Given how well respected Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell and the rest of The Wonder Years are within the scene, it’s only natural that the front man’s debut solo album, under the pseudonym Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, highlights what helped make the band so memorable in the first place – the incredibly real lyricism.
We Don’t Have Each Other is an intense lesson in storytelling, backed by a stripped down version of the punk song writing of TWY. While it’s by no means a groundbreaking solo album, it cements the fact that Campbell is the single most prolific writer in the scene. Taking on the persona of a fictional character, Aaron West, Campbell sings aloud a novel set to music that won’t drown out the story.
Aaron West relishes in the minimalist aspect of music; simple melodies are used as a basic tool to give traction to the lyrics. Though acoustically based, an assortment of other instruments help add some much needed layers to the songs to help them feel fleshed out. “Divorce and the American South”, includes a soft, short melody that strums nakedly for four and a half minutes, accompanied only by a muted trumpet in the last few seconds as Aaron mocks himself for how much he misses his wife, lamenting that she wouldn’t even attend his funeral in his own dreams.
The opening track, “Our Apartment” feels the most complete composition on the album, with the acoustic guitar accompanied by a banjo, drums, harmonica, violin and quite possibly a few other things across a bouncy southern-tinged melody. Light hints of country find their way into the album with the steel guitar (or whatever the hell that thing is) acting as a light rhythm. For anyone who has listened to I Can Make a Mess (especially the earlier albums), you can tell Ace Enders’ production by the sound of the electric guitar that accompanies some of the choruses, including “St. Joe Keeps Us Safe”.
The muted trumpet and electric guitar appear infrequently, and usually as background or bass to the acoustic melodies. But the minimal use only helps to amplify the chorus, such as the sax playing bass to the chorus of “You Ain’t No Saint”. Though they seem like they could be out of place, their minimal usage helps Aaron West feel intimate, personal and self-contained. Paired with the lyrics, the extra instrumentation almost manifests the dire feelings and situations that Aaron finds himself in.
The double edged sword for the stripped down acoustic theme is that songs can begin to feel stagnant after a while. On the other hand, anything more elaborate would distract from the lyrics.
We Don’t Have Each Other is an incredibly dense story. Campbell has written a masterpiece of tragedy about Aaron West, a twenty-something year old attempting to cope with a divorce from his wife Diane, brought about by the personal collapse he experienced due to the death of his dad and then the death of the couple’s (unborn?) baby. The whole saga follows Aaron through the darkest of his demons, as he reflects on what led to the divorce, how everything changed with his dad’s death and his new struggle with religion and faith.
Campbell has utterly outdone himself with his storytelling, making Aaron and the situations he finds himself in feel so utterly real it’s almost unbearable. From the outset, against the twang of a banjo of “Our Apartment”, Campbell sets up the disastrous divorce, singing, “I found enough of your hairpins to build you a monument, a statue of loneliness. Breathe it in, let it go. I caved a piece of the drywall in, replaying the argument”.
The struggle with religion comes up from time to time, from talking to God for the first time after the divorce in “Grapefruit” (“Hey, Holy Ghost, why’d you leave me? Where’d you go? I know we ain’t spoke in so long, but I’ve gotta know if I’m alone”) to feeling betrayed as he drives himself further into an alcoholic stupor in “Get Me Out of Here Alive” (“I’m starting to believe that there’s a God and he hates me. I’m starting to believe that my mom lied about grace and divinity”). Religion, along with the idea of driving South to Georgia, is part of the signature lyrical callback that we’ve grown to expect from Campbell through The Wonder Years’ entire discography.
What’s amazing is watching Aaron sink so damn deep, and then get violently pulled back to reality by the simplest things. While he questions feeling abandoned by God in “Grapefruit”, Aaron decides to start drinking. “Yeah, I’ll be the town drunk. I’ll be a burden to everyone”. However, in the darkest hours, he sees himself for what he is through the incredible lines of “The Thunderbird Inn”, where Campbell sings, “I drank my last paycheck dry, and outside a homeless man asks me for change and I, I look him straight in his eyes. He starts to apologize”, before screaming a strangled chorus of, “I didn’t know that I looked that pathetic”!
Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties is an exercise in craftsmanship. While the musical end of the album isn’t anything particularly original, it serves its purpose as a catchy catalyst. The real show here is the storyline. It’s profoundly dark, destructive and agonizingly uplifting. There may be other albums revolving around these themes, but nothing as straight forward or intense.
We Don’t Have Each Other is quite possibly the best written concept record out there, and cements Dan Campbell as the most prolific lyricist of his generation. I honestly cannot wait to hear the next chapter of Aaron West’s life (if there is one), and absolutely fear it at the same time, which is a testament as to how powerful his story really is.
by Kyle Schultz
Kyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and yells at the rain on occasion. He also wants to play you in FIFA.