation’s narrative into that of The Hum Goes On Forever—Campbell doesn’t see the band’s breakout record as a finale in that way much these days.

“It was really easy to look at it that way at the time, just because of how quickly in succession those records were made. But it felt like I was commenting on Upsides and Suburbia on The Greatest Generation. I thought, ‘Okay, well, that ties a bow around it. I came to my conclusion,’” he says. “And my conclusion was that, despite feeling depressed and despite feeling counted out and despite all of the different things that could get in my way, my determination is the last line of that record: ‘I just want to know that I did all I could with what I was given.’ The idea was there’s no quit in me until it’s over. To say that it was a trilogy that’s over and now we’re making new records was reductive and short-sighted in that moment. It was really good for marketing, though, you gotta admit. These were three records that were as connected as any of our records are—because they’re all written by us with the same voice and tone and the same general outlook on the world that we have carried through.”

Some of the songs that have endured the most in the Wonder Years’ catalog are, undoubtedly, “Passing Through a Screen Door,” “There, There” and “The Devil in My Bloodstream”—at least in a critical, mainstream sense (“Came Out Swinging” and “Don’t Let Me Cave In” truthers can rest easy). The band knew that “Screen Door” was going to be a benchmark the moment they wrote it. It went through a few different iterations but didn’t fully become a lightbulb moment until Campbell switched the choruses. There’s a demo out there with the OG lyrics, and he considered putting it on the new box set edition of The Greatest Generation, but that plan was ultimately nixed for quality control purposes. “It just sounds so unreasonably bad, because it’s just an iPhone on the floor of the room,” Campbell explains. “If you were in the room, you knew what was being played. If you were not, it’s just static.” For “The Devil in My Bloodstream,” there is a demo on the box set—and it showcases how the track began with a guitar-based intro, rather than the piano performance the final version sports.

“There, There” kicked off the album with a soft, poppy melody and a Sunny Day Real Estate-style bravado that signaled a catchy detour that would crescendo into Campbell’s generational, guttural howls. It was written faster than any song the Wonder Years had made up until that point. Aside from a few lyrics, the whole track came together in about 40 minutes, but there was hesitancy about its potency. “We really believed in it, but there was a fear that it was going to not be received as well—because it was a departure. And we were excited about that,” Campbell adds. “It was not a single from the record, which seems crazy now, as it’s probably a top-5 most popular song in the catalog of all-time—and it ain’t five. We were so amped up about it, but also a little nervous about what the reception looks like for a band like us and a song like that. But, I think it was the reception to that song—how positive it was—that made us believe that we could continue to push the boundaries of the genre.”

And the Wonder Years would flirt with the boundaries of pop punk again on The Greatest Generation’s big, epic coda. “I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral” is larger-than-life and all-encompassing, as it brings every key image from the previous 12 songs back into focus—be it lines from “There, There” or a melody from “Chaser” or the Marlon Brando monologue reference from “A Raindance in Traffic” or the outro chorus from “Passing Through a Screen Door.” It wasn’t some collage or summary. Instead, it was a thesis statement hurled at the end of the album, subverting our conscious understanding of what a grand finale could be. The idea for Campbell was to take the evenly-spaced metaphors and throw them at the listener faster and faster, where everything is coming from all every direction.

“You’re totally locked into these images and then it spits you out the other side into a conclusion of the record,” he says. “I described that to the guys, and they were like, ‘What if we brought back some of the lyrics wholesale instead of just saying the word “ghost” again? What if we used the “sick of seeing ghosts” line?’ And then it was like, ‘Okay, well, if we’re gonna bring back lyrics then we should probably bring back melodies.’ And then it was like, ‘Well, what if we brought back whole parts?’ That was Casey’s idea, originally. He was like, ‘What if we just transpose the parts to the correct key and the correct tempo?’ If we were going to have all of the images colliding, we could also have all of the music collide. It just evolved and evolved and became more than I had ever thought it would have been.” What it became—and remains—is, perhaps, one of the greatest medleys in the history of pop punk. In fact, I’d argue no record within the genre has ever ended in such a succinct, infallible way.

I’d connected with The Greatest Generation first because of Campbell’s understanding of how to detail an upbringing with language that was romantic without cheapening the reality of survival. I’d never really been able to latch onto the love and breakup songs that pop punk and emo bands often specialized in—mostly because that just wasn’t the world I was living in. By the time I discovered The Wonder Years, I’d already started trying to make sense of where my own mental illness came from—and I’d become obsessed with trying to understand my uncle’s suicide, because I felt a strong kinship with his life trajectory and, ultimately, feared that I too wouldn’t make it to 30.

