When was the last time you listened to a record and really became absorbed by the lyrical content of said record? Maybe it was last year’s The Greatest Generation, which was released by Dan ‘Soupy’ Campbell’s main project The Wonder Years? Perhaps it wasn’t, but it doesn’t really matter because there’s a good chance We Don’t Have Each Other, the first LP from Campbell’s side project Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties will become the next record to do so.
I’m a sucker for a song that tells a story, I love the way a collection of verses and choruses can form narrative, and I love it moreso when, as a listener you can become invested in that story – you can live through someone else’s eyes using their words as a gateway. To me, a great album lyrically often trumps a great album sonically, that’s the kind of person I am. It’s a quality I often look for in the music I listen to, and I found that quality in abundance on We Don’t Have Each Other. The fact that the other contributing areas of the record are also very good just seems like a bonus, because the story that runs throughout the record is its biggest strength, with the numerous other draws that comprise the album only being slightly weaker in comparison. A concept album at heart, We Don’t Have Each Other chronicles the worst year of a person’s life, that person being Aaron West. The same emotion and themes from Campbell’s primary project are present (West constantly feels like he isn’t good enough), and each topic is covered in a way which is highly compelling and engaging, perhaps even moreso than what we’ve come to expect from him. You have to keep stopping to remind yourself that this is a work of fiction, although you loosely gather that Campbell’s going through some shit personally – you’d have to be. As a Bukowski fan, West is Campbell’s Henry Chinaski, autobiographical but not glaringly so. He delivers a highly believable narrative, a chronicle of a torrid year, and it’s impossible to remain stony-faced in the wake of its outpourings. Fiction or not, the fact is that We Don’t Have Each Other hits incredibly hard, and it’s one of the most affecting records I’ve heard this year, and will likely ever have the pleasure of hearing. High praise I know, but Dan Campbell is that good of a lyricist, and he pours every inch of himself into the character he’s devised, with highly passionate vocals delivering his lyrics. Aaron West isn’t a real person; he’s a concept, a creation, but I sure as hell feel a great deal of sadness for him, and for Campbell to have conjured up and inspired these feelings is a staggering achievement, and he deserves the utmost praise for being able to do so.
Normally at this point I’d start to pick at the record, take it apart track by track, drawing a few loose comparisons and noting the highlights, but I think it’s important to stress beforehand that We Don’t Have Each Other should be taken as a whole to really be appreciated, at least initially. After a few listens you start to decide which songs are more forgettable and which don’t tie in as well, but the record needs a few full playthroughs to really shine. It’s a jigsaw, and there’s plenty of links between songs, interlocking as Campbell tells his story, and you need to put the full picture together before forming judgement. All of these connections make each listen a rewarding one because of the possibility of uncovering something new, chancing upon another tie and another sobering line. If you’d prefer to uncover these yourself then I’d recommend skipping the rest of this paragraph, I’d hate to ruin the discovery of it all, but I’d find it difficult to really review the record otherwise. As far as the gist of it goes, West and his wife Dianne have lost a baby, and now they look set to lose each other as well. On opener Our Apartment Campbell sings ‘I had lunch with your sister / She told me it’s over and that you’re calling your lawyers / That you’re not coming back’ and on the following and hugely moving Grapefruit he recalls happier times, lamenting ‘When we got the news you that you were pregnant we painted a room / Pink and orange like a grapefruit / I know how badly you wanted this too’. These two events play the biggest part, the real sucker-punches during his year, but there are also stories about his parents and his religion. He’s sat in the corner losing the latter on Get Me Out Of Here Alive, during which West wakes up to gospel choirs as opposed to Campbell’s gospel radio. Generally speaking, the record’s protagonist is evaporating one cup of coffee at a time, and Campbell tells his story in a way which is so incredibly genuine that it hurts to listen to (in a good way). In the same way that West travels, sleeping in cars on cold nights (Runnin’ Scared) and missing home, We Don’t Have Each Other is a journey, and it sits you in the passenger right seat beside him as he recounts his hardships with an unerring honesty and craftsmanship – Campbell is quite the writer, and he excels here. For the most part this is a sad record, wintry cold yet also summer warm at times. West has had a rough year, there’s no doubting that, but it all ends on a pleasingly optimistic note with Carolina Coast. The closer sees Campbell take a song about little more than a walk along a beach and makes it so much more, almost life-affirming depending on how much of it you take on-board. West contemplates drowning during this walk and even resigns himself to an early exit, but upon seeing a rusty boat battling the tide offshore his mind-set changes. The boat keeps floating, and West decides to keep going, vowing to win back his wife as the record ends triumphant, the light at the end of a twelve month-long tunnel. I’m a sucker for a happy ending as well, but Campbell leaves it open enough to only hint at one, which I’m also fine with. Maybe we’ll hear more of West’s story in the future? I hope so, because this is a record which definitely merits a follow-up, if only to know things have gotten better.
Instrumentally speaking, We Don’t Have Each Other is a mixed bag. There’s a fair share of acoustic-heavy tracks, but some songs also feature a full band backing of sorts including The Wonder Years drummer Mike Kennedy, and these songs don’t always benefit from their grandiose nature. The stripped-back selections tend to be stronger, with the thicker entries occasionally running the risk of detracting from Campbell’s excellent vocals and lyrics. It depends on your preference really, but that being said the backing to Our Apartment once the track bursts into life is brilliant, warm and comforting, and as a whole the composition is gorgeous across each of the nine tracks, with solid production coming from Ace Enders of The Early November. The addition of horns and orchestration is a very nice touch throughout, and the use of harmonicas and trumpets adds a glow to highlights Divorce and the American South and Carolina Coast. The former was probably my favourite track on the record, and it’s also the least textured – make of that what you will. It’s bleak and isolated, featuring little more than Campbell and his guitar as he delivers some of the most poignant, claustrophobic lyrics on the album. The trumpets are introduced towards the end, and as the song reaches its peak it’s absolutely stunning, stirring up goosebumps as West visualizes a plane crash and a Dianne-less funeral, hoping otherwise. It’s truly moving; intensified by it’s bare-bones approach. As good as the more dynamic songs like St. Joe Keeps Us Safe are, they don’t leave a mark in the same way, although Campbell’s shouted vocals are as great as ever, with the track drawing comparisons to his work with The Wonder Years. In terms of his main project, Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties isn’t a million miles removed, and there’s definitely similarities – lead single You Ain’t No Saint could’ve slotted nicely onto Suburbia…’s B-sides without raising too many eyebrows, whilst Runnin’ Scared features one of the best choruses Campbell’s ever been involved in, emphatic in the same way that most of those on The Greatest Generation were.
As far as side projects go, Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties’ debut is incredible, and I’d definitely recommend it, if you hadn’t gathered that already. It sounds familiar to an extent, but it’s also a new direction for Campbell, and it’s one which he pulls off brilliantly. There’s so much depth and exploring to do here, and even though it only contains nine tracks (I would’ve preferred one or two more) there’s more than enough on offer to really dive into. Immerse yourself in We Don’t Have Each Other and listen to the story it has to tell – it’s remarkable.
Rating – 8.5/10