“If I lay here long enough, maybe the bugs will eat me whole. If I stay here long enough maybe the night could take me home. I won’t let go, even if you say so.”~Divorce and the American South

I often wonder what it’s like to be the kind of person who can be happy just by being present, those yoga-minded folk who can see a blue sky and sunshine and feel at peace, who don’t need anything more than the breath in their lungs to feel happy and grateful to be alive. Moments like that, for me, are hard to come by. I’ve just never been that calm of a person. But, I do get that feeling from certain albums; at least they can chase away the constant companions of anxiety and complication, often through commiseration.

I’ve long admired the work of Dan “Soupy” Campbell, for his ability to tease out the hardest feelings in realist scenes, his brutal self-awareness and his ever-emotive vocals. I’ve loved The Wonder Years for a long time now, I’ve drank in all they offer, and loved them more and more along the way. The news of his solo project, Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties, made me excited and nervous. Listening to it makes my heart hurt in the best way, with the saddest kind of tale of loneliness and regret. Musically, it’s the most mature, full, and experimental we’ve seen from Campbell yet.

The first few times I heard this record through I knew instantly it was fabulous but I couldn’t tell why. It took a morning or two of feeling unsettled and a little desolate myself before it fully washed over me, as if I needed some kind of target before I let the arrow drive through my heart. That’s because it is really fucking sad. This fictional narrative is fueled by emotion of the most broken, busted kind. This is an album told from a lost and lonely soul from the bottom of an empty bottle. Each scene symbolizes defeat, if not admitting to it directly.

From start to finish, Campbell gives imagery to desperation with his story of a man whose lost seemingly everything but the conscious awareness of how fucked up his life has become. Songs like “Runnin’ Scared” and “The Thunderbird Inn” are testaments to what it means to be hopeless, a feeling that shouldn’t translate itself to sing-along choruses. But this is where Campbell’s storytelling abilities come in, with his full-fingered grip on how emptiness manifests itself in drinking, sunken eyes and late rent checks.

“Well I know I’m a coward and I feel a bad night coming, didn’t know that I looked that pathetic.” ~Runnin’ Scared

When discussing this album, Campbell talks about the “expansive tonal palette” he wanted to create, which I think he hits dead on. For all its loneliness, “We Don’t Have Each Other” is incredibly warm, satisfyingly so. His strained throat and acoustic strumming are a pretty constant presence, with background vocals and plenty of build in the rhythm section adding a folk-rock weight. I’m always a bit cautious when I hear about musicians tinkering with horn sections, as they can become gimmicks. But here, they add dimension, a depth just theatrical enough to soundtrack the desolate Aaron’s journey through his own depression. Even from this depth, though, the album is never frantic or madcap. The timing on this album is so measured and I think that adds to its literary capacity. We’ve heard TWY take it slow before, but I think Campbell sounds great in this mid-tempo world, with its varied roots of punk and folk creating this indie alt-rock tale, more in the style of The Mountain Goats or Neutral Milk Hotel than his Warped Tour compatriots.

This is a story told in front of stained glass windows and bartenders, crying out from abandoned streets and motels with memories of nurseries, mother’s kitchens and old cars. Each turn around the corner stumbles on a little more smoke-tinged heartbreak, like the regret of watching it all fall apart, the strange mix of pride and guilt of your roots, and the slow, sudden sink into drunken depression. This is captured lyrically, with Campbell-as-Aaron’s direct cries for help from God and his departed love Dianne, but musically as well – exemplary of this is “Get Me Out of Here Alive,” a slow-burn full of pain and restraint, never erupting but wallowing on the brink. This might be my favorite track, at least it is this week. “Carolina Coast” is similarly heartbreaking as a closer, one that gives just a glimmer of hope that our anti-hero won’t give up, as if he’s realized there’s nothing else to do when your choices are to chase ghosts or let yourself drown.

“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. If I start drinking, I’m gonna be the town drunk. You always said I should lighten up, so I’m gonna lighten up. I’m gonna lighten up. So long. I’m sorry that I wasn’t who you want. If I can’t make you happy, I’m no good for anyone. So long. I’m sorry that I was who you you’d want. If I cant make you love me..” ~Grapefruit

I haven’t read many, or any, reviews of this. It was a highly anticipated release from one of the most popular artists in my favorite genre, so I think in many ways I was predisposed to fall all over it. But listen after listen, I hear more and more of the story behind this all this and how it was built, the channeling of pain and the setting of a scene. The story of Aaron West may be an artist’s invention but the resonance is powerful when it taps into this much forlorn defeat and vivid imagery. It’s always interesting to see where your favorite musicians take their side projects. The results can be very disappointing or simply forgetful. This, though, is fulfilling and dramatic, well-thought out and incredibly produced, and mostly just the product of careful, gifted writing.

I’m going to go find a physical copy of this CD today. I think I’ll be holding onto it for awhile. I think I’ll be singing along for sometime. I think this kind of sadness, captured in a bottle, is timeless and transcendent, like a fire-orange sunset that burns up the sky, and maybe for a moment, lets you get lost in something other than yourself.

“When I met you we were young

And like gasoline to matches
Waking up drunk
Sleeping through your early classes
I grew up and grew dull
And you say you wished I hadn’t.

Well I’m drunk again
And you’re guilty like you’re Irish catholic

You ain’t no saint
I ain’t one either
Guess that’s why I’m lying here

‘Cause I know that I’m banged up
I got bruises I can’t place,
Oh, I’ve been coughing out blood.

I know that I’m banged up,
I got bruises I can’t place,
Oh, I’ve been coughing out blood.
I got a gut full of ulcers
They’re gonna burn out like dead stars
and turn to dust.

~You Ain’t No Saint
Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties, We Don’t Have Each Other