Review: ‘We Don’t Have Each Other,” Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties

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The cover of the album, “We Don’t Have Each Other,” by Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties.

We Don’t Have Each Other
Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties (Hopeless Records) 

From: We Don’t Have Each Other stars the militantly Pennsylvanian Dan Campbell, who sometimes goes by Soupy, in the role of Aaron West, an East Coast sad sack. West is a Brooklyn transplant from Upstate New York (we know this because his dad is a Bills fan), and an important flashback in his story happens somewhere in New Jersey. Campbell’s reflections on the Garden State haven’t always been too friendly: in “This Party Sucks,” a memorable early song he wrote for his main band The Wonder Years, he rhymed “North Jersey club scene” with “Girls Gone Wild B-team,” and I think we’re all painfully aware of what he’s getting at there. Regardless of any misgivings, The Wonder Years has become a consistent draw in Asbury Park, and his tales of broke urban living have won him a nice-sized audience and many nods of recognition on the lee side of the Delaware. But it’s Campbell’s (mainly) silent partner on We Don’t Have Each Other who connects the album most firmly to New Jersey: producer Ace Enders, frontman of Hammonton rock band the Early November. Enders plays guitar, bass, banjo and lap steel on the album, and I’m pretty sure he participates in the gang backing vocals, too. Although Campbell is more inclined to use humor and wordplay than Enders is, they’re similar artists — they’re both interested in family, responsibility and the misery of having no money. They worry about the kind of men they’re growing up to become, and they’re terrified of falling into bad habits. They stand by their friends, shake their fists at everything and write low-rent epiphanies into their lyrics. I’m not sure if the Early November triple-album and kitchen-sink drama The Mother, the Mechanic, and the Path was a direct influence on Campbell’s Aaron West story, but it covers similar thematic territory, and that makes this feel more like a new Ace Enders project than the last Early November album did.

Format: Because it didn’t come out under the Wonder Years’ name, or even Campbell’s name, We Don’t Have Each Other took casual fans by surprise. Amazon kept recommending this album to me, and I couldn’t figure out why. If I’d known it was a new nine-song statement from Soupy, I would have picked it up immediately. I was slow on the uptake, and I doubt I was the only one. My CD copy of We Don’t Have Each Other came with a bonus track: a cover version of “Going To Georgia” by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. It doesn’t exactly advance the story — and Campbell is all about keeping the story going — but it may have partially inspired it, just as Tim Hardin’s “Black Sheep Boy” inspired the Okkervil River album of the same name.

Genre: The Wonder Years began its public ministry as a super-scruffy pop punk outfit. At first, Campbell didn’t really bother with melodies or tight song construction, but he was such a funny, caustic, curmudgeonly character that it didn’t matter. Soupy (and the rest of the Wonder Years) would get much better at the musical parts of composition, but since the project has always been a vehicle for dense narrative, it works to the extent that Campbell commands his concepts. In other words, even when The Wonder Years is crackling like a grease fire, it’s still more John Prine than New Found Glory. Even the first two scabrous Wonder Years albums had slow(ish) songs on them, so the calmer sound of We Don’t Have Each Other isn’t going to come as a shock to longtime listeners. In effect, Campbell has done exactly what Craig Finn did on his solo album Clear Heart Full Eyes — he’s pinched some signifiers from country and folk and set them alongside the usual lifts from punk and classic rock. Finn’s album alluded to country to achieve a particular emotional effect. Campbell has done the same.

Arrangements and Sound: Just like an old-fashioned protest singer might, Campbell sticks to acoustic guitar and a bit of harmonica. He’s supported by another pal: drummer Mike Kennedy, whose playing isn’t all that different here than it is when he’s hitting the skins for the Wonder Years. He just rests a lot more. A three-piece horn section punches up a few tracks; the effect falls somewhere between the folk orchestra in a backwoods church of Neutral Milk Hotel and the drunk school band of You, Me, and Everyone We Know. The rest is left for Enders to decorate with stringed instruments. 

