How the Wonder Years got older and wiser with The Hum Goes on Forever
At Cleveland’s legendary Agora Theater in 2016, Dan Campbell's stagecraft was all out as he choked back tears while performing a rendition of “Cardinals.” The hundreds of people who were there took refuge in not just the song, but the place itself, as they hid from the indescribably airless, autumnal Ohio cold and siphoned warmth out of the blacked-out, then-unrenovated auditorium’s reserves. When the Wonder Years frontman sang “I know that I failed you, woke up in a sweat” in the third verse, instead of singing the next line, he went quiet so the crowd could say it for him. “I want those years back,” they all yelled. “Me too,” he said, plainly, into the microphone. At some point after that song, as the band kicked into “A Song For Patsy Cline” in the faraway distance, fans gravitated toward The Agora’s slipshod bathroom, washing crusts of tears off their cheeks.
The Wonder Years — Campbell, guitarists Casey Cavaliere and Matt Brasch, bassist Josh Martin, multi-instrumentalist Nick Steinborn and drummer Mike Kennedy — started out in Lansdale, a Montgomery County borough 30 miles north of Philadelphia, in 2005. Their easycore debut, Get Stoked on It!, doesn’t feel like the same lifetime ago that 2007 does, but it holds a sound the band no longer actively work from. The raucous pop punk that defined their sonic on 2010’s The Upsides and 2011’s Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing would quickly disperse into a buffet of perfectly assimilated emo, power pop and poetic linguistics on The Greatest Generation in 2013. But where they are now, seven records in with The Hum Goes on Forever, follows the current of 2015’s No Closer to Heaven and 2018’s Sister Cities, as the sextet trudge deeper into an alternative sound that’s as heavy as it is gentle.
Writing for The Hum Goes On Forever was originally supposed to begin immediately after the conclusion of their spring 2020 tour, but COVID-19 upended their plans. The Wonder Years are a band that write together in the same room, harnessing a deeply personal, collaborative energy, and from March to July 2020, they didn’t see each other. With hopes for an album on the back burner, Campbell, who’d welcomed his first son, Wyatt, into the world not even a year before the pandemic, wrestled with an immense fear of what kind of world was unfurling outside. “You’re reading death rates every day, and [the news is] like, ‘Oh, there’s not enough places to keep the bodies, so they brought in refrigerator trucks,’ or ‘LA is being polluted because they’re incinerating bodies too quickly,’" he says. "So I said, ‘OK, this is terrifying. I don’t want to bring this virus home to my kid.’ [As a band], we were like, ‘How can we possibly write?’ And we didn’t, for a while.”
After a couple of virtual livestreams, the band decided to reconvene at Steinborn’s house. They went through the motions: quarantining, wearing masks around each other, doing temperature checks before every rehearsal. In the beginning, Campbell tried doing vocals while masked, but he found it too constricting, given the heavy inhaling and exhaling he does while surfing across octaves. A momentary fix came through ordering a shower tent from Amazon and putting it in Steinborn’s laundry room, but it failed, as Campbell couldn’t feel the energy between him and his bandmates, and they couldn’t offer immediate feedback. “It’s hard to write when you’re in a physically separate space, even if there’s just a wall between you,” he adds. “We’d finish a take, and I’d be stuck alone in this tent, wondering if everyone liked it.”
The band decided they couldn’t make the record they wanted unless they were together in the same room again, so they rented a farmhouse in the middle of Pennsylvania, wrote and demoed the songs for a week straight and, as Campbell puts it, “lived inside of the record for a while.” Soon, vaccines became available and variants were less deadly, which allowed the guys to work together in person again and push the record across the finish line. Though the fears of what awaited the band on the other side of the pandemic’s greatest uncertainties were initially detrimental to making The Hum Goes On Forever, quarantine allotted them the space and time to write the best collection of songs for the best record they’ve ever made.
[Photo by Kelly Mason]
Sister Cities was, for a long time, Campbell’s storytelling opus. He approaches songwriting like a scriptwriter, with the intent of making the listener feel like they can inhabit the space of every song, that an album can be cinematic. His ability to craft a whole narrative arc in such a small capacity comes from his work with Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties, his semi-solo project, where he plays the fictional character of Aaron, a divorced upstate New Yorker reckoning with and recovering from a separation and his dad’s passing.
