Dad Rock

The grown-up angst of The Wonder Years and Craig Finn

Adam Nayman

“I don’t want to die” pleads Dan Campbell on the first track of The Wonder Years’ upcoming The Hum Goes On Forever, a coruscating slow burner called “Doors I Painted Shut.” The phrase evokes a cozy, middle-aged domesticity, albeit with something ominous lurking behind the walls, or maybe in the basement; the question is whether you’re shut in or shut out. Campbell repeats the line about not wanting to die about forty minutes later, during the album’s finale, which is addressed to his two young sons. In it, the singer’s discovery of children’s gloves in the pockets of his winter coat offers conjoined sensations of solace and terror. The title of that one: “You’re The Reason I Don’t Want the World to End.”

Suffice it to say that this is not an under-wrought collection of songs. A certain uptempo, downbeat anxiety is Campbell’s specialty; even when he rocks out, you can sense the quiver in his voice, or the lump in his throat. “I’m growing out my hair, cuz who gives a shit,” he howls on “Low Tide,” sounding less hedonistic than fatalistic. The song, meanwhile, sounds a bit like “The Boys of Summer” if Don Henley couldn’t rouse himself out of bed in the morning to cruise the boardwalk.

The fears Campbell conjures and confronts over the course of 12 harrowingly catchy tracks on The Hum Goes on Forever range from the everyday to the apocalyptic, from shards of glass in the garden to rising coastlines. The question of how much a listener will enjoy the album — which comes out September 23 from Hopeless Records — depends on whether they believe these two categories of angst are equally worthy of such earnest, robustly leather-lunged exploration. I myself enjoyed it very much.

The Wonder Years are a recent discovery for me, my doors to new-ish rock music having been painted shut decades ago. The same washed, dad-bod solipsism that Campbell and his bandmates have embraced on their seventh studio release partially explains why I hadn’t heard anything from their previous six, including the ones that went Top 20 in the U.S. Experiencing their discography in reverse was like watching somebody wipe the smirk back onto their face. The titles on 2007’s ramshackle debut Get Stoked On It are frat-boy stoopid (“Let’s Moschercise!”; “ Buzz Aldrin: The Poster Boy For Second Place”) and the musical style on the next few albums was basically My Chemical Bromance (“I hate your bad tattoos and your second-hand stories”). By 2013’s The Greatest Generation, though, the snot had been transubstantiated into a bittersweet cocktail of blood, sweat and tears — and some laceratingly plangent observations about aging, mortality, and depression. No Closer to Heaven (2015) earns its high-end name checks of Ernest Hemingway and Patsy Cline; Sister Cities (2018) is hugely scaled, subsuming pop-punk propulsion into moody, storm-on-the horizon soundscaping. On the eerie, high-altitude reminiscence “We Look Like Lightning,” Campbell asks his airplane seatmate “what song do you want to die to?” Behind him, the band squalls and thunders, as if striving to live up to their frontman’s own gloriously morbid rhetorical question.

Experiencing their discography in reverse was like watching somebody wipe the smirk back onto their face.

The Hum Goes On Forever’s hard-charging single “Wyatt’s Song (Your Name)” — a galvanizing paternal battle cry dedicated to Campbell’s eldest son — was written with input from no less than Mark Hoppus, still the voice inside so many emo kids’ heads. The collaboration feels significant. In an excellent essay for Pitchfork, Hannah Seidlitz traced the Wonder Years’ emergence out of the millennial pop-punk movement that yielded the unassailable greatness of Blink-182 and a phalanx of inferior, mallrat imitators. Seidlitz positions Campbell’s group as fall out boys from a dubious millennial explosion — a cycle of “Peter Pans in khakis and flannel, exaggerating their (usually white) suburban travails.” When Weird Al Yankovic unleashed 2003’s “The Angry White Boy Polka,” he was (as always) helpfully taking inventory of Billboard’s new paradigm, establishing a target broad enough for less sympathetic Gen-X marksmen from Dave Grohl (“Cheer Up Boys, Your Makeup is Running”) to Ben Folds (“Rockin’ the Suburbs”) to take potshots at. If Green Day’s template-setting, era-defining, Bush-bashing rock opera American Idiot hasn’t aged particularly well, it’s less a matter of Billie Joe Armstrong’s Broadway-caliber songcraft than the fact that its I-don’t-care-if-you-don’t-care ethos captured an essentially whiny zeitgeist a bit too well.

The Wonder Years were formed in 2005, when American Idiot was still in heavy rotation and its members were just out of high school. That year, the new release that spoke most to my own post-collegiate mindset was one whose guiding voice was a bit older and wiser, and duly clawing his way out of a teenage wasteland. “Lord, to be seventeen forever,” muses Craig Finn on “Steve Nix,” the emotional centerpiece of The Hold Steady’s magnificent and humane Separation Sunday. The album is a decidedly off-Broadway sort of rock opera featuring a memorable ensemble of American Idiots and Jesuses of Suburbia, all of whom are treated with more tenderness and humor than Green Day could muster up. Amidst a steady stream of gratuitous puns, Thin Lizzy riffs, and references to the Mississippi river, the hoarsely hectoring, and ever-heartfelt Finn stared down the Peter Pan myth, sprinkling his stories with something stronger than pixie dust. The theme: maturity as a form of endurance, coming-of-age and living to tell the tale. As “Steve Nix” grinds to a close, Finn, speaking through his distaff adolescent protagonist, but also surely on his own behalf as a survivor of countless killer parties, pointedly corrects his own math: “Lord, to be thirty-three forever.”