What’s this record about?: All of Campbell’s writing so far has confronted fears of failure, and this record is the farthest he’s allowed a narrator to go down the road toward total dissipation. His protagonists — and with a writer this indebted to literature, they really deserve that designation — know there’s a grown-male archetype they’re supposed to live up to, but for one reason or another, they find themselves falling short. With The Wonder Years, Campbell lets his characters stumble into the gutter, but always keeps the string end of the yo-yo tight around his finger and stands ready to yank it back. Aaron West is a different story. Campbell hits West with a double whammy: his wife Dianne ditches him in the first song, and by the third, it becomes apparent that a dad he idolized has recently died. Untethered from the stabilizing influences in his life, West heads directly to hell. He abandons Brooklyn for the South, and ends up flunking around, unable to pay rent at fleabag hotels and periodically and pathetically attempting to contact his wife. Because he is a Dan Campbell character, he complains about little things that annoy him — the heat of the tarmac, the noise of the cicadas, e-cigarettes. On Wonder Years albums, grouchiness is a vital sign for characters determined to go down swinging; West, on the other hand, is just unraveling. His estrangement from the religious traditions of his working-class family exacerbates his feelings of alienation. “I’m starting to believe there is a God and he hates me/I’m starting to believe my mom lied about grace and divinity,” he mumbles from the front seat of a car parked across from a Catholic church. Campbell’s characters have been rough on organized religion in prior projects; West isn’t ready to kneel for the communion wafer, but he’s willing to acknowledge the possibility that he’s exiled himself from a potential source of comfort. We Don’t Have Each Other ends ambiguously, which is another new development from a writer who has heretofore loved the emotional uplift of sudden inspiration in the middle of the storm. West rejects suicide and begins to reverse his spiral, and finishes the record determined to put his marriage back together — but Campbell leaves him with no way forward (literally, he’s facing the Atlantic Ocean) and no strategy for repairing his relationship. The listener never learns exactly why Dianne split, but Aaron West hints that the couple’s inability to have a child has rendered him an unsuitable mate. He sings “we lost the baby” in “Divorce and the American South,” but doesn’t specify how, and that’s probably for the best. The only thing you really need to know is that West has been denied the opportunity to learn whether he can be the man his father was, and he won’t have his dad around to show him the way. No word on how Dianne felt about West’s priorities, his psychology, and his semi-conscious obsession with primogeniture, but yes, you can just imagine. 

The singer: Campbell doesn’t sing like a folkie. He approaches the microphone like a kid raised on Saves the Day, Saturday morning cartoons, and Sunday afternoon football, which I’m sure he was. This means that the more he howls, the better he communicates, and it’s only when he gets quiet and sensitive that his voice betrays him. Unfortunately, too much of We Don’t Have Each Other is pared back and hushed, which means that the exposition isn’t quite as easy to pick up as it is on Wonder Years albums. He can still pack as much emotional and factual information into a shouted refrain as any of the competition can: check out “Runnin’ Scared” for a good example of what he can do when he works himself into a froth of indignation. Campbell loves the punk rock trick of murmuring a few lines in a low register before leaping an octave and ratcheting up the intensity for the next; I’m aware that most listeners associate this with emo, but it’s actually always reminded me more of Roger Waters. Not that Waters isn’t emo, mind you.  

The music: Campbell and Enders were born to be teammates. The pairing is so obvious that I’m kinda shocked that it happened; usually fate intervenes in all its perversity, and somebody breaks a leg and ends up in traction. It isn’t just that the two share a musical and emotional vocabulary, although they do — it’s that Ace has always written, often beautifully, about young, hopeless working-class shlubs struggling to live up to standards set by prior generations. Actually, Enders’ perspective is bleaker than Soupy’s: characters in Early November songs do not tend to escape overdetermined outcomes. Campbell genuinely and un-ironically believes in a Greatest Generation of heroes; Enders knows our forefathers were just as messed up as we are. But Ace probably finds the crazed faith and the hard-won optimism of the Wonder Years inspiring. I know I do, and I’m not entirely entitled to the pat on the back that Campbell’s writing offers. Because Ace understands these songs, he knows just what to emphasize in Campbell’s storytelling — he knows what lines to preface with humble banjo on “Our Apartment,” and how to deepen the pathos of “The Thunderbird Inn” with mock-glorious brass, and how to underscore Aaron West’s destabilization on “Grapefruit” with a guitar crescendo, and when to clear out and give the main character’s alienation room to resonate, as he does on the spare “Get Me Out of Here Alive.” So I’m hoping We Don’t Have Each Otherisn’t a one-off. Maybe these guys could be the Run the Jewels of modern rock — two storytellers whose perspectives differ just enough to feel like complementary halves of the same argument. Allow me to nominate Ace as the producer of the next Wonder Years album, too.