Though the band have often tracked some of the more devastating parts of human life in their songs, from watching a friend’s drug addiction unfurl to the long, unescapable tug of mental illness, they broach every topic with an unrelenting empathy and always gesture whatever amount of space is needed for grief and reckoning. A deft commentary on the ties that bind humanity together and bases of emotions that exist within everyone, but across an expansive landscape, Sister Cities was Campbell zeroing in on the wholeness of a narrative arc.
Moving into the next project, Campbell was tasked with capturing that global saudade all over again, but this time from the point of view of a small, walkable radius. “[The Hum Goes On Forever] was written when my world had gotten so small that it was basically a few blocks around my house,” Campbell says. The idea of home is a frequent flier on Wonder Years albums. Salvation Mountain, South Philadelphia, Kyoto, Crescent City, suburbia, cul-de-sacs, a number of oceans — they all offer some sort of vacancy. But on The Hum Goes On Forever, home isn’t geography. Rather, it takes the shape of Campbell’s family, his friends and the people from his past.
Before The Hum Goes On Forever was properly announced, the band first teased their fans with a single line from the song “Oldest Daughter” featuring a familiar face: “Madelyn, I love you, but we both know how this ends.” Madelyn — a real person whose details are, as Campbell reveals in a text message, changed and obscured — first appeared nine years ago in her own song on The Greatest Generation. The “I know how this ends” on the former has grown mutual on The Hum Goes On Forever. Where in 2013 Campbell understood what ghosts plagued and cornered her into seeing the world in a different light than him, the songwriter now understands that he cannot bring her back from the path she’s long been on.
The greatest peaks, and some of Campbell’s own favorite songs, on The Hum Goes On Forever come via the cuts not heard before the full release. The album is bookended by “Doors I Painted Shut” and “You’re the Reason I Don’t Want the World to End,” two songs written for Campbell’s wife Alison and his oldest son Wyatt. The former is a product of a postpartum depression he battled with after Wyatt’s birth.
“There was this unexplainable joy, as you marvel at your child’s existence, just the fact they’re there. But it [also] just starts to get very overwhelming, making sure they don’t roll over and suffocate when they’re very young, to thinking about them going to school and having to do active shooter drills,” Campbell says. “All of that hits at once, suddenly, when the responsibility lands on your chest.”
Campbell conjures a sun-expanding apocalypse in the song. But he doesn’t immediately run from it, instead sitting on a porch swing in the “orange glow and eerie calm,” watching North America fall into the ocean. “[‘Doors I Painted Shut’] is a bit of an apology to Alison because I’m supposed to be the other half of this, but I’m totally breaking down, weeping on the floor. I’m sensibly useless,” he says. “It wasn’t so much that I was interested in dying as much as I was the idea of existence as a whole ceasing to be.” Through all of it, one line stands tall above the pronounced fallout: “I don’t wanna die/At least not without you.”
Eleven songs later, the line returns, this time as a promise to Wyatt and his youngest son, Jack, when Campbell sings, “I don’t wanna die ’cause I gotta protect you/You’re the reason I can’t leave here yet” — coming to the understanding that he wants to be alive, and needs to be alive, for his wife and children. But maybe the most deafening part of the album greets us when he harkens back to “The Devil in My Bloodstream” from The Greatest Generation, as he sings, “Devil in your blood/The dull, unmoored ache/The same one that haunted me/But the bearings could rust/And the circuit could break/If I love you entirely.”
The centerpiece of The Hum Goes On Forever is “Cardinals II,” a sequel to No Closer to Heaven’s “Cardinals,” which is still, seven years on, one of the band’s most compelling compositions yet. It’s a tale of retrospect and second chances, though the person — or people — Campbell sings about in the song goes unnamed, and it’s intentional. “I’m trying to be nonspecific because I want people to be able to interpret and use the songs in whichever way is most useful to them,” he says. “I [also] don’t want to be potentially harmful to the healing process of the people the song is about.”