The ways that The Greatest Generation attempted to unfurl that same ancestral undertaking with a thoughtful, palpable curiosity, it helped the album become a talismanic beacon of hope for me in some way. “I searched through my great-grandpa’s memoirs for the devil in my bloodstream,” Campbell sang. “Depression grabbed his throat and choked the life out of him, slowly. I got the same blood coursing through my veins. It’ll come for me, eventually.” When I couldn’t get my behavior in check, my dad told me I’d end up like his older brother and “I heard the voices, the implications telling me who I could never be” came ringing through my ear. The idea of a “hollow Midwest” felt like an apt descriptor for what it meant for me to be a teenager in Ohio just trying to get to college—a hope that would then turn into being a college student in Ohio just trying to get to real adulthood. All of this life that we must endure is cyclical, and The Greatest Generation taps into that truth.

But a song like “Dismantling Summer” is where, in the most deft way, The Greatest Generation became such a definitive album in my lifetime. In the song, Campbell reflects on being on tour while his grandfather was in the hospital. A few years after the album came out, I’d experienced two similar fault lines: When my grandmother died, I was in college and didn’t make it back in time on the day she passed to say goodbye one final time. Eight months later, my grandfather died after a year of fighting cancer—a year in which I, regrettably, didn’t spend nearly enough time with him. There was something about “Dismantling Summer” and the idea of how we might begin to measure our own collective humanity. “If I’m in an airport and you’re in a hospital bed, well, then, what kind of man does that make me?” Campbell muses. If we’re not serving and caring for the people we love, how can we expect to receive our own moments of grace?

“Dismantling Summer,” much like a lot of The Greatest Generation, was a songwriting anomaly in pop punk at the time. The style of lyricism and the imagery Campbell conjures on the track—the very hyper-literal storytelling about grief, drug use, the degradation of friendship and feeling like you can’t keep up with where society deems your life should be—wasn’t being written about across the genre in the way he writes about them. “It’s always been useful for me to write [my grief] down and then go yell it in front of people and have them yell it back,” Campbell says. “It is a throughline for our work, that you make art because you feel compelled to create. There’s something inside you, you want to get that thing out. I have always felt that the reason we release the music is because we—or I—have deconstructed my grief and built it into something that could be helpful to others who want to deconstruct theirs. To write a song like ‘Cul-De-Sac’ or to write a song like ‘Dismantling Summer’ is to offer commiseration to people.”

No matter what city I run to or what fleeting sense of security I find, I am still just a kid who was born into a false comfort and is now tasked with redefining survival in adulthood—if only for the sake of believing I can make it to a life that sits beyond it. I have not yet learned what it means to be in a place haunted by the same death and loss that plagues No Closer to Heaven; I have not yet begun burying my friends or past failures. I walk across the same floor my uncle died on and I am, perhaps, still outrunning a likewise endgame—or at least dreaming of a day when I can touch the carpet and forget to remember. When I listen to The Greatest Generation now, I am transported back 15 years and I can see how the things I loved dearly then are now just portraits of a certain starvation washed away by pointed, naive distractions of youth and hope. I would love to say that I have finally seen what kind of joy exists on the other side of sadness—that I’m still just a seven-year-old kid sitting on the floor in front of my grandmother’s dresser, staring at the painting of my grandfather in his summer uniform, believing that I might, someday, do something worth honoring.

My mom has always told me I looked like him, as we shared a familiar smile and a great head of hair. In art class, I used to draw pictures of the Marines seal; paint watercolors of the patriotic landmarks I was told he fought to keep safe. At one point in my life, I’d wanted to be a sailor tattooer like Ed Hardy or Jerry Collins—inking soldiers and naval officers with Bald Eagles and pinups. My grandfather had a tattoo from his time in the corps, an image that—over the course of his life—faded and mashed into an illegible glob of murky green. At my parents’ home, my mom has a wall dedicated to his memory—an honorary high school diploma and service papers hung up on an outdated wood-paneled wall. I consider the omen of my own existence, that to be alive must first mean that I resemble a hero or—if things careen a certain direction—end up dead like an older brother. The idea that I am meant to outlive these fates just as they’re being written—what about us children who were never sent to die in a war? What about those of us tasked with saving a planet pushed towards ruin by a group of kids gifted the glory of immortality? What tool will be used to measure our courage if we are up to the task of making humanity better for the next generation? I’m afraid to know what we will be remembered for if we’re not.

You can buy tickets to a show on the Wonder Years’ upcoming The Greatest Generation anniversary tour here.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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