The Wonder Years’ 2011 release, Suburbia: I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing, with its frequent references and allusions to Allen Ginsberg’s marathon poem “America,” felt like a turning point in singer Dan Campbell’s songwriting. There was something about the way he appropriated Ginsberg’s text to work with his own that broke out of the traditional pop punk tropes. The next Wonder Years record, last year’s The Greatest Generation, established a wide thematic scope in its choruses, couplets and bridges, all reprised in a seven-minute closing track, “I Just Want To Sell Out My Funeral” — not totally unlike musical theatre. Aside from penning relentlessly catchy pop punk songs, Suburbia and Generation proved Campbell not only capable of viewing The Big Picture in writing a record; he’s highly literate in it.
That’s why Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, Campbell’s conceptual folk-rock solo release, doesn’t come as much of a surprise. We Don’t Have Each Other (out today on Hopeless follows a very rough year in the life of Aaron West, Campbell’s proxy and all-around Llewyn Davis-troubadour-type sad sap. Gone are the heavy, three-guitar-strong power chords that always trustingly flank Campbell’s voice — always vulnerable and without shame — in the Wonder Years. In their place, We Don’t Have Each Other is flush with keys, horns, pedal steel guitars, banjos and what would almost be a heavy-handed smack to the face telling you, “This is Americana! This is a departure!” if the whole thing wasn’t so expertly executed. The opening track “Our Apartment” delivers all of this before the song is even half finished.
Campbell may be trying on hats, but they look pretty good on him and complement his figure. Part of what makes this record work so well is that while the whole idea here is to assume a character, an identity, by no means does that experiment isolate any listener knowledgeable of Campbell’s past work. Instead of making some swift, stylistic left turn, these songs instead feel filtered through that lens of trying something new. “St. Joe Keeps Us Safe” and “Runnin’ Scared” feel comfortable in the way the alt-country instrumentation is organized; these could be stripped-down Wonder Years songs, even. But it’s in the quieter, mid-tempo songs, in “Divorce and the American South” or “Get Me Out Of Here Alive,” that feel carry to most excitement, as they stray furthest from Campbell’s assumed comfort zone.
Aaron West himself may be the the record’s strongest development. Again, while not straying too far from Campbell’s own songwriting tool chest, West as a character is crafted with such precision and attention to detail, but that’s just classic Campbell. Anchored around a failed marriage, We Don’t Have Each Other reframes a lot of now-standard Campbell-isms (particularly his talent in illustrating how fucking miserable winter in the Northeast can be) into its own personal mythology, one where purring dashboards, Christian saints, the Long Island Railroad and motels off I-95 are its relics and Diane, West’s ex-wife, is its siren.
“I’m not coming home tonight / Not without Diane by my side,” Campbell/West belts, right before the horns kick in, toward the end of “Carolina Coast.” West doesn’t get it; Diane doesn’t want anything to do with him. But it’s in singular moments like this, or the way he unravels the narrative past the point of comfort in “Divorce and the American South,” that really illustrate how well Campbell pulled off what could have been a very challenging record to produce. In interviews leading up to We Don’t Have Each Other’s release, Campbell alluded that while this is an open-ended concept album. Let’s hope we get to hear from Aaron West again sometime soon — at least a check in to see that he’s doing alright.
Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties play the Vans Warped Tour at the Susquehanna Bank Center on July 11th.
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