While the idea of naming children in “Wyatt’s Song” ties back to genealogy and mental illness on The Greatest Generation’s “Passing Through a Screen Door” and the chorus of “Low Tide” (“I’m growing out my hair ’cause who gives a shit”) contrasts with the refrain on Suburbia’s “Local Man Ruins Everything” (“I walked upstairs and shaved my beard/I felt like I was holding sadness here”), “Cardinals II” is the band’s first-ever explicit, titled return to a previous entry in their catalog. It's the same story arc in the same tempo and same time signature. As Campbell puts it, “Cardinals II” came from his brain knowing the whole time that it was supposed to be a part of that small world.
The verses and piano parts of “Cardinals II” were written over four years ago, but, without a chorus, never had its day in the sun then. Instead, the lyrics were reimagined into another song on Sister Cities. The chorus that eventually arrived some years later, “Bruised and paper cut/I built a thousand paper cranes for good luck/But I can’t protect you/I had my chance and I fucked it up,” isn't the rehash of “Cardinals” it might initially seem to be. Instead, it’s a reconciliation, a part of Campbell’s subconscious that went unfinished but was still percolating. “I think part of it was that there’s a lot of trauma associated with that song,” he says. “I think my brain had, for my own self-preservation, walled that trauma off. Then, once it became evident that that was what the song was supposed to be, that wall came down.”
The title of the record was one Campbell kept returning to. He wrote the line “The hum goes on forever” down when the band were making Sister Cities, and it eventually made its way into a poem of his, “You Can Only Run For So Long,” which was included in the album’s book of journals. “[“The hum goes on forever/When I anticipate silence and am alone, it’s there with me”] was about depression and about tinnitus and about how I’ve caused irreparable harm to my body,” Campbell says. “The kind of damage we’re willing to take for the things that we love, which I always thought was an interesting concept across a million different professions. [Martin] has carpal tunnel in his wrist from playing bass. Kennedy’s arm goes numb from playing his snare drum, and the things I’m doing to my throat, surely the other shoe will drop on that as I get older.”
Campbell not only loved that line, but he loved how it always found its way back to him. When he was looking into starting an SSRI, he found himself Googling what other people thought about the drug and what it does to your body. “One thing that stuck with me was this review from someone on the internet that said, ‘It’s like your anxiety has a big volume knob, and this turns it all the way down. It’s still there, but it’s much quieter, and you can exist inside of your own brain.’ And I said, ‘That sounds really nice.’”
In the darkest parts of the pop-punk interwebs and long-winded hashtags on Tumblr exists a PDF of Campbell’s book, Paper Boats or Some Poems I Wrote. In his poem “The Only Death Worth Dying,” he wrote, “I guess it all comes down to what you believe in.” The line conjures up those fans who were crying in the pit or out of breath in a venue bathroom six years ago, how they all took a significant tempest of grief and exorcised it from their throats communally, because they believed in Campbell, who was doing the same internal exodus onstage before them. To watch a sea of people expunge certain traumas en masse like that, it was as if, for even the most fleeting of moments, some kind of labored destiny had been met.
In “Songs About Death,” Campbell sings, “Out in front of everyone/I sing them songs about death/And they sing along/It’s gotta stop.” It’s impossible to know what an audience at a Wonder Years show will look like in 2022, or how the crowd will react when the band play a song like “Cigarettes & Saints” or “Dismantling Summer.” But it’s easy to imagine there will be a lot of people leaning on each other, as they carry a countless number of fears across a world that’s inexplicably unraveling.
Like the Wonder Years, we, too, have all grown up. Our friends are moving away and getting married and having kids, but we must continue piecing together an adulthood marred by a virus and navigate relationships now distanced and thinned. The Hum Goes On Forever speaks to a utopia of centralized love and longing, for what keeps us alive and what parts of ourselves we’ve shed. One thing that endures across the band’s seven albums is the way in which Campbell tells stories of the people in his own life while leaving them universal enough for us to remember them in ours. And like Wyatt’s gloves stuffed in the pocket of Campbell’s winter coat, The Hum Goes On Forever is a reminder that we’re not alone.