“I pictured our apartment / in the middle of Brooklyn. I pictured our bedroom / and how the floor’s still a mess.” In hindsight, it’s wonderfully fitting that Dan Campbell’s debut solo album, under the moniker Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, begins with this exercise in mental image rendering, as We Don’t Have Each Other, the album from which the above line is drawn, is as evocative a portrayal of character as any I’ve seen from this scene in a long time. Because his delineation of the character is so structured and natural, Campbell allows Aaron West to take shape in a way that is quite simply stunning.
Without going to heavily into detail (part of the intriguing nature of the project is that the depth of the lyrics makes repeated listens to catch the bits and piece of exposition rewarding), We Don’t Have Each Other is a post-modern narrative set to the sounds of folk-tinged Americana rock and layered instrumentals. The story, which should be familiar to fans of Jonathan Tropper’s instant classic novel This is Where I Leave You (SPOILERS: Husband and wife lose baby, wife leaves husband, husband’s father dies, sads are had by all), while not being the most original in the world, pulls on the heartstrings in just the way that fans of Dan Campbell’s other band The Wonder Years should be familiar with.
The album starts with the above-quoted “Our Apartment,” which sets the tone for the album early, as the lyrics shift from wistful, to somber, to bitter, culminating in a climactic moment in which Campbell (as Aaron West- who narrates the album in first person, a nifty technique) deplores his now ex-wife, “I broke my cell phone, ’cause you won’t fucking tell me when you’re coming home.”
The next two songs present an extended study into how Aaron West struggles with his faith in the face of this seemingly insurmountable personal tragedy. “Hey holy ghost, why’d you leave me where’d you go? Right when I fucking need you,” he asks. It doesn’t seem like he is actually asking why the Lord has forsaken him, however, so much as angrily lashing out at what he seems to be a horrible injustice against himself. It is in these early portions of the album in which Aaron seemingly cannot shoulder the blame for his failed marriage on himself, so he turns the anger outward.
This projection is seen in the next song, “St. Joe Keeps Us Safe,” as well, in which we are presented by Campbell with West’s devout mother. The swing-tempo number presents an unfurled Aaron asking his mother what they are going to do. West’s relationship with his mother is not one of Oedipal desire, but rather one of symbiotic interaction. Both West and his mother could not possibly bear their own personal tragedies without the little bit of strength remaining in the other. This leads to the turning point for the Aaron West character, when his mother speaks at the end of the song, and tells West, “Take the car and run,” thus setting up the basis for the final six songs on the record, as West takes a road-trip down Rt. 95 towards Georgia, in part running from his problems, and in part facing them head on- by way of his unfurling thoughts.
Now I know I’m speaking a lot about Aaron as if he is an actual person, but that just goes to show how relatable and powerful a literary construct Aaron West is. The world he inhabits is a deeply felt as our own, and his decisions and actions feel as though they have weight. So although the words and music come from Campbell, it feels as though they are being channeled through another person. Perhaps the only time when this character breaks is when the songs begin to sound a bit too much like Campbell’s other band. Thankfully these moments are infrequent, but on a few of the tracks (such as “Runnin’ Scared”) it is a distracting breach of the fourth wall, and detracts from the album’s impact.
Luckily, he follows up the aforementioned “Running Scared” with the stripped-down, scarringly emotive “Divorce and the American South,” which features West taking responsibility for the demise of his marriage for the first time. “Hey Diane / I know I fucked up / It’s just when we lost the baby / I kind of shut off, / I know I never listened, / I wasn’t there for you enough.” This is a huge step forward in West’s character arc. And it sets the stage for the album’s conclusion, which I will expound upon shortly.
Before that however, I feel it is important to touch on some of the technical components of the album. Ace Enders, who produced the record, has his fingerprints all over We Don’t Have Each Other. The sum benefit of having one of the best song writers in the scene work on a record with you is that you have another capable hand to bounce ideas off of. It’s pretty apparent that without A Million Different People and I Can Make a Mess existing and Enders taking the experiences and difficulties that come with writing a solo record into the recording, We Don’t Have Each Other wouldn’t have been the same expressive record it is- if it existed at all. Likewise, while drummer Mike Kennedy is not asked to do anything particularly taxing for his skill level here, he provides the sonic tone for the album with his reserved but still striking drum performance.
Campbell’s lyrics are just as sharp and excoriating as they have ever been, and after last years powerhouse The Greatest Generation, that is high praise. In “Get Me Out of Here Alive,” he sets up one of the most powerful images I’ve ever heard in song, “If someone bombed heaven, / The sky would look like it did, tonight, / All fractured and outlines,” easily proving that he is one of the best songwriters in any scene, never mind just the pop-punk scene where he got his start. But the question of whether he could successful guide this fictitious narrative to a fitting conclusion still existed. That is where the closer “Carolina Coast,” comes in to quell any doubts.
The closing track works as a coda to the story of Aaron West. It chronicles his emotions as he wakes up one morning alone. At the outset of the song, he contemplates suicide, before he sees a boat on the horizon. This boat will serve as the device which allows him to heal. On the horizon, there’s a boat fighting tide,” he sings. “All rust stained and pale blue, it’s nearing the end of its life. But somehow it keeps floating, all banged up but alive.” He realizes that even as banged up as he is, even if he is “breaking,” as he told his mother back in “St. Joe Keeps Us Safe,” he is still afloat himself.
There is one part of the song that is of particular note to me not for the lyrical content, but because of the vocal delivery, however. “You and I,” West repeats several times over, as if lingering on a thought. But then, on the fourth time, he stumbles over the final I, and the phrase comes out as an incomplete, “You and-.” It’s as if in this moment he realizes the finality of his relationship with his ex-wife. It’s not with a sense of longing, then, that he speaks the album’s final line, “I’m not going home tonight, without Diane by my side,” but rather a sense of understanding. I’m not sure how accurate the Kübler-Ross model of grief is, but in her words the final stage of grief is “Acceptance,” the effect of coming to terms with the inevitable future- in this case a future without Diane in it.
The story of We Don’t Have Each Other is one worth exploring deeply. It’s one that makes you feel for it’s main character and the tribulations he is faced with. It’s one that makes you consider how you would react to such pain and heartbreak. And finally it’s one that’s presented in such a way that it doesn’t baby the listener. This is an album that is meant to be experienced in full, and although Campbell is acutely aware that the attention span of the average listener is not usually adept at taking in an entire album anymore, he still makes it so that taking in the entire character arc of Aaron West is more enriching and rewarding than taking an individual song at face value. We Don’t Have Each Other is an album that respects and appreciates it’s listeners, a trait that has become exceedingly rare. I hope the listeners appreciate it in return.