I went to Pittsburgh this weekend and when asked what I wanted to do I had the same requests as anywhere I go: a place to buy zines and.. I dont know? Coffee? Record store? So on Saturday I got in Eli's car adorned with a Convulse Records sticker and was taken to a comic shop. It was a mess the way all good comic shops are and had zines organized in a way that I can only imagine makes sense exclusively to the person running the shop. It was perfect. I was so pleased that I mustered up the self control to not try to explain Cometbus when I commented on seeing my favorite issue to Eric and they replied by saying they, "don't understand what that is really."
But I'm not starting with this anecdote to talk about Cometbus. We're starting here to talk about a zine I did buy there. Proof I Exist is a series of personal zines by Billy McCall who makes loads of wonderful stuff. Behind the Zines, Last Night at the Casino, all kinds of cool stuff. You can find at least one of his things wherever zines are sold, pretty much. I love his work so much I keep buying them then gifting them to my friends and having to repurchase. This time I bought Proof I Exist #28. I very nearly bought it at a couple months ago at a different shop, but I decided against it to buy a zine called TV Rots Your Brain and a mini comic. I have a self imposed "no more than $10 on zines at any one time" rule and knew I could find Proof I Exist elsewhere, so I made the tough call. Felt like fate to find #28 in Pittsburgh so this time I picked it up.
That issue of Proof I Exist is about the writer's relationship with drugs and alcohol throughout his life. It's also about his brother who struggles with addiction and their relationship. It's really moving and beautiful and still funny and warm. I loved it. One of my favorites of his easily.
He talks about how he'd never really felt comfortable talking about his brother before despite pretty much making a zine about everything else in his life. I relate to that sentiment a lot. Intentionally leaving out an aspect of your life despite spending so much of your life documenting all sorts of intimate details– I relate to that. It's a great zine that has triggered a full day of thoughts about an album I'm supposed to be talking about here. More than that, it's really made me consider my point of view on that album in a way I felt compelled to write about.
The Wonder Years released No Closer To Heaven right before I started my freshman year of college. They were my favorite band for years. I consider them extremely fundamental to who I am now. Their music means a lot to me. In 2015, though, you could not have said anything that would have made me think this album was worth my time. I didn't want it. You could chalk that up to me being freshly out of high school and wanting to be into different stuff now that I was in college, but I really felt strongly about not needing this album.
I remember this feeling that The Wonder Years didn't need to do anything else. They'd pulled off three records in a row that meant everything to me. I didn't want a new one that could disappoint me. Every band I loved would disappoint me over that year and the next. Emo revival broke. 2010s pop punk was sort of over too. I just wanted my favorite band to stay perfect. I would have taken a break up tour over a new album. This was extremely main character energy from me, but I truly just felt they couldn't go anywhere all that interesting from The Greatest Generation. Certainly not with the guy from letlive.
I did listen to the record after a little while, though. Because I was very much the same kid I was in 2012 when I was playing Coffee Eyes on repeat to get through my eating disorder recovery program, I latched on to Cigarettes & Saints to get through funerals for people who were dying too young. I wrote the rest of it off and that was fine. I'd go to the shows and just forget about the rest of the album.
It took years before I'd revisit it in earnest. I knew everyone thought the mix sounded bad so I felt vindicated regardless, but eventually I did go back. What I found was better than I remembered and three years after having to admit it's actually good, I'm evaluating again.
I will say, the production is muddy. It doesn't sound great all the time compared to The Greatest Generation or Suburbia. It just doesn't have the level of clarity overall I wish it did. The singles sound better than the rest of the tracks. This is all true, but I've decided I just don't think that matters. Production nerds can choke, the songs are great.
The first two tracks, Brothers & and Cardinals, work together beautifully and establish the tone of the record. Patsy Cline is passable, but really it's the middle stack of songs that are so much better than I've ever given them credit for.