Finn turned fifty last year, and has kept regularly churning out records with the Hold Steady as well as under his own name. These have been mostly terrific: at this point, the Minnesota Twins superfan has had enough at bats — and made enough solid contact — to have his jersey raised to the indie rock rafters alongside his fellow Minneapolis legend Paul Westerberg. If the title of 2006’s Hold Steady album Boys and Girls in America suggested a band reaching Green Day-like for a state-of-the-union address, Finn’s later solo releases are content to lay back and ruminate in their own graceful marginality. No longer shouting to reach the kids in the back row of the balcony, he’s downshifted into a conversational ramble. These newer songs are muted and even ethereal; to paraphrase the title of one track on this year’s gratifyingly melancholy A Legacy of Rentals, they function, in the context of the singer’s larger career, as breaks from the barrage.

As a melodist, Finn’s been gradually widening his range. As a dramaturgist, though, he has a type.

There are plenty of aspirational resonances between Campbell and Finn, including their mutual love of Bruce Springsteen and Springsteen-ian inside jokes. The apprentice’s cleverly self-upbraiding ”I was born to run… away from anything good” sidles up to the master’s deathlessly deadpan “tramps like us…and we like tramps” and looks it dead in the eye. Both guys lean heavily on local color, too (one of the better early Wonder Years titles is “It’s never Sunny in South Philadelphia).” But where Campbell is still working hellbent in an autobiographical mode — abjuring distance or metaphor and risking the alienation effect that goes with such a confessional approach— Finn skillfully mediates his emotions and worldview through a series of surrogates. You can bet his favorite Springsteen album is Nebraska.

As a melodist, Finn’s been gradually widening his range. As a dramaturgist, though, he has a type: hard-luck loners reflecting on their regrets, planning scores, caught in traps they’ll have to be carried out of feet first. Such slumming potentially skirts redundancy, especially after two decades. But consistency is a form of principle, and Finn’s long-standing gift for a certain kind of portraiture — close-up and tactile like a street-lit Polaroid, with a non-judgmental eye for physical weaknesses and metaphysical blemishes — remains a source of offhanded wonder. He can distill years’ worth of potentially melodramatic backstory into a throwaway observation or two; the next time he condescends to one of his proper-named, furiously paddling characters will be the first. In A Legacy of Rentals’ “A Break From the Barrage,” a hungover heroine is gratefully hypnotized by a Marvel movie whose ambient boredom yields the desired state of comfortable numbness. (Finn should be a film critic). In the haunting “Messing With the Settings,” which circles slowly like a distant carousel, we meet Rachel, who was “practical, she always carried matches…she said she didn’t have habits, they’re rituals.”

A little match girl with some bad habits of her own inspires Campbell’s most affecting lyric on The Hum Goes On Forever — a character sketch worthy of Finn at his best. “Oldest Daughter,” catches up with the troubled, rootless young woman named Madelyn previously introduced in an eponymous, folk-strummed deep cut on The Greatest Generation. Without specifying whether she’s a lover or a friend, Campbell imagines Madelyn as his own distorted mirror image — a wayward figure unbound and alone in her own private nomadland: “You drift in with the wind and use a library computer to check in/ can’t sleep at the table, Ma’am, you’re scaring the kids.’” Here, rootlessness gets etched in fine-grained detail; when an exhausted Madelyn imagines lighting a cigarette to spark a lungful of gasoline, it’s a grandiose fantasy contextualized — and defused — by the mundanity of her surroundings. Having long since burned out, she’s made her peace with fading away.

It’s a fine tightrope between complex empathy and simple, pithy pity — between recalling the subtle greatness of Craig Finn or the runaway-cliche-trains of his Minneapolis-St Paul predecessors in Soul Asylum. On “Oldest Daughter,” Campbell walks it with grounded determination. And elsewhere on the album, whenever his footing fails him, or the balance between complaining and catharsis slips, his bandmates catch him mid-plunge and keep the songs aloft. You can easily imagine an arena’s worth of fans raising cellphones to “Wyatt’s Song (Your Name)” or “The Paris of Nowhere;” having previously covered “Losing My Religion” in 2019 as a sop to the alt-rock establishment, the group does passable imitation of “Nightswimming” on the romantic, nostalgic, and altogether lovely “Summer Clothes.”

Not all good rock music brings you closer to the people who make it. There’s something to be said for distance and metaphor, and just because everybody hurts doesn’t mean you have to hear them out. But Bruce Springsteen and The Hold Steady (and, while we’re at it, R.E.M.) specialized in songs that reached out while inviting us to reach back — a bearhug, a fist-bump, a steadying hand, a shoulder to cry on — and The Wonder Years’ latest bundle of raw, exposed nerves is warm to the touch. Your mileage may vary: would I have reacted so strongly to “Your Name” and the line about Campbell’s infant son learning to say “moon” if that wasn’t my 18-month old’s new favorite word? I’ll never know.

Back on The Greatest Generation’s “Passing Through a Screen Door,” Campbell, feeling his twenties passing by in a blur of bus windows and tour dates and wondering how much highway he had left, longed for people who “cared if [he] came home at night.” The complex, pit-of-your-stomach subtext of The Hum Goes On Forever and its paternal pathos play is to be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it. The beauty of the album is that it makes you care too.

Adam Nayman is a contributing editor at Cinema Scope and the author of books on Showgirls, the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher.