Vivid images of hospitals, funerals and death are not uncommon in Dan Campbell's lyrics as of late. The frontman of the long-running Philadelphia punk six-piece The Wonder Years has always had a writerly sense of detail, even going back to the days of The Upsides when his biggest concerns were drowning his late-college feelings of alienation in Lucky Charms and soy milk. With the band's 2013 album The Greatest Generation, Campbell's lyrics took a grave turn as references to ailing family members worked their way into songs about insecurity and anxiety. No Closer to Heaven, released in 2015, got even heavier as the songwriter processed the passing of friends due to addiction. And with this year's tremendous Sister Cities, he explores the aftermath of tragedy.
Since its release, the band has been discussing the album through the lens of human connection and the idea of bonding together to get through trying times. But one of the album's standout songs reflects on a moment where connection just isn't possible. "Pyramids of Salt" is a whisper-to-scream explosion that Campbell said in a Billboard interview this March is a meditation on powerlessness as told through its narrator's inability to help a loved one in need.
During a recent performance at WXPN for The Key Studio Session, the band's six members delivered a moving performance of the song, which opens on a haunting synthesizer drone and slowly layers in mournful, interlocked guitar lines that swell and smoke. The wall of power chords on the chorus — right where Campbell sings "I drew a line in the sand, you swept it away again" — are tremendous. The tones underscore the distance the band has traveled, from the skate park punk of its younger years and to a sound simultaneously drawing on arty post-rock and electrifying arena rock. And as the song builds to a crescendo, Campbell's vocal accelerates from grief to catharsis: "I love you, and I'm sorry / And I understand if you blame me / And I'm helpless, and you're drowning / And I'm beating at the water here so desperately."
For Campbell and The Wonder Years, the way out and the path towards healing is by first letting go of things that cannot change.