I Don't Like Who I Was Then is full of the perfect shoutable pop punk one liners The Wonder Years do better than anybody. "I was bitter I was careless I was 19 and afraid" like come on. Youre telling me I wasn't into that my freshman year of college?! Absolutely ridiculous. Wrong opinion.
My 18 year old self was right about Cigarettes & Saints. That song is untouchable. It runs circles around almost any other Wonder Years track. I put this album on while driving today and I was feeling every bit of emotion this song always made me feel. Just thinking about how perfect it is. The way he communicates the guilt and anger and desperation in the aftermath of the death of someone you loved. It's so vivid and heartwrenching.
And then The Bluest Things On Earth follows it up immediately! I had to check to make sure the album wasn't accidentally on shuffle because I totally forgot they follow one another. Another just perfect song. All that anger funneled into the overarching theme of wanting to save the people you love. Then A Song for Earnest Hemmingway. In my head I never liked this song and I can't imagine why that would be. "“I’ll be your dead bird, you’ll be my bloodhound, you’re just doing what you’re told” has been stuck in my head since the first time I heard it today. The song is structured perfectly. I’m a sucker for a song that drops most of the instrumental for one chorus. Song rules.
Thanks for the Ride isn’t my favorite still, but it works as a song. I really hated it when I was first listening and I think a lot of my original issue with it— and with the album— was this shift in the lyrics to be very outward. The Wonder Years’ lyrics have always been about establishing a world fleshed out with friends and people around them, but it’s very much turned inward. It’s songs about feeling bad or feeling better or whatever. It’s all looking inward.
In Proof I Exist, there’s a whole section about Billy not wanting to write his brother’s sort of life story. He says something like he’s too busy writing his own. My first thought was, “that sounds like it would be terrifying anyway.” Just the idea of writing someone else’s stories— be it from your own perspective or as a conduit for someone else telling their first hand experience— is terrifying.
I think with The Wonder Years, I always was used to Dan Campbell telling his own very internal story. That’s so much of why I loved that band. So many of the songs on No Closer To Heaven are beautifully written, but it wasn’t what I was looking for as a teenager hearing it for the first time. In a VICE Rank Your Records he did before Sister Cities, Dan Campbell was saying he felt some discomfort telling these traumatic stories— he specifically references I Wanted So Badly To Be Brave, another untouchable, perfect track I didn’t think was good 6 years ago— that didn’t happen to him. That’s a story where he’s a witness to an abusive household and that’s a difficult place to be in as someone who makes art that is beloved for how straight forward it is. His lyrics aren’t shrouded in poetic devices that obscure what’s going on and that’s a lot of the appeal, but how does that work when it’s not your trauma to tell?
He answers that with saying that amalgamating different people alleviates some of that stress and it’s not dishonest to do it. He’s right, of course, but I really think I landed on “i don’t want this album” when it came out because of that shift. At the time, this change in lyrics felt like a disappointing move away from what I loved about them. The very internally focused stuff was what I was there for. When it shifted from “writing songs about getting better” to writing songs about other people you wished had gotten better, it lost me. I always felt more like the person out of control than the person becoming someone anyone could rely on.
Of course, this was a me problem and not a good reason to have written off an album. These songs have the same depth and emotion and solidity of everything I’ve always loved by that band. I was just an 18 year old hater and I was wrong about the record. I think people (at least people my age and older) on the whole are wrong about this record. The prevailing attitude is about how it sounds bad, but like come on. There are so many undeniable songs here. Get over it, fake audiophiles.
Could still do without the letlive. feature, though.
Miranda Reinert is a music adjacent writer, zine maker, and law school drop out based in Philadelphia. Follow me on Twitter to hear more about music and my thoughts on other zines: @mirandareinert. I also have a paid tier of this newsletter for $5 a month or $45 a year! If you do that I'll give you at least one free zine if you respond to this email with a mailing address! Wow! Might want to get in on that! You may also just send me small bits of money at @miranda-reinert on venmo if you want. But as always, thanks for reading!