The songs: Soupy’s tunesmithing continues to improve, but that’s not what you’re here for. Here’s a peculiarity: nearly half of this album is in 6/8 time. We’ll pick this up again in the sections below, but for now, let’s turn to …

What else connects this record to the artist’s prior work? At the beginning of Campbell’s run as a popular, or quasi-popular, songwriter, he was more inclined to mention his close friends than his relatives. Elders floated in a cloud of disapproval over his life and his activities, and there they hung, infrequently addressed. Around the time of Suburbia, I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing, Campbell’s filial anxieties began to come into full focus. On last year’s outstanding Wonder Years album, he cursed himself for leading a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle (or pursuing self-interest, period) during his grandfather’s illness. “If I’m in an airport, and you’re in a hospital bed, what kind of man does that make me?” he asked in “Dismantling Summer.” Noble thoughts from a swell guy, true, but also potentially paralyzing ones. Aaron West is a portrait of grief after ill fortune, but he’s also hobbling under the weight of generational mandates that working-class people know all too well. There’s no indication that Dianne needs Aaron to be a decent dad, for instance; that’s West’s own expectation for himself, and one that likely means more to his family than it does to hers. Notably, one of the few details Campbell gives us about Dianne — her employment in a Midtown office where she’s expected to have her makeup straight — suggests she’s upwardly mobile and beyond his capacity to keep up with. That the marriage breaks down after the couple flunks the parenthood test means there’s a good possibility that West’s psyche would have unraveled even if she’d stuck around. As Christian Holden of the Hotelier could (and did) tell you, social forces cause the worst private injuries, and the best kitchen-sink storytelling makes that clear without bonking the audience over the head with it. The climax of We Don’t Have Each Other, which happens in the second verse of the penultimate song “You Ain’t No Saint,” doesn’t concern the marriage at all. West searches the backseat detritus of his car for his father’s hand-me-down Buffalo Bills hat, and realizes that his dissolution has rendered him totally abject from his family: “If my dad was here, I wonder if he’d even recognize me,” he howls. And there’s West’s real horror — not only has he failed to carry on the heritage, he’s taken himself out of it. By smashing the link to his father, he’s become an un-person, and done so with an awful, back-breaking hammer swing than only a working-class stiff could have managed. 

What’s not so good? You may wonder what poor Dianne thinks about all of this. I do. In “Divorce And The American South,” West laments that his wife didn’t show up at his father’s funeral, which, even if her understanding of family obligations is different from his, is still a slap in the face. But the most we ever get from Dianne is a few lines, relayed from her sister, at the beginning of the set. “St. Joe Keeps Us Safe,” the best song on the album, recounts a conversation with another female character: Aaron West’s mom, reeling from the loss of her husband. Mother and son attempt, haltingly, to reach each other across a canyon of grief. It’s the kind of scene in miniature that Campbell does as well as any writer in America, and that includes those celebrated slackers who confine themselves to prose. But after that, West barely has any contact with anybody, and busies himself by chasing around ghosts. The back half of the album is not as compelling as the first, and the concluding epiphany of “Carolina Coast” is a private one — hence it gives little hope that any of West’s interpersonal problems are likely to be fixed. Wonder Years albums always end with a magnificent, defiant, middle-finger-up rocker; We Don’t Have Each Other can’t approach the finish line with arms raised, and Campbell, so sure-handed elsewhere, doesn’t nail the conclusion.

Recommended? The next time somebody tries to tell you that rock is over and white guys with guitars don’t have anything left to say — and believe me, somebody will — I’d like you to direct them to a trio of albums released within a few months of each other in electro-year 2014. The West set, LOSE by Cymbals Eat Guitars and the Hotelier’s Home, Like Noplace Is There bear some striking similarities; they could be snapshots of different sides of the same mountain. All are narrated by young men who are crippled by the loss of people close to them and who are facing down the reaper as best as they can under terrible circumstances. All three confront the alterity of the self-destructive subject, and place the unraveling man in the context of American social forces. All take a frank look at suicide and early death, family dynamics and gender roles. They all make substantial use of 6/8 time, and strangely enough, they’re all nine songs long. (They also all remind me of Roger Waters, but maybe that’s just me. The other stuff is indisputable.) The Hotelier album is the most harrowing of the three, and LOSE is the Jersey-swamp spooky one. We Don’t Have Each Other is the earthy, novelistic one, and the comic one, too, even if it’s nowhere near as funny as Campbell’s writing for the Wonder Years. In a strange way, all three are ghost stories, and they all suit the falling-leaf season. If you have any taste for the narrative style of rock music, I strongly suggest you collect the set. I’m going to play them back to back to back on Halloween. I’ll let you know if I survive the experience